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Host Chris Rock opens the show at the 88th Academy Awards in Hollywood, California February 28, 2016. (MARIO ANZUONI/REUTERS)
Host Chris Rock opens the show at the 88th Academy Awards in Hollywood, California February 28, 2016. (MARIO ANZUONI/REUTERS)

Barry Hertz

Chris Rock’s opening monologue might be the sharpest in Oscars history Add to ...

The first time Chris Rock hosted the Academy Awards, in 2005, Hollywood proved it could absolutely, in no way, take a joke.

In a series of tepidly received, and oddly prescient, bits, Rock riffed on the number of black nominees (”We have four black nominees tonight, so greeeeat. It’s kind of like the Def Oscars Jam”), the diminishing returns of sequels (taking aim at the Rocky franchise, 10 long years before Creed) and the George W. Bush-skewering doc Farenehit 9/11 (”Bush basically reapplied for his job this year. Now, could you imagine applying for a job, and while you’re applying for that job, there’s a movie in every theater in the country that shows how much you suck at that job?”).

But it was Rock’s gentle jab at the ubiquity of then-hot actor Jude Law that apparently crossed the line. “Who is Jude Law? Why is he in every movie I have seen the last four years?” Rock asked. “He’s in everything. Even the movies he’s not acting in. If you look at the credits, he made cupcakes or something. He’s in everything. He’s gay, he’s straight, he’s American, he’s British -- next year, he’s playing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in a movie.”

Well, that would not stand. Before presenting the award for best actress, sour-faced actor and current El Chapo hunter Sean Penn ad-libbed a few lines: “Forgive my compromised sense of humour, but I do want to answer our host’s question about who Jude Law is: He’s one of our finest actors.”

And with that, it seemed Rock’s invitation to host future ceremonies would forever be lost in the mail. “Loud, snide and dismissive,” USA Today’s Robert Bianco wrote of the performance. Time magazine added Rock to its list of the top 10 worst awards-shot hosts. Even Sid Ganis, then president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, said Rock would not be back for 2006, because the Academy wanted to “do the right job in honouring the artist, and to make an entertaining show.”

Funny how things can change - and how they can also stay the same. This year’s Oscar nominees are as lily-white as ever - a depressingly far cry from 2005’s slate - but at least the Academy recognized it needed Rock and his sly, often devastating truth-telling back in the mix. (His hosting gig was confirmed before this year’s colour-less nominations were announced, so score one point for Academy foresight, at least.)

Rock kicked Sunday night’s ceremony off with a much-needed jab at Hollywood’s seemingly steadfast refusal to acknowledge diversity. After the show’s opening montage, Rock, clad in a white tuxedo (make of that what you will), quipped: “I counted at least 15 black people in that montage!” From that moment on, the comedian engaged in a blistering attack on the industry’s overpowering whiteness (with only a few weak diversions into how jealous he is of actor Kevin Hart).

“If they nominated hosts, I wouldn’t even get this job,” Rock said, as the audience began to eagerly lap up his zingers, which got increasingly sharp.

“Why are we protesting this year’s Oscars? It’s the 88th Academy Awards, which means this whole no-black-nominees thing has happened at least 71 other times. You got to figure this happened in the ‘50s, the ‘60s,” Rock said. “I’m sure there were no black nominees, and black people did not protest. But we had real things to protest at the time! We were too busy being raped and lynched to care about who won best cinematographer. When your grandmother’s hanging from a tree, it’s hard to care about best documentary foreign short.”

Tackling those prominent artists who boycotted this year’s awards, Rock garnered huge, if perhaps uncomfortable laughs: “Jada [Pinkett-Smith] got mad, and Jada said she wasn’t coming. Jada boycotting the Oscars is like my boycotting Rihanna’s panties -- I wasn’t invited!”

Rock’s hot streak continued at a quick clip: “This year’s Oscars is going to be a little different. This year, in the in-memoriam package, it’s going to be black people shot by the cops on the way to the movies.”

But perhaps Rock’s best move was going after the Academy’s other, less remarked upon areas of discrimination. Why, for instance, do the Oscars still separate performances by gender? “If you want black nominees every year, you need to have black categories,” Rock said. “You already do it with men and women.... It’s not track and field, you know. You don’t have to separate them. Robert De Niro never said he had to slow this acting down so Meryl Streep can catch up.”

Five minutes later, and this was already one of, if not the strongest opening monologue in Oscars history (let’s just not mention his follow-up bit with Stacey Dash – yikes).

But Rock undoubtedly had a killer final opening line: “You want diversity? We got diversity,” Rock said just before departing the stage, “Please welcome Emily Blunt and someone even whiter, Charlize Theron!”

Not even Sean Penn could be upset with the performance.

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