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Rock, On

Chris Rock steps onto entertainment's grandest stage tonight as host of the Academy Awards telecast. Can a gig that big turn a rebel comedian outside in?

February 27, 2005|Mary McNamara | Mary McNamara is a Times staff writer.

From the stage of the Kodak Theatre, Chris Rock faces the undeniable expectation of 3,400 vacant seats. High above him, in the nosebleed balcony, two guys are bolting things down, but all around the comedian there are photographers and bright lights, reflecting screens and fog dispensed, for mood, from aerosol cans. Women straighten his lapel, pat his nose with makeup. Rock, who is a surprisingly still man, is trying to be patient, but frankly, he cannot believe how completely out of hand the last few weeks have been.

The interviews, the photo sessions, the promos, the fashion shoots. Just a few days ago, he had to turn down an invitation from Jack Nicholson to go to a Laker game because he was invited to a comedians' memorial dinner for Johnny Carson. It nearly broke his heart, but what are you going to do? All in all, the performer has not had so much attention since his 1996 "Bring the Pain" special for HBO catapulted him from successful comedian to hottest comic now working.

"I am surprised," he says of the attitudes and advice he has encountered since it was announced that he would host the 77th Academy Awards. "Apparently, some people in Los Angeles take the Oscars very, very seriously."

Rock is not one of those people. Since the announcement, he has been resolutely irreverent. He says he will not "do" the red carpet because the whole scene gives him a headache. He thinks awards shows in general are silly and, until he began cramming for the gig, he had never watched the ceremony in its entirety. Ever.

"They don't honor comedy and there aren't a lot of black people involved," he says. "So why would I watch? For the gowns? Listen, no straight man who is not in the entertainment industry watches the Oscars. Not one."

He has told members of the press that Jamie Foxx will get an Oscar for his performance in "Ray" if he, Rock, has to take one from a winner for sound or light. He has complained that academy fave "The Aviator" lacks any sort of meaningful drama. "The only obstacle is that a rich white guy has to spend a lot of money. That he has. How boring is that?"

As the first black man to host the show, Rock refuses to join the chorus of approval over the racial diversity of the acting nominees, who include four African Americans and a Colombian. "Forget black people," he says. "The real race issue in L.A. is Mexicans. When was the last time a Mexican was nominated for anything? When was the last time you saw a Mexican in a film? And in this town, you gotta go out of your way not to hire a Mexican."

Although he is happy to see a comedy ("Sideways") up for the best picture award, he holds out little hope that the kind of work he does, and admires, will ever make it through the Oscars process. "I like films that make a lot of people laugh," he says, while his costumer of eight years twitches the sleeves of his jacket so they fall just so. "And if you make a lot of people laugh, they penalize you. I guarantee that if 'Sideways' had made $50 million, it would not have been nominated for anything.

"Not one of the best actor nominees [this year] gave a performance that came close to Eddie Murphy's in 'The Nutty Professor,' " he adds, referring to the 1996 remake of the Jerry Lewis classic. "The man did like nine characters. Nine new characters. Even Peter Sellers never did that."

He's not exactly offering the gentle Catskillian elbow-jabs of Billy Crystal or the dry wit of Steve Martin. But the attitude is precisely why producer Gil Cates wanted Rock to host the show. Ratings for the Oscars broadcast have stagnated in recent years. (The large and loyal fan base of "The Lord of the Rings" gave last year's show a welcome bump.) Rock brings an edgy new dimension--hard to imagine Martin being targeted by the Drudge Report, as Rock was weeks before the show.

Unlike previous hosts who came out of stand-up retirement to do the Oscars, Rock is still a full-time successful comedian near the top of his game. He still hits the clubs virtually every night, and he still tours. He's an HBO baby who brings with him a large fan base--young, hip, racially diverse--not known for its interest in academy doings. But more important, Rock's take-no-prisoners comedy adds the tantalizing chance for some truly excellent cultural rubbernecking. This is the man who famously said, "Show me a beautiful woman and I'll show you a woman some man is tired" of having sex with. Rock, of course, used a more colorful gerund. So imagine him having a go at the Brad and Jen break-up. Even with tighter FCC standards in place, the possibilities are endless.

Yet, gazing at what will be his dominion for a few hours, Rock shrugs. The smell of hot pretzels and frying meat drifts in from the mall at Hollywood and Highland. For a moment the sounds of construction cease and the silence is large and startling. Whatever he is actually feeling about the whole thing, Rock is playing it cool.

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