Job of an Oscar host: Making millions of viewers nervous

CATCHING UP WITH...

Academy Awards execs hope to draw viewers with edgy, funny Chris Rock

Catching Up With ... Chris Rock

January 23, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - The Oscar nominations won't be announced until Tuesday, but Chris Rock, the host of next month's Academy Awards ceremony, has already decided who one of the evening's big winners should be: Jamie Foxx, the star of the biopic Ray.

"I am rooting for Jamie, and if he doesn't win, I'm going to talk about it on the show," Rock promised, a sly grin tiptoeing across his face. And if Foxx comes up empty? "I'll take an Oscar from one of the sound or light people that win and give it to him," Rock said. "Jamie Foxx is not going to walk out of that place without an Oscar."

He's no less forthright about his pans. Of The Aviator, Martin Scorsese's drama about Howard Hughes, Rock said: "It's a weird movie; it's well made, but a story about a rich guy who gets things done doesn't excite me. Oooh, he overcame obstacles, like how much money to spend. And he washed his hands a lot."

The casting of the acerbic Rock as host of the 77th annual Oscars, which ABC will broadcast on Feb. 27, is an untraditional move for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which in recent years has chosen less caustic comedians, such as Billy Crystal and Steve Martin, to serve as MC.

NBC's broadcast of the Golden Globes was down 40 percent from a year ago and few of the expected Oscar nominees were in box-office hits. As a result, an even heavier weight is being placed on Rock - to both attract and keep an audience. Gilbert Cates, the executive producer of the Academy Awards broadcast, said he was also hoping that Rock would draw more young male viewers than have watched recent Oscar shows.

ABC has yet to decide if it will impose a time delay on the show, but Cates said that he and the academy were opposed. Rock said he expected a delay in the wake of Janet Jackson's performance at the Super Bowl last year.

Rock said that he could understand what all the fretting is about, but added: "I've been on Oprah four times. That's four hours of daytime television, and I had a good old curse-free time."

He turned serious briefly. "This act works everywhere," he said, adding, with a shrug that read, duh, "If something is funny, people like it."

So what subjects, if any, will Rock avoid?

"A Vera Drake joke probably won't play," he said, nor will a Motorcycle Diaries riff. "You've got to talk about Passion of the Christ, whether it gets nominated or not. And you've got to talk about Fahrenheit 9/11. You've got to play to what the audience at home went to see."

His days now consist of screening past Academy Awards shows and catching as many movies as possible, at least three a week now. Rock is also tweaking material at comedy clubs in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Rock is no awards show novice. He was a host of the MTV Video Music Awards in 1997, 1999 and 2003. Van Toffler, president of the MTV Networks Group, called the academy's choice of Rock "brilliant."

Rock, who Time magazine once declared "the funniest man in America," has won three Emmys and two Grammys. While he easily sells out arenas, he does not yet have the movie-star status of Oscar hosts like Steve Martin or Billy Crystal.

So, what is he doing as host of the Academy Awards? At this point in his career, Rock, said he has outgrown the MTV awards - "I'm too old; it's Dave Chappelle's time" - and finally feels mature enough to take the Oscar post.

Don't expect Rock to imitate Crystal, whose host turns have included singing and dancing through elaborate production numbers. "I like what Billy did, but I can't do that," Rock said. "Nobody wants to see me out there singing about Sideways."

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