Thursday, February 24, 2005

Chris Rocks

Frank Rich on staying tuned.

The total box office for all five best-picture nominees on Sunday’s Oscars is so small that their collective niche in the national cultural marketplace falls somewhere between square dancing and non-Grisham fiction. But if this year’s Oscars are worthless as a barometer of the broad state of American pop culture, there’s much to learn from the hype spun by ABC and the motion picture academy to seduce Americans to watch even if they can’t distinguish Clive Owen from Catalina Sandino Moreno. The selling of the Oscar show is the latest indicator of the most telling disconnect in our politics: in the post-Janet Jackson era, “indecency” is gaining in popularity in direct proportion to Washington’s campaign to shut indecency down.


This is why the people bringing you the Oscars have done everything possible to imply that Sunday’s show will be so indecent that even the winner of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award may let loose with a Dick Cheney expletive. Rather than chase away MTV and its fans from the festivities as the National Football League did after the Jackson fracas, the academy hired as its host Chris Rock, a three-time MTV Music Video Awards M.C. Mr. Rock, as brilliant at P.R. as he is at comedy, ran around giving cheeky interviews making the outrageous charge that the Oscars might have a gay following. Matt Drudge took the bait and assailed the comedian for indecency. Mr. Rock was soiling “the classiest night in Hollywood,” he said on Fox News, by taking “a lewd route … to the gutter.”

The motion picture academy’s marketers couldn’t have said it better themselves. They know a lewd route is the yellow brick road to Nielsen nirvana. Gilbert Cates, the Oscars producer, had already been putting out the message that he opposed the show’s tape delay as “dangerous to society.” The academy’s executive director, Bruce Davis, elaborated to Lola Ogunnaike of The New York Times: “I like to hear that people are nervous, because that means you’re more likely to watch.” Last Sunday Mr. Rock was billed by Ed Bradley on “60 Minutes” as a “nontraditional host” who is “not afraid to offend” and whose “comedy is still as profane and uncut as ever.” Two hours later came the pièce de résistance: Mr. Rock in an Oscar-show promo spot on “Desperate Housewives” fondling the Oscar statuette (in all its gold nudity) and declaring, “You won’t believe the halftime show!”

Actually, the Oscar audience may be smaller this year than before now that you can get XX porn on Rupert Murdoch’s Direct TV and XXX from Adelphia – both large contributors to the RNC. Why wait for a “wardrobe malfunction” or for Chris Rock to pull a cheney when you can watch “Babette Meets the Fleet.”