One of the big questions going into Sunday night’s Oscar ceremony is how will host Chris Rock handle the the #Oscarssowhite controversy. One possible preview could be a largely forgotten moment from the 1999 Academy Awards, which had an entirely different — but equally charged — controversy of its own.
In 1999, director Elia Kazan (“On The Waterfront,” “Streetcar Named Desire”) was chosen to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award. The choice was controversial because in 1952, during the height of McCarthyism, Kazan appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and named eight of his friends from the Group Theater as having been, like himself, members of the American Communist Party. For many, Kazan’s decision to protect his own filmmaking career was unforgivable, especially in light of the career sacrifice made by Dalton Trumbo (who Bryan Cranston portrays in his 2016 Oscar-nominated role) and other members of the blacklisted “Hollywood Ten” when they refused to implicate others.
Hundreds of protesters gathered outside the theater during the 1999 ceremony, holding up signs that read “Don’t Whitewash the Blacklist.” Inside, many of the guests — most notably that year’s Oscar nominees Ed Harris and Nick Nolte — promised to stay seated with their hands folded during the award presentation. Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro presented the award to Kazan, highlighting how his films influenced their own careers and changed acting in American film. As the elderly (and visibly emotional) Kazan accepted the award and embraced Scorsese, the tension mounted as many gave a standing ovation, while others sat silently in protest.
It was an awkward moment, and once it was over, everybody was happy to get back to the fun of the Oscars. No one was quite ready for the presenter for Best Sound Effects Editing. Chris Rock took the stage. The comedian joked that he bumped into Kazan and De Niro backstage. “You better get Kazan away from De Niro,” he said, “because, you know, he hates rats.”
The joke was an obvious reference to presenters De Niro and Scorsese gangster films, in particular “Goodfellas,” but it brought a chill back the theater. Rock wasn’t simply calling out the hypocrisy of the moment, he was implicating De Niro and Scorsese — not exactly the two easiest targets — for their roles in what had just transpired. He didn’t simply address the controversy head on; he embraced and magnified the awkwardness in the room that stemmed from the controversy.
Comedians, far less talented than Rock, are skilled at safeguarding their content so we are comfortable laughing at literally anything. Rock, in his stand up, has demonstrated mastery of allowing his audience to comfortably laugh at extremely edgy racial material. Take, for example Rock’s incredibly crafted essay on race in Hollywood that he penned in 2014. It delivers hard truths, even comparing Los Angeles’s use of Mexican labor to slavery, but these truths are packaged in a gel cap so they’re easy to swallow.
His observational comedy is delivered in such a way that we are all welcomed in on the joke. But what Rock demonstrated in 1999 is he’s not afraid to pull those safeguards to attack his audience’s discomfort and use his comedy as a blunt weapon. And therein lies what may end up being the real story behind Chris Rock’s comedy on Sunday night: not if he’ll address hard truths of Hollywood’s race problem (he most certainly will). Instead, we’re left wondering how much, and how often, he’ll make the Hollywood elite in the audience and those of us at home feel the discomfort inherent to this controversy — and our own hypocrisy on the issue of race in America.