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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Sunday 24th October 2004

Why Oscar night could be a four-letter fright


Next year's Oscar broadcast promises to be the most controversial in the history of the Academy Awards. Not only will The Passion of the Christ be duking it out with Fahrenheit 911 for Best Picture honours--a right v left bunfight that's bound to polarize existing divisions within Hollywood--but the ceremony's going to be hosted by foul-mouthed black comic Chris Rock. If the comedian doesn't use the F-word in the course of the four-hour telecast it'll be an absolute miracle. It's an awfully long way from Bob Hope.

When asked to explain the Academy's bizarre choice, the executive director, Bruce Davis, lapsed into platitudes.

"I think he's one of the brightest comedians in the country and he's been that for a number of years," he told The New York Times. "We expect him to bring a sophisticated edge to the show."

Well, he'll certainly add something to the proceedings, but I'm not sure "sophisticated" is the word I'd use. For instance, when he hosted last year's MTV Music Video Awards he joked that Jennifer Lopez always travels with two limousines--"one for her ass".

Personally, I think Chris Rock is very funny--I loved his most recent HBO Special--but I'm not sure his style will appeal to the Oscar telecast's Middle American audience. When Whoopi Goldberg hosted the ceremony in 1999, she went down very badly because she made a couple of risqué sex jokes. I can only imagine how people will respond to Chris Rock's brand of aggressive, racially-charged humour. His 1996 HBO Special was called "Bring Home the Pain".

The only explanation I can think of for the Academy's decision is that they're hoping people will tune in just to see how many times the 39-year-old provocateur uses the F-word. The ratings for the Oscars have been declining in recent years, with only 33 million Americans watching in 2003, down from a high of 46.3 million in 2000. The runaway box office success of both The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 911 proves that controversy sells so, who knows, maybe this strategy will work. Rock's presence at the helm will certainly ensure that many more 12-34-year-old viewers tune in--the so-called "MTV Generation".

The producer of next year's telecast, Gil Cates, doesn't seem too concerned. "When Whoopi came to the show, they thought, Oh, wow, that's strange. The first time Billy Crystal hosted they wondered if he'd play Middle America. Even Steve Martin was considered too intellectual. Chris Rock just makes me laugh. It's as simple as that."

Standing on Ceremony

I wasn't surprised to hear that Robert De Niro was 45 minutes late to pick up an award in Milan last week. Apparently, the city's mayor, Gabriele Albertini, was so offended he got tired of waiting and flounced off, declaring that the 61-year-old actor's failure to turn up on time was "an incredible display of bad manners".

Clearly, Mr Albertini isn't used to dealing with celebrities of De Niro's caliber. In my experience, if an A-list celebrity is only 45 minutes late for an appointment, that's tantamount to being on time. They're usually at least two hours behind schedule. By movie star standards, De Niro was showing the mayor an extraordinary amount of respect.

I remember once having to organize a photo shoot with the Spice Girls. I'd rented a nightclub on Regent Street and was being charged by the hour, so when they hadn't shown up after 90 minutes I asked someone from their management company to find out when they were likely to get there.

"Mate," he said, "there's time and then there's Spice time. Your guess is as good as mine."

Word Up

The best news of the week is that Kylie Minogue managed to beat Salman Rushdie at Scrabble. I've always thought the Booker Prize-winning novelist was a bit of a dim bulb--only an idiot would describe the Koran as "The Satanic Verses" and not expect Muslims to take offence--and this proves it. According to his friend Kathy Lette, who was present at the momentous occasion, "Salman didn't take it very well."

Scrabble is often a great leveler. Earlier this year, my friend Grub Smith beat Martin Amis--and this was after Amis had suggested they double the amount of money they were playing for. Like Rushdie, Amis fancies himself something of a brain box so it came as a bit of a blow to be beaten by Smith, a former sex columnist for FHM. Afterwards, Amis excused himself by saying, "I'm just off to the toilet to kill myself."

Camping Out

I completely understand Richard Dreyfus's decision to bail out of The Producers just days before it was due to open. I make my West End debut tomorrow night and I've spent the last week trying to develop a serious injury. I've run up and down the stairs two at a time--I've even leapt off a moving bus. Alas, I'm still in perfect health. It looks as though I'm going to have to go through with it.

Funnily enough, the actor who's stepped in to Dreyfus's shoes--Nathan Lane--also features in my play. How to Lose Friends & Alienate People charts my misadventures as a glossy magazine journalist in New York and in 1996 I interviewed the Broadway star for Vanity Fair. He was about to appear in The Bird Cage, a gay comedy in which he played Robin Williams's boyfriend.

I kicked off by asking him whether he was Jewish.

There was a long pause.

"Yes, yes, what of it?" he snapped.

Oh dear, I thought. If he didn't like that one, he's not going to like the next one much.

"Mr Lane," I continued, "you've often played gay roles. You even did the voiceover for Timone in The Lion King, generally considered Disney's campest ever animated character. Are you gay?"

His jaw hit the floor and, when he'd recovered his composure, he simply got up and left.

When I returned to the office, Graydon Carter, the irascible editor of Vanity Fair, had already been given a flea in his ear by Nathan Lane's publicist.

"What were you thinking?" he screamed. "You can't ask Hollywood celebrities whether they're Jewish or gay. In future, just assume they're all Jewish and all gay, okay?"

Unfortunately, there was no future. Nathan Lane was the last celebrity I was ever allowed to interview at Vanity Fair.

How to Lose Friends & Alienate People is currently playing at the Arts Theatre. For tickets call 020-7836-3334

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