Host Chris Rock could have made the Academy Awards into a call-to-arms on diversity. Instead, he presided over a night of no surprises, writes Owen Gleiberman.

By the time Chris Rock took the stage of the Dolby Theatre to host the 88th Academy Awards ceremony, the issue of diversity at the Oscars had been debated with such earnest fervour that it felt like Rock was about to do more than just tell jokes for 18 minutes. It’s almost as if viewers thought he was going to solve the issue of race in Hollywood.

The true way of Hollywood isn’t fighting for diversity – it’s playing the game

Rock must have felt the pressure, because instead of coming on like a cross between Ricky Gervais and Malcolm X, he was more like the Richard Pryor of the ‘80s: a genial firebrand. For every joke that struck a note of outrage, he offered two more that tried to smooth feathers. Rock showed up in a blinding-white tuxedo worthy of James Bond, which couldn’t help but suggest a certain subtext (why, exactly, was he dressed in white?), and his gags mocked liberal piety about race and the Oscars nearly as much as they satirised the problem itself.

Fifty years ago, Rock said, black people wouldn’t have dreamed of protesting about how well they were represented at an awards show because “we were too busy getting raped and lynched.” He also skewered those who argued that he should walk away from hosting the show in protest: “The last thing I need is to lose another job to Kevin Hart,” he said. In other words: the true way of Hollywood isn’t fighting for diversity – it’s playing the game. 

This was honest comedy, but where, exactly, did it leave Rock? Rather than making the audience squirm, he put everyone at ease. And that became a problem as the show went on, because he kept returning to the theme of diversity, his point-of-view growing fuzzier with each appearance. The more Rock riffed on race – mistaking Sam Smith for George Michael, say, as if the two were interchangeable in a black person’s eyes – the more innocuous these began to seem. What could have been a biting call to arms, a hilarious demand for change in Hollywood, became just another piece of awards-show kitsch, plowed under by the Oscar machine.

All in good taste

And so did everything else. Were there any drop-dead surprises? Up until the moment when Spotlight won best picture, stealing the fire of The Revenant, no, there weren’t. (The critical darling Mark Rylance, from Bridge of Spies, winning best supporting actor over Sylvester Stallone for Creed was a half-surprise.)

DiCaprio and Larson could have been top graduates of a class called How to Give a Warm and Generous Acceptance Speech 

Were there speeches that rambled on, revealing something accidental about the hearts and souls of the winners? No, almost all the remarks were courtly and controlled. Were there daring and awful outfits or lapses into shaggy bad taste? No, it was all a smooth-running, largely unembarrassing pro forma night. When Max Max: Fury Road won six technical awards more or less in a row, one began to wonder why, exactly, it wasn’t on its way to a best picture win. It deserved to be, but the Academy wasn’t about to stray from its usual path of anointing films that – unlike Fury Road – prizes ‘importance’ over thrills.

 

When people complain about the Oscar telecast, they tend to focus on the lifetime achievement awards and cinema-through-the-ages montages (greatest shipboard romantic action comedies!), but at least those moments lend the show a lustre of history.

This year’s edition of the Oscars was all present tense. The elegant and gorgeous set was a giant proscenium bracelet that framed a stylised cluster of metallic suns and clusters of electric stalactites. But standing at the microphone in front of it, without the benefit of a podium, the stars came off as functionary puppets.

The big issue

The winners were uniformly classy (Leonardo DiCaprio and Brie Larson could have been top graduates of a class called How to Give a Warm and Generous Acceptance Speech), but none were memorable, because they hardly got a chance to be. The moment anyone began to wander into personal terrain, there came the “Get off the stage!” music cue: a domineering snatch of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, as if they were being threatened with a distant helicopter attack. The result was a polite ramble of a ceremony, shorn of diva personality. There was nothing in it that didn’t seem thought out ahead of time.

And oh, were there causes! A whole smorgasboard of enlightened liberal issues, as if everyone thought they had to live up to the tone of noble chastisement set by the diversity issue. Lady Gaga, seated at a starkly lit white piano, sang ’Til It Happens to You, the song she wrote for the campus-rape documentary The Hunting Ground, and though it’s a lugubrious number, her goggle-eyed manner seemed like an attack on the audience.

The movement for transgender rights was propped up by several mentions of the forward-thinking phrase “gender confirmation surgery,” and DiCaprio, just when you thought he’d ended his acceptance speech on a note of perfect grace, tacked on a lecture about global warming. The best picture nod to Spotlight, which turned its beam on  the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, capped the evening off fittingly. The pile-up of causes threatened to turn the show into a mishmash of sanctimony.

In the end, all of Chris Rock’s japes were trumped by the brief appearance of Sacha Baron Cohen’s one-man idiot of black-meets-white diversity, Ali G. He paid tribute to Will Smith, “Idris Elbow,” and “the black guy in Star Wars” – a sly dig at the fact that the real problem with today’s Hollywood isn’t just the absence of diversity. It’s the dominance of the kind of blockbuster movies in which diversity – even when there is any – scarcely counts for much. When it comes to telling down-to-earth stories of the human race, Hollywood has been failing women and men of all races. And the only movement that’s going to fix that is one that overthrows the popcorn revolution.  

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.