Rock set to shock as Christians are urged to boycott Oscars night

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The Independent Culture

It's going to be a nervy night way beyond the air-kissed confines of Hollywood on Oscars night this year. There's a new format to be tried out, calls for a boycott by Christians in protest at the "decline of values", and, above all, a host so controversial by Tinseltown standards that ABC, which will televise next Sunday's extravaganza, is promising to use a five-second "decency delay".

Chris Rock, who is known for his expletive-strewn act, has come under fire from older members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and "decency" organisations such as Concerned Women for America (CWA). "Hollywood seems intent on spreading vulgarity far and wide, so the F-word spewing from Rock might actually be the perfect Tinseltown ambassador," said Robert Knight, director of CWA's Culture and Family Institute.

Rock did not help his cause by giving an interview in which he described the Oscar ceremony as "a fashion show" and asking: "What straight black man sits there and watches the Oscars? Show me one. And they don't recognise comedy and you don't see a lot of black people nominated, so why should I watch it?" He has hinted at what direction the show will take by refusing to take the proceedings too seriously, denigrating nominated films in interviews, praising his favourite nominees and reminding everybody that nothing is sacred.

In the past few days, however, he has attempted to defuse the situation by welcoming the time delay and vowing to behave himself. "I've been on TV and been funny without cursing," he said in an interview on60 Minutes which is being broadcast tonight.

The choice of Rock as host is just part of a massive shake-up planned for the 76-year-old ceremony. Faced with falling ratings, fading interest and accusations that it has become far too stuffy for modern day audiences, producer Gil Cates has promised a whole new look to the show, despite opposition from some quarters. "This year it will be hip-hop loose and in-your-face," says a source working on the telecast to be seen by hundreds of millions of viewers worldwide. "Nobody has seen an awards show like this one."

The stage at Hollywood's Kodak Theatre has been designed to allow Rock to walk among the audience along a stage jutting out into the auditorium. To fit in with Rock's freewheeling brand of comedy, Cates is controversially opening up the format so that some awards will be announced with the nominees present on the stage while others will be presented to winners still seated in the audience. "Chris is an up-front, right-at-you kind of guy so we needed to format the show to accommodate that," he said.

Some of the nominees are less than happy about the idea of standing on stage while the winner is announced, however. "A lot of these people are serious artists," said public relations man Dan Klores, who represents several top entertainment figures. "It's not Queen For a Day or The Gong Show. It's bad enough when the nominees are sitting in the audience and they have to pretend that they're happy if they don't win. Now they'll be on stage."

"It's an experiment." confesses Gil Cates, whose 12th Oscars this is. "It's complicated, and I guess it could be a complete mess. But I don't think so. And the pace will be better."

Even without the changes to the production, this year's Oscars ceremony has already broken new ground: when the names of the acting nominees are announced, one in five will be black - a record - including front-runner for Best Actor, Jamie Foxx in Ray, making Rock look an even smarter choice.