Wow, what a shocker!
Can you believe that the line was finally crossed, and CODA, a film barely seen in theaters, produced by a streaming service—Apple TV+ —won Best Picture?
Had the slap heard round the world—with Will Smith clocking Chris Rock right on the face on stage—not happened last night at the Oscars, film buffs would have geeked out on the CODA win not only as a breakthrough for deaf families, but as a revolution for the film industry.
The Oscars producer vowed that the show “would not be boring.”
After all, the talk leading up to the 94th Academy Awards was all about the existential crisis that movies—and therefore awards shows—were facing, and that perhaps, with its emaciated audiences and feeble attempts at attracting a younger crowd, the Oscars broadcast itself should be offed.
That’s why the new producer, Will Packer, vowed that the show “would not be boring.” And indeed, the nicely-hosted evening provided a much-needed boost for inclusiveness—with Latin, Black, LBGTQ, and deaf performers finally getting their due.
Producers and crew were Black. It felt a long way from 2016, when Jada Pinkett Smith was one of the leaders of the boycott called #Oscarssowhite.
And in the first of many built-in ironies, that was the year that Rock hosted, Will and Jada boycotted, and the comedian made a gratuitous joke about Jada, as a TV actress, having no place in the boycott and was just “mad that her husband wasn’t nominated for Concussion.”
First the Bomb, Then the Boom
Cut to last night’s ceremony. There’s no doubt that Rock’s joke “Jada, I love you. ‘G.I. Jane 2,’ can’t wait to see it, all right?” was dated, lame, and cringeworthy. It referred to a 25- year-old film starring a shaven-headed Demi Moore as a Navy SEAL candidate.
Why Rock would even go there is a head-scratcher.
On its own, the joke merely would have bombed and stunk up the room.
Why Rock would even go there is a head-scratcher. Pinkett Smith has been open about her diagnosis of alopecia, a form of baldness, and an auto-immune disease. For years, she’s been rocking a close-cut ‘do, which looks phenomenally confident, modern, and cool.
The insensitivity is even stranger, given that in 2009, Rock co-wrote, produced, and narrated the award-winning documentary Good Hair, all about Black women and hair and self-esteem issues. It all started, he said, when his own young daughter asked him, “Daddy, how come I don’t have good hair?”
So obviously that joke was wrong-headed.
Still, comedians on the Oscars routinely get mileage out of ribbing the high-wattage celebs who are seated right in front of them. There’s something about puncturing the bubble of insider-privilege that appeals to audiences, no matter how mean it seems.
Going Way Off Script
And this year, with its art deco meets disco-a-go-go set, the show was designed with bistro-type tables on the floor in front of the stage. That’s where VIPS like Will and Jada sat. Thus, it made it seem that Will walking up with just a few easy steps to sucker punch Rock was a pre-planned bit.
Otherwise, the sudden violence over a joke on live television was impossible-to-process. But by the time Smith, whom we know as a charismatic and and tightly controlled actor, returned to Jada and his little table, we could see that the rage on his face was for real. The sound was cut, but Smith glowered at Rock and repeatedly said, “Keep my wife’s name out your fucking mouth.” Seeing him this foul-mouthed and enraged was like looking through a crack in the time/space continuum. It was ugly. It shouldn’t have happened.
But because it did, we all felt a stinging void, and hoped that security, the Police, the producers, or somebody’s Mom would step in and make sense of it.
No one rode to the rescue, alas.
Rock moved on, quipping “That was the greatest night in the history of television.” (Indeed, it was ratings gold.) Then he gamely listed the contenders for the Best Documentary Feature category.
Questlove got a much-deserved win for his brilliant Summer of Soul (…or When the Revolution Was Not Televised” about a 1968 Harlem Arts Festival concert loaded with the greatest musical acts of the age that had gone uncovered in the general press.
Standing on stage with his team, the Roots’ drummer tried to make a gracious speech, but the timing was fried due to the smack that preceded it. Questlove was robbed.
The Other Jabs
Shortly after that, the Best Actor category was announced, and because Smith had won at all the previous award shows, the crowd knew it would be a lock. He won at BAFTA, which took place last week, where Smith was a no-show. Responding in anger to that, the host, Rebel Wilson, said: “I thought his best performance over the past year was being OK with all his wife’s boyfriends.”
Even for cynical Londoners, it was hard to hear. And it did bring up the awkwardness of a long-running issue with the Smiths admitting that they had an “open relationship” and then saying they didn’t.
Regina Hall’s quip would seem to be far harder-hitting joke, because it gets at something real.
But back to our show. One of three co-hosts, Amy Schumer, who was terrific, appeared after a long break. “I was changing out of my Spiderman costume,” she said. “Did something happen? I’m sensing a vibe change,” supplying a much-needed laugh.
But speaking of the hosts, at the top of the show, in a bit about being desperate for a single man, the wonderful Regina Hall, a co-host and sometime co-star with Jada, had asked a bunch of single male hotties to come on stage for a Covid re-test (not funny). Then she added, “Will Smith, you’re married, but you’re on the list,” Hall quipped. “Looks like Jada approved it!”
And Jada just laughed. And Will sat there.
That would seem to be far harder-hitting joke, because it gets at something real, rather than a lame comparison to a fictional forgotten character. But it just flew by.
Back on Stage
Shortly after Rock’s bit, when the former Fresh Prince, who also should have won an Oscar for his performance as Mohammed Ali (another irony) got up to the stage to accept his first Oscar as Best Actor for King Richard, he looked all sweaty and off kilter.
The bizarre state was impossible to shake, mostly because Smith should not have been allowed on stage. He was having a breakdown of sorts, and the producers should have intervened.
Seeing him this foul-mouthed and enraged was like looking through a crack in the time/space continuum.
Instead of immediately apologizing to Rock for his actions, Smith started crying and doubling down, defending himself in messianic terms, including declaring that he was a “River to my people,” a phrase delivered by Anthony Quinn in Lawrence of Arabia.
He also called himself a “vessel of love.”
And in going on about being a protector for his family and wife, it just became a Rorschach test for viewers: Was it misogyny—misogynoir when directed against Black women—that Rock attacked Jada, or that Will felt that Jada needs protection? Was it toxic masculinity, or being a devoted husband? Was it a hint of domestic abuse?
The editor of Philadelphia Magazine defended his action, saying Smith went all “West Philly” on Rock for good reason— that the comedian had “disrespected a black woman in a predominately white space.” Comedian Tiffany Haddish, a presenter at the awards, also defended Will.
And the Gas Lighting Begins
What was universally true was that celebrities, even those who commit crimes before our eyes, are held to a different standard. That’s galling.
For his actions, Will got a standing ovation from the audience, despite the fact that his impulsive act ruptured the show and overshadowed every other award winner’s triumph.
During his acceptance speech, he thanked the Williams sisters and joked about “art imitating life” in terms of acting as a protector, like their father. And indeed, after enduring a gratuitous remark from director Jane Campion at a previous award show now Venus and Serena had to deal with yet another flawed, difficult dad.
Smith’s actions became a Rorschach test for viewers.
By the time he and Jada hit the Vanity Fair after party, he was all smiles and giggles, dancing, rapping and having a grand old time with his three children. Rock chose not to press charges and went to a different party.
The gas lighting. The hypocrisy. Remember the part about the 2016 Oscar boycott? At the time, Smith said on his wife’s show, The Red Table, “This is so deeply not about me. This is about the children that are going to sit down and watch this show and they aren’t going to see themselves represented.” And what did they see represented by a man who could not control himself and hits and curses?
As of this writing, the Academy did nothing but issue a cowardly statement in a tweet: “The Academy does not condone violence of any form,” it lied. Where to begin with movies and violence, not to mention award show violence?
Subsequently, they came out with a statement saying they were ordering an investigation.
Later in the day, Will Smith issued a public apology to Rock. ” Violence in all of its forms is poisonous and destructive. My behavior at last night’s Academy Awards was unacceptable and inexcusable…,” he wrote. “I would like to publicly apologize to you, Chris. I was out of line and I was wrong. I am embarrassed and my actions were not indicative of the man I want to be. There is no place for violence in a world of love and kindness.”
That’s one of the problems: Where is this world of love and kindness? It’s a pretty despairing time on so many fronts for everyone in the world and at home, and now we got this unnecessary upset within an entertainment format.
But as celebrity apologies go, it hit all the right notes. I was expecting the more typical, “I apologize if I offended anyone.”
Can you imagine the layers of drafts and approvals from his crisis PR team that went into it? And it seems an apology from Chris Rock to Jada also materialized, but apparently that was a fake.
Ironically, the slap was considered incredible television, immediately lighting up social media. Perversely, that’s considered a shot in the arm, whatever it took to get there. Maybe for the future, the show should add its own psychological crisis team to the crew
And there will be a future, in some form, for movies and the awards they garner. To quote a line from another movie, about building a different kind of Frankenstein, “It’s alive.”