The Academy’s Handling of Will Smith’s Oscars Slap Has Been a Total Disaster
Kevin: What a boring Oscars night, right? Nothing major happened at all. Not a thing to talk about. Seriously, every time I think I processed what happened last night, I start vibrating again and begin spiraling over another detail.
Marlow: I feel like I’m coming off some really gnarly shrooms.
Marlow: The “Ruthkanda Forever” crowd was out in full force last night. These jokes, however, are flawless gems:
Kevin: We originally thought the Oscars were going to be an irrelevant disaster. There were things about the telecast that actually worked (Amy Schumer, Regina Hall and Wanda Sykes were great hosts) and will have a major impact on the industry (CODA’s Best Picture win was the first for a streaming service, and signaled that heartwarming filmmaking might be back), but it’s frustrating that it would be impossible to unpack those conversations separate from the biggest talking point of the night: the slap.
Marlow: Cut to a gaggle of opportunistic NBC executives furiously trying to reboot The Slap. It’s pretty nuts that this clip of the unedited Will-Chris incident has over 38 million views at time of writing, or way more than the Oscars’ telecast generates stateside.
Kevin: I have to say that I’m surprised by how seriously people seem to be taking this. There are people who think Will Smith should have been removed from the audience afterward. Some think Chris Rock should have pressed charges. Others think Smith was right in defending his wife and having no patience for Rock’s bad joke. (Speaking of things that are going to go ignored in all this, let’s talk about how Rock’s dumb G.I. Jane joke might rank among the hackiest, least relevant, and unfunniest remarks made by a presenter. Wasn’t this guy brought on because he was an edgy comedian?) I still can’t believe it happened at all. My phone actually overheated after the slap took place because every person I have ever met in my life was texting me asking if I thought it was real or a staged bit. What was your reaction in the moment?
Marlow: Just shock. This was supposed to be Will’s big moment. He was poised to make history as only the fifth Black man to win Best Actor (behind Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx, and Forest Whitaker), and it was to be the culmination of his three decades entertaining us all. As the great writer Soraya McDonald put it, there’s a scenario where Will merely yells at Rock from the crowd, then goes up later, accepts his Oscar, and praises his wife’s looks. It could have turned into this wonderful thing, but now all people will remember is Will losing his cool. Anyone saying they wanted the authorities to get involved or that Chris Rock could have been killed is not a serious person. I agree that the G.I. Jane joke was incredibly weak on a comedy level—she has the same hairdo as G.I. Jane, get it?—and I doubt Rock knew about Jada’s alopecia condition before making it. I think the incident was a bad look all around—but mostly for Smith, and the Academy handled it in truly absurd fashion. You have to boot Smith from the ceremony after that happens, otherwise it sends a pretty bad message.
Kevin: I do understand the argument that he should be kicked out. I’m still in the stage of processing it all that it still, like when it was happening, doesn’t feel real. As I was watching it, it did seem to be a crazy thing between Chris Rock and Will Smith, so at the moment I didn’t have strong feelings about whether he should have been allowed to stay.
Marlow: I think everyone wondered if it was a bit at first, particularly because Will appeared to grin as he walked off the stage after delivering the blow. There hasn’t been enough talk about Rock’s composure during all of this. It was nothing short of extraordinary. He quickly regained his balance, gathered himself, made a couple cracks about it, and then launched right back into introducing the next category. What a pro.
Kevin: I think as time passes, it sinks in how serious this actually was. Last night, I think I was still off-kilter in the surreality of it all, so I didn’t think of it as an “assault.” But that’s really what it was, right?
Marlow: It was definitely… a pretty big slap. At this point it’s fair to question what the hell Academy producers are even doing in situations when the show is spinning out of control. I’m not saying the two incidents are similar, but when the La La Land/Moonlight fiasco occurred, it took a La La Land producer taking control of the situation and reading the correct Best Picture winner out loud. Oscar producers and security were nowhere to be found. And here, they were also nowhere to be found. Denzel Washington had to play peacemaker. CNN even reported, “There were immediate discussions [about removing Smith post-slap] but the Academy decision-makers were seated in various spots in the Dolby Theatre and couldn’t mobilize to make a decision before he won Best Actor.” So, yes, pretty stunning levels of incompetence on display here.
“At this point it’s fair to question what the hell Academy producers are even doing in situations when the show is spinning out of control.”
Kevin: When I look back at the clip, it is absolutely shocking. Rock must have thought Smith was playing along, but that slap was real. And the yelling from the audience was real, too. My initial reaction last night was to wonder if Smith was inebriated, because the whole thing is so preposterous that you reflexively assume something like that. It’s the next thing you think after “was this staged,” because you can’t imagine that it really happened. At the biggest night in Hollywood, with cameras everywhere, and in the middle of a live show, the most famous actor in the world got out of his seat in the audience, walked to the stage, hit somebody, and then continued to scream at him from his seat.
Marlow: It was something else. I’m worried about Smith’s mental well-being—his acceptance speech was a lot—and I think that’s where this gets very complicated. We’ve seen him publicly spiral these past few years, from the “entanglement” episode on Red Table Talk to his memoir and subsequent book tour. It got so dicey that Smith’s publicist effectively removed him from the Oscar campaign trail, turning down Variety’s big Actors-on-Actors series and a number of Academy tastemaker screenings. I’m not excusing his actions, which were totally out of line, but he does not seem to be doing well and it is sad. And I say this as someone who’s had deep misgivings about the Smiths’ behavior since reporting out this story concerning their Scientology school for kids.
Kevin: It is unfathomable that a person, let alone a person as famous as Smith, would, in his right mind, do it. That’s where the “was he drunk?” thing comes in, because you have to assume he wasn’t in his right mind. Once it started to sink in that this was a real thing, I immediately thought about how he was favored to win and was about to give a speech. I couldn’t believe that was about to happen, on top of everything else.
Marlow: To go back to the Academy/Oscars producers for a second, instead of doing anything during the telecast they released this nothing statement after it all went down saying that they “don’t condone violence,” which is pretty rich considering the Oscars gave sexual predator Roman Polanski a standing ovation in 2003 after awarding him Best Director, and Harvey Weinstein has won dozens of Oscars. I guess they only “don’t condone violence” toward men (also, anyone saying this was the “worst moment in Oscars’ history” has no grasp of Oscars’ history!). On Monday afternoon, the Academy announced a “formal review” of Smith’s behavior, saying that he could possibly have his Academy membership suspended (this means very little). There was a bit of context for that slap—Jada has been vocal about suffering from alopecia-related hair loss, and Rock had previously taken a pretty cheap shot at Jada during the 2016 Oscars, the #OscarsSoWhite year, for protesting—but again, it doesn’t excuse Smith’s slap.
Kevin: Adding to the whole “I don’t know what to make of this” of it all, Smith is on camera laughing pretty heartily at Rock’s joke. It’s wild how quickly things turned from him at least playing the part of good sport in the Oscars audience to storming the stage.
Marlow: I think most people who’ve been in a relationship have had that happen before where someone makes a remark, you instinctually laugh, and then you look over at your partner, see the look on their face, and your opinion changes. I can certainly relate to that. But again, no excuse for the slap. Will could have just as easily strolled up on stage, whispered in Chris Rock’s ear, “My wife has alopecia. If you ever comment about her again, I’m gonna whoop your ass,” and then called it a day.
Kevin: It’s also still so nuts to me that this happened right before he was set to win an award. There’s a lot to dissect about his speech, but I have to say that, as a writer, I’m pretty impressed with how quickly he was able to improvise something that tied together the subject of his film and the outrageousness of the moment he just had. Anyone on his team has to think he did the best possible damage control in that moment.
Marlow: I thought his acceptance speech was more troubling than anything. It felt like a cry for help, and saw him apologize to everybody but Chris Rock. Also, between the Jane Campion Critics’ Choice speech and Will’s Oscar-night meltdown, the amount of nonsense that Venus and Serena Williams have had to put up with this awards season should not be lost on us. Apparently nobody learned anything from King Richard.
Kevin: Critics are rightfully frustrated by his attempts to excuse or even justify his actions by associating them with life lessons he learned about protecting family from playing Richard Williams. I’m also having a hard time separating human brain and entertainment-reporter brain. The human knows this was a horrible thing that happened. The person who reports on and writes about what makes good TV knows this was a major cultural moment that we will be talking about for the rest of my lifetime. That said, was it “good TV?” I’m not sure. (If we’re talking about producers’ mistakes, I can’t believe they didn’t put the camera on Jada during that speech. If ever there was a time for a reaction shot…)
Marlow: I don’t feel it’s appropriate to debate whether a dude attacking another dude and then having a mental breakdown on stage was “good TV,” to be completely honest. Then again, I binge-watched the screeners for Netflix’s The Ultimatum in one night, so who am I to judge.
Kevin: I mean, it’s one of the biggest nights in live television, and we just spent the last few months debating endlessly about whether decisions about the telecast were good or bad. This is the most outrageous thing to ever happen at the most historic ceremony in Hollywood. It totally makes sense to analyze how it came off on TV and whether there was any entertainment value to it.
Marlow: I respectfully disagree. But yes, it was pretty troubling. As a show, the Oscars weren’t doing the best job up to that point either, despite valiant efforts from winners Ariana DeBose and Troy Kotsur, and presenter Youn Yuh-jung (the way she was looking at Kotsur!). Having a bunch of past-their-prime extreme sports guys (Tony Hawk, Kelly Slater, Shaun White) present the Bond tribute was as inexplicable as expected, particularly given Shaun White’s recent past, and trotting out screen legends Al Pacino and Robert De Niro for the Godfather tribute, only to have them not say a word, was a head-scratcher. De Niro in particular is a total wild card, let the man speak!
Kevin: I disagree. I actually thought the show was surprisingly good up until that point. The hosts, particularly Amy Schumer and Regina Hall, were great. The speeches were really good. The musical performances were fun. And I appreciated the diversity of projects that they staged these reunions for. Obviously there were things that didn’t work. The sports guys were every bit the nonsense we expected. The fan-voted awards were a disaster, so much so that the Academy aired them as an afterthought, as if they were embarrassed themselves by it. And the Best Picture clips sprinkled throughout the night seemed like an afterthought.
Marlow: It felt like there was more appreciation for Zack Snyder’s recent output than most of the Best Picture-nominated films. They seemed very much like an afterthought, and that’s disappointing.
Kevin: Two days ago we thought we’d be debating what it means that The Power of the Dog lost to CODA, but now that hardly seems to matter. That may be the biggest disservice that’s been done here. All of these changes and the build-up to Sunday was centered around the mission of getting people to care about the Oscars again, to make them matter. After Sunday’s ceremony and that bombshell moment, the thing that is most clear is how little the awards seem to matter at all.