Will Smith-Chris Rock slap incident overshadows Oscar ceremony

Joke went sour and Sunday's Oscar ceremony took a hit.

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

It was the slap heard 'round the world. 

Will Smith smacked Chris Rock on stage during Sunday night's Oscars, after the comedian made a joke about Smith's wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, and her shaved head. 

The unscripted incident and its fallout completely overshadowed the rest of the Academy Awards ceremony, an evening that saw "CODA," the heartwarming story of a deaf family and their hearing daughter, win the evening's Best Picture category. It marked the first time the Best Picture prize has gone to a streaming title — "CODA" is on Apple TV+ — and the first time a movie that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival has gone on to win the top prize on Hollywood's biggest night. 

But no one is talking about that. They're talking about "The Slap," which gave a show that was desperately in need of a big moment a big moment indeed. It was not something producers or writers could have come up with themselves, nor something they necessarily want representing the show. Even the Kanye West and Taylor Swift moment at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, the last time an awards show featured a moment between two stars that went this off-the-rails, didn't involve physical violence. 

Smith himself, who could be seen from the audience mouthing the words "keep my wife's name out your f------ mouth" to Rock after the incident (uncensored clips from TV broadcasts in other countries quickly flooded social media, and showed Smith did more than just mouth the words), was on stage just a few segments later, accepting the Best Actor award for "King Richard," in which he plays Richard Williams, the father of tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams.

►CAUTION: The video in this embedded tweet contains strong language. Viewer discretion is advised.

"Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family," Smith said, as tears began to stream down his face. 

Smith was emotional. The mood in the Dolby Theatre was so tense you could feel the awkwardness at home, on your couch, thousands of miles away. And for the rest of the night, that shocking confrontation hung over the ceremony like a dark cloud, even as Smith later laughed on camera as others, including host Amy Schumer, attempted to make light of the moment. 

"I’ve been getting out of that Spider Man costume," said Schumer, who earlier in the night was featured in a bit where she was dangling from wires suspended from the stage's ceiling, decked out in a webslinger outfit. "Did I miss anything? There’s, like, a different vibe in here."

This wasn't the vibe shift the Oscars wanted, but it's the one they got. As news of the incident hit the web like a lightning bolt, people who weren't already tuned into the show certainly flipped on their TVs to gawk at the wreckage. Ratings, which last year hit a record low, will almost certainly jump.

But is this the way they wanted to do it?

The cast and crew of "CODA" accept the award for best picture at the Oscars on Sunday, March 27, 2022, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles.

Sunday's Oscars found the show at something of a crossroads. Awards shows have dipped in relevance over the last several years as broadcast TV viewership has taken an across-the-board hit. Streaming shows have replaced movies as the center of the cultural conversation. And the types of films that get nominated for Academy Awards, especially Best Picture, are largely out of step with popular tastes. (None of these matters were helped in any way by the COVID-19 pandemic.)  

This year's Oscars show, which was produced by "Girls Trip" and "Ride Along" producer Will Packer and his creative partner, West Bloomfield native Shayla Cowan, attempted to combat the ratings and relevance slide by stuffing the show with anniversary tributes (60 years of James Bond, 50 years of "The Godfather," 30 years of "White Men Can't Jump," 15 years of "Juno" and, er, 28 years of "Pulp Fiction") and opening the show up to a pair of internet fan polls.

Those backfired badly, with director Zack Snyder's extremely online fans vote-bombing both surveys, resulting in a moment from "Zack Snyder's Justice League" topping some sort of innocuous list of the greatest moments in film history and the director's "Army of the Dead" being named the year's favorite film. (The lesson, which should have already been known by anyone with a computer: don't ever let the internet vote on anything.) 

Hosts Amy Schumer, from left, Wanda Sykes, and Regina Hall appear on stage at the Oscars on Sunday, March 27, 2022, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles.

The show was the first since 2018 to feature a host, and emcees Schumer, Wanda Sykes and Regina Hall opened with a lively monologue that lightly roasted the evening's nominees. (One joke that landed well involved the hosts acknowledging how hard two years of COVID has been on people, with Schumer saying, "yeah, I mean, just look at Timothée Chalamet," and the camera cutting to a grizzled looking J.K. Simmons.)

Schumer was even funnier in her solo monologue, zinging "Being the Ricardos" creator Aaron Sorkin for making a Lucille Ball movie "without a moment that's funny," but she then disappeared for the majority of the program. Sykes, too, scored laughs in a pre-taped bit where she toured the Academy's new $500 million museum, but she was also largely missing from the live show. Aren't hosts there to, you know, host? 

As far as the show's much-maligned decision to cut eight categories from the live program, film them pre-show and fold them into the broadcast, it was mostly seamless, even though news of the winners could easily be found online before they were announced on television and Sunday's show still ended up running nearly a half hour longer than last year's telecast. It went nearly three hours and 45 minutes, and the Best Picture prize wasn't handed out until 11:34 p.m. Eastern time.

Uma Thurman, from left, Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta present the award for best performance by an actor in a leading role at the Oscars on Sunday, March 27, 2022, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles.

Where did all the extra time go? DJ Khaled fumbling around on stage and trying to introduce the three hosts was certainly pointless but didn't take up too much time, nor did all the stars like Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Sandra Bullock, Tom Cruise, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Tom Hanks, Scarlett Johansson or Jennifer Lawrence, none of whom were in attendance or anywhere to be seen. So the lesson is it's going to be a long show no matter how you slice it, so you might as well live with it. 

"Dune" won six trophies total, all in technical categories. "CODA" won three, winning Best Supporting Actor for Troy Kotsur — a first for a deaf performer in the category — and Best Adapted Screenplay for Sian Heder, while "The Eyes of Tammy Faye" won two, including Best Actress honors for Jessica Chastain. 

Elsewhere, the love was spread around. Jane Campion won Best Director for "The Power of the Dog," the only award for the year's most-nominated film, which had 12 nods total. Kenneth Branagh won Best Original Screenplay for his autobiographical "Belfast" script. Ariana DeBose won Best Supporting Actress for "West Side Story," winning for the same role that netted Rita Moreno an Oscar 60 years prior. Other winners included Billie Eilish and Finneas for Best Original Song for their James Bond theme "No Time to Die," "Encanto" for Best Animated Film, "Drive My Car" for Best International Feature and "Summer of Soul" for Best Documentary. 

Ariana DeBose accepts the award for best performance by an actress in a supporting role for "West Side Story" at the Oscars on Sunday, March 27, 2022, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles.

"Summer of Soul" director Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson took the stage just moments after the Will Smith-Chris Rock brouhaha, which began when Rock joked about Pinkett Smith's shaved-head look, "'GI Jane 2,' can’t wait to see it, alright?" (Pinkett Smith, who bristled hard at the joke, has been open about her alopecia diagnosis and has discussed her hair loss on various social media platforms, so it wasn't Rock's best line, not by a long shot.) 

Smith quickly hit the stage and approached Rock, open hand slapped him, and returned to his seat. A stunned Rock remarked, "oh, wow. Wow! Will Smith just smacked the s--- outta me."

As Smith yelled at Rock from his seat, Rock replied, "wow, dude, it was a 'G.I. Jane' joke," clearly rattled and trying to deescalate the situation. Unclear how to continue — but standing on stage in front of an auditorium full of people, and with a worldwide audience watching on TV — Rock said, "that was, uhh, greatest night in the history of television!" 

As the dust settled, Rock continued with the Best Documentary category. As Thompson eventually came on stage to accept his award, the Roots drummer could have shown proof that aliens were real and given out the address where they are hiding and no one would have heard a word he said. That's how thick the air was following the tussle, and it remained that way for the remainder of the evening.

Will Smith accepts the award for best performance by an actor in a leading role for "King Richard" at the Oscars on Sunday, March 27, 2022, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles.

Smith, for his part, later explained his actions during his Best Actor speech by placing himself in the role of a protector, and he made multiple comparisons between himself and Richard Williams. 

"Art imitates life. I look like the crazy father, just like they said about Richard Williams," Smith said. He apologized to the Academy and to his fellow nominees, and closed out his speech by saying, "I hope the Academy invites me back."

Of course he'll be invited back, and the Academy Awards now have a storyline in place for next year's show. Going into the night, the worry was that no one would be talking about the Academy Awards. Sunday night's show guaranteed the Oscars are going to be talked about for quite some time, just not the way anyone intended. Even Hollywood couldn't have come up with this one.  

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama