The Oscars got its water cooler talking point last night. And it cannot possibly be what they wanted.
In summary: Will Smith assaulted comedian Chris Rock on stage, in front of a live global audience, swore on camera, then went back to his front row seat and later picked up the award for best lead actor, made a self pitying, tearful speech and was cheered.
I knew instantly that, within minutes, the incident would be turned into a black v white, political left v right, team Will Smith/team Chris Rock battle in the mainstream media and on the hell that is social media.
I was right. (Just as, incidentally I was mostly right in my predictions as to the winners).
I’ve watched every Oscars broadcast since I was in my late teens. Each year I host an Oscars party at my home. In recent years I’ve started live tweeting the show on Twitter. One year I actually attended the event.
So, I know a thing or two about the biggest movie awards show in the world.
In recent years I’ve been disappointed with how the show has become ever more divisive, political and simply not entertaining. I’ve felt bad for the organisers that the ratings have continued to plummet. I’ve written extensively about what the academy should do to try and get back to the successes of its heyday when watching the Oscars was a social and cultural must to do. And I was rooting for the broadcast last night to return to its former glories.
As usual, I hosted my Oscars party, I joined a WhatsApp group with movie colleagues to discuss the show and I also live tweeted. By the end of the night the only word I could think of to describe what happened was ‘disgraceful’.
There is some history to the Smiths and Rock. Jada Pinkett Smith, an actress best known for being married to Will, was very vocal in the ‘Oscars so white’ campaign which pretty much began the recent identity politics divisions that have blighted the show in recent years. In 2016 Chris Rock, hosting the show, called her out on her boycott of the Oscars by saying that someone like her boycotting was akin to him saying he was boycotting Rihanna’a panties – he was never invited to it in the first place.
Chris Rock is as sharp as they come with his comedic jabs. Sometimes he can be too close to the bone but he says it like it is. Perhaps that jibe was still simmering in the Smiths’ minds. The couple has also generated much controversial publicity recently by revealing intimate details of their ‘open marriage’. Last night Rock came on as a presenter and commented on Jada looking like she was ready to make GI Jane 2. It was a reference to her shaved head and the old Demi Moore film of the same name.
Initially, Will Smith laughed at the joke. Jada rolled her eyes. Then Will Smith reacted.
He could have walked up to the stage, taken the mike and said something clever/funny. He could have shamed Chris Rock by telling everyone that Jada suffers from alopecia. He could have issued a statement after the show. He chose, instead, to go up and slap Chris Rock. That is an assault. No matter how you slice and dice it, it’s assault. The audience was momentarily stunned, not sure whether this was part of the show.
But then Smith went back to his front row seat and shouted and swore, telling Chris Rock to keep his wife’s name out of his fucking mouth. It was clear this was not part of the comedy routine.
Chris Rock, responded with dignity and grace in what must’ve been a shocking and embarrassing situation before a global audience.
In the minutes that followed I kept checking the front row to see whether, if at any point, the academy showed leadership and had Will Smith escorted out of the auditorium, even if only temporarily, to make a point that this had been unacceptable behaviour. They did not.
The excuse being made today by some is that this was an unprecedented situation and no one knew what to do. Then, perhaps, the academy needs to hire an adult who knows the difference between right and wrong and how to handle the same when it arises.
The incident created a pall over the rest of the show. The wins and segments that followed it were subdued including the 50th anniversary reunion of The Godfather team of Francis Ford Coppola, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro which should have been a highlight of the evening.
All the publicity this morning is about Will Smith. The other worthy winners have been relegated to minor stories.
Smith duly won his category, as I predicted and he went to receive the award to some cheers and a bit of a standing ovation. Some guests in the back of the auditorium had the decency not to stand for him but the stars at the front, the ones that audiences look up to, did. That is what the audience at home will remember. Just like the time Hollywood applauded child rapist Roman Polanski. ‘Bad optics’ a term the media used to besmirch a successful and popular royal tour last week, has been missing from coverage of this incident. Largely, I suspect, because some people think it was all very funny and entertaining and because society’s standards about decent behaviour are currently in the gutter.
In his speech Smith proceeded to cry, try to justify his actions and salvage his career and reputation by talking about protecting his family, vulnerability, him being a vessel of love and other rambling nonsense. He apologised to everyone but not Chris Rock. Then he walked off stage to sympathetic hugs.
For any child watching the oscars last night, Will Smith, his Hollywood cohorts and the Academy taught them that:
• It’s okay to resort to violence, as your first option,if someone says something you don’t like.
•It’s okay to swear.
•It’s okay to behave like this in front of your peers, your family and worldwide audience.
•That you can still win the top prize, be cheered for it and even get a standing ovation after behaving like this
•That if you cry and spout self help platitudes you can make out you’re the real victim
The reaction of sections of social media would demonstrate to that same child that absolutely anything, even when it is caught on camera, can be racialised and spun to suit whatever political narrative you choose. The excuses for Will Smith are coming thick and fast.
The people making moves excuses refuse to answer the question what their view would have been if the assailant had been a white actor, or if the victim had been a woman.
Hollywood has long been losing its lustre, last night the remaining sheen was peeled off.