The 94th Academy Awards (or . . . He Who Gets Slapped) – an editorial

| March 29, 2022

NOTE: This essay is purely an editorial.]

Under normal circumstances, Tuesday after the Oscars is the moment when the award show starts to slip from our minds.  The Facebook memes slow down and the inevitable volley of whining complaining over the show’s length, exclusivity, misdirection, lack of production and relevance slowly begin to turn to other things.  They should.  There are people dying the Ukraine for Heaven’s sake.

This year is different.  I spent most of yesterday trying to process what happened Sunday night and last night I was fighting back the urge to write this because I knew that the story wasn’t over.  I didn’t want to jump the gun because I could see the apology coming (it did).  I could see the Academy’s response coming (it did, sorta).  I needed to wait for the fallout (I’m still waiting).

The incident – from my perspective

I’m an armchair Oscar historian.  I have been following and writing about the Academy Awards since 1991, back when the most shocking thing was the fact that Joe Pesci’s Oscar speech was only six words long.  Needless to say, I’m busy during the show.  I tweet, post on Facebook, and take notes for my post-Oscar article.  Therefore, I wasn’t really paying attention to Chris Rock.  Rock, to me, is as effective to the Oscars as David Letterman.  I missed the joke.  What I saw was Will Smith, climb up on stage and appear to punch the comedian.  I saw a visibly shocked Rock trying to compose himself and then . . . nothing.  My sound went out and so the following exchange went unheard.  I thought that they were joking back and forth.

Given that, I think I may have been more confused than most.  At that moment, I was preparing to write a post about the Documentary Feature winner (the award that Chris Rock was about to announce).  What happened over the next hour was a darkening of the award show that I did not understand.  To be honest, I wasn’t clued in until I saw a YouTube video from Japan that was unedited – after Smith won Best Actor.

When Will Smith received his Oscar, I had trouble understanding the moment or the context under which he spoke (some of it I’m still trying to figure out).  He was tearful, defensive and, in hindsight, seemed humiliated.  Given what happened, that would seem appropriate.

The whole incident came together for me at the moment when the YouTube video from Japan illustrated – without censoring – what was actually said.  This was so shocking and so unexpected that it has taken time to process. 

Chris Rock

The joke was stupid, equating Jada Pinkett Smith’s hair loss to an errant role in G.I. Jane 2, which only goes to show that Rock cannot ad-lib.  As former Oscar joke writer Bruce Valance noted, “Jokes for the Oscars are written and then vetted. This was not vetted.”  Chris Rock has always been uncomfortable at the Oscars – it’s not his venue and the joke seemed lame and weak.

As of this writing there has been no response from Chris Rock on the incident and it is unclear whether he actually knew if Mrs. Smith had Alopecia – an autoimmune disease that causes hair loss and to which she has been open about since 2018.  Still did it warrant a physical assault?

Credit ot Mr. Rock that he did not retaliate.  Rock was there to do a job and he did it despite the incident – he moved on with the award when most of us would have just left.  That was the classier thing to do.

Will Smith

His actions were shameful, reactionary and grossly disrespectful to the industry that was celebrating his best work.  He shamed himself, his family, the filmmaking community and the proceedings.  It marred what should have been the greatest moment of his professional life in front of an industry that has courted him for the past 35 years, as a musician and as an actor.  Smith is a figure of enormous stature.  He is deeply respected and has been respectable.  What do his actions say to young kids?  It is a dangerous precedent to set.

The apology issued late Tuesday was not received with warmth.  Like everything else about this incident, I wanted to put it behind me, but the more I thought about it, the more it felt a little machine-made, like there were other influences encouraging him to put a band-aid on this.  Personally, I think a video message might have made a greater impact.

What could he have done?

I know that machinations at work.  I understand where Will’s head was in that moment.  Protect his wife at all costs . . . but, the civilized thing to do would have been to go backstage and locate Chris Rock, pull him aside and tell him how you feel.  Speak about it in private, like men.  Work it out without committing a physical assault in front a billion people and bringing shame to yourself and an already shaken-up Academy Awards ceremony.

We don’t need this

This incident didn’t have to happen, and worse, happened at a moment when we least needed it.  We are living in a world right now that is continually loses all sense of reality.  We are living in a world in which our most comforting institutions are breaking down.  Our political machine is an embarrassment.  There are people dying in the Ukraine, we are still in the middle of the pandemic.  And, with that, even our most beloved institution, the movies, have been brought to their knees.  We needed some levity, the sight of one of our most beloved actors at the top of his game, receiving the top award from the industry and having one of the biggest moments of his life.

The Aftermath

I have said what I am going to say.  I have to move on now.  I have other things to do.  Will I continue to follow the Oscars?  Certainly.  It will take a long time to get past this, and hopefully we can, in the course of time laugh about it.  We’re here for a short time and there is no need to hold on to bad stuff.

I’ll see you at the movies,
– Jerry Dean Roberts

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
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