At first, the slap seemed like a mildly hokey pre-staged bit. After all, it followed a mildly hokey joke involving Smith’s wife Jada Pinkett, who has partial hair loss due to alopecia, and Ridley Scott’s 1997 film G.I. Jane, which starred Demi Moore who sported a buzz cut. (Incidentally, that was the second mildly hokey joke at Scott’s expense of the evening.) But when the US broadcast picture froze and the sound cut out the post-slap, it soon became clear that it wasn’t a gag. International broadcasts aired the incident uncensored, which immediately cleared things up for people watching at home. Recovering from the slap, Chris Rock tried to laugh it off by remarking, “Will Smith smacked the shit out of me.” Smith bellowed, “Keep my wife’s name out of your fuckin’ mouth,” at which point the Academy audience realized the severity of the situation. Rock, sheepish and in shock, agreed but also noted: “It was a G.I. Jane joke.” To his credit, this is technically true.
Rock then quickly regained composure and introduced the nominees for Best Documentary Feature, a grin-and-bear-it move broadly indicative of the ceremony’s incoherent tenor. The Oscars might not always be great TV, but it’s certainly worse when its organizers try to market the show to people who don’t remotely care about it to begin with. In the weeks leading up to the Oscars, ABC executives pressured the show’s producers to cut eight awards categories from the live broadcast to make room for “comedy, film clips and musical numbers.” The Academy teamed up with Twitter to introduce the “Oscars Fan Favorite” contest, a variation on the “Popular Film” category they floated a few years ago in an attempt to combat charges of elitism. Naturally, these sweaty attempts to pander to a younger demographic uninterested in either cinema or Hollywood mutual appreciation were on full display, betraying a clear lack of confidence in the merits of their own nominees. Self-loathing has seldom been so thoroughly channeled into the variety show format.
Similar to how the Democratic Party repeatedly sells out its own base to acquire right-leaning voters, the Oscars’ desperation to satisfy indifferent viewers manifested in myriad terrible choices. Oscar emcees rarely shined comedically during the ceremony, but it was especially dire watching this year’s host triumvirate—Amy Schumer, Wanda Sykes, and Regina Hall—go through the motions of delivering multiple monologues, filled with out-of-date, sub–Bruce Vilanch one-liners, and performing interminable comedy sketches. The ceremony was also padded with non-industry presenters clearly intended to entice people to tune in. Though this year’s Academy Awards did draw higher ratings than last year’s historically low-viewed affair (though still much lower ratings than pre-pandemic ceremonies), it’s unclear if DJ Kahled bringing up the hosts at the top of the show or a trio of extreme sports athletes (skateboarder Tony Hawk, surfer Kelly Slater, and snowboarder Shaun White) introducing a 60th anniversary tribute to the James Bond series were pivotal factors.
But those two examples barely scratched the surface of how plainly bizarre so much of the Oscars were, before and after “the slap.” The telecast could not make room for the full presentations and acceptance speeches of Best Film Editing or Best Original Score but had enough time to celebrate the 30th anniversary of White Men Can’t Jump and the 28th anniversary of Pulp Fiction. Both featured core actors making creaky callbacks to the films folded into introductions for Best Cinematography and Best Actor, respectively. The two fan awards, the Fan Favorite and Favorite Movie Moment awards, went to Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead and his cut of Justice League, ostensibly because of his well-organized fanbase. P. Diddy introduced a 50th anniversary tribute to The Godfather where he said he was deeply influenced by the film’s themes, such as “loyalty over betrayal,” “overcoming all the odds,” and “the pursuit of power.” Mila Kunis acknowledged the war in Ukraine under the umbrella of “recent global events” right before bringing up Reba McEntire to sing the nominated song “Somehow You Do” from Kunis’s film Four Good Days.
Arguably the strangest moment was the In Memoriam sequence, usually a staid event, but this time featured a chorus of singers performing a medley of songs that include Sarah McLachlan’s “I Will Remember You” and Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” against a video montage of the recently deceased. Interspersed with the music were even more presenters to pay tribute to some of the departed actors: Tyler Perry waxed poetic about Sidney Poitier; Bill Murray gave a concise biography of Ivan Reitman; and, most absurd of all, Jaime Lee Curtis honored Betty White, a segment that also doubled as a pitch for adopting rescue animals.
In its misguided effort to court the unconcerned and engineer “viral moments,” the Oscars felt like a hyperactive fever dream, but really it was just a terribly engineered event that reeked of neediness and obsolescence and that was given its sole moment of excitement in an act of unscripted violence. The Oscars have always been a contradictory ceremony, one in tension with its inherently self-congratulatory nature and the more honorable desire to celebrate the year in motion picture art. At best, it’s a genuine commemoration of the craft and history of filmmaking, and at worst, it’s a masturbatory, tone-deaf event by and for Hollywood that they pretend we’re invited to. This dissonance was no more evident than in Smith’s Best Actor acceptance speech, in which he claimed he was a “vessel for love” 40 minutes after hitting a man on television. There might not be a more actorly moment in recent history than Smith connecting his very recent lack of judgment with Richard Williams, father of tennis stars Venus and Serena and the character whom he played in King Richard. “Love makes you do crazy things,” he explained.
In the days since the incident, many have used pop psychology or sociological concepts to frame the incident as a referendum on larger social issues. But what happened was perhaps far simpler: One rich celebrity reacted poorly and impulsively to another rich celebrity’s off-the-cuff, tasteless joke. It’s awkward spectacle as well as an instructive example of how carefully managed public images can crack in the span of seconds, but it’s not exactly a microcosm for any broader societal or cultural trend. While people debate about who was in the right or wrong, Smith’s image will recover, if it hasn’t already, and Rock will likely have enough material on the incident to fill the better portion of a new hour. A highly public skirmish doesn’t always reflect the world around it. Sometimes it simply reflects itself and possibly juices Oscar ratings for next year’s show in the process.