God must be a screenwriter. Who else might have scripted the most compelling Oscar drama in years? Delivering “the slap heard ’round the world” if not the Oscar Night universe, Will Smith redeemed himself and embarrassed everyone else, not least the presumed injured party—his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith—when on live television he stormed the proscenium to physically assault a nonplussed Chris Rock for making a lame schoolyard joke.
Rock’s immediate response was to identify the act as great TV. It was. An earnestly diverse awards ceremony was thus upstaged, not to mention enlivened, by the spectacle of injured vanity and male rage. It also successfully diverted attention from the evening’s other and perhaps more important slap in the face: the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences’ denying a guest appearance to former stand-up comedian and sitcom actor Volodymyr Zelensky.
Zelensky’s supporters, including Sean Penn and the Ukraine-born actress Mila Kunis, had lobbied the Academy to give Zelensky a virtual appearance during the ceremony, if only to thank the international audience for recognizing his nation’s plucky defensive war against brutish Russian invaders. Yet, according to the producer Brian Keith Etheridge, who coordinated this outreach, Oscar organizers were hesitant to “overly politicize the show.” Why did they want to keep politics out? Was it fear of Tucker Carlson? Did they worry that Donald Trump (who maintained his membership in the Screen Actors Guild and only quit the organization this past February) would demand equal time? “We want to be fun and celebratory,” one Academy official told the press.
The Academy might like to imagine that their star event is just fun and games, but the fact is the Oscars are always political—just like Hollywood. Ask Marlon Brando, who sent Native American activist actress Shacheen Littlefeather to accept his Oscar for The Godfather (feted on its 50th anniversary). When the US invaded Iraq two days before Oscar night 2003, actors were accessorized with a variety of peace pins and no one was too surprised when, brandishing his Oscar as though to smite the unrighteous, Michael Moore delivered a diatribe on the making of the “fictious war” in Iraq.
So why not have included Zelensky? There has been no actor on the world stage comparable to him since Ronald Reagan, the best-trained politician (or is it most successful actor?) in American history and one who shortly after becoming president was invited to make a virtual appearance on Oscar night. The invite also proved newsworthy: On the afternoon of the 1981 awards ceremony, the 40th president was struck and wounded by the last of six shots fired by John Hinckley Jr., a deranged fan obsessed with the 1976 movie Taxi Driver and its Oscar-winning ingenue Jodie Foster. The Oscar ceremony was delayed for 24 hours, before moving ahead, with the president recuperating in George Washington University Hospital and his pretaped image magically addressing the American people. Speaking from the White House, where he had been recorded several weeks earlier, Reagan noted, “When it achieves its most noble intent, film reveals that people everywhere share common dreams and emotions.” Perhaps this is what Zelensky planned to say. Or perhaps not. He is clearly a performer with considerable gifts and powers of invention.
How shameful then that the Academy refused to recognize the brilliance of another distinguished colleague. Instead, the drama of the night was more organic, chaotic, and weirdly self-serving. When Smith thought his wife had been insulted, he leapt to the defense (even if it was unclear if she exactly invited it), and then the show went on, with him accepting his award not so much for his role as Richard Williams but for his role as defender of Venus and Serena. Part method, part Pirandello, Smith reiterated the “love” that defined that performance and presumably his assault on Rock. Meanwhile, Zelinsky is giving the performance of his life—literally—albeit in an existential drama far too real for the Academy to acknowledge.