I’ve been reluctant to weigh in on the now-infamous Will Smith-Chris Rock slap at last week’s Oscar ceremony. The din was simply too great, and I wanted to wait and see how the whole thing would play out. Now that it has — decidedly not in Will Smith’s favor — I have just a few belated thoughts:
First, on the slap itself. As shocking and inexcusable as it was, I found it oddly liberating. I had just written a post about how much trouble the Oscars have had lately in finding a decent host for the show. But as I watched Amy Schumer, Wanda Sykes and Regina Hall handle the duties this year (without much distinction, though Amy got off a few good lines), it occurred to me that the real problem is that, with or without hosts, the show has been almost entirely drained of spontaneity. Someone like Bob Hope or Johnny Carson or Billy Crystal could take charge, keep things loose, react to events in real time. Now everything is scripted, packaged (and often pre-recorded) within an inch of its life.
Until, that is, Will Smith lost it so spectacularly. It was the ultimate Oscar ad-lib: not just the smack itself, but Smith’s foul-mouthed outburst from his seat, and Rock’s reaction — clearly rattled, but gamely carrying on, a true professional, even coming up with a good line: “That was … the greatest night in the history of television.” Which it very nearly was.
Much of the aftermath has involved a lot of hand-wringing over whether the Academy should have tossed Smith out of the theater after the incident. Maybe they should have, but I’m glad they didn’t. Such a startling, impromptu, unhinged television moment needs to be played out to its conclusion. Smith’s blubbery, self-pitying acceptance speech after winning the award for Best Actor — and the ovation that greeted it — was nearly as disturbing as the blow itself. It was as if the whole familiar Hollywood scandal cycle —sin, condemnation, apology, redemption — had been compressed into one 60-second movie trailer.
When Jada Pinkett Smith’s alopecia became an issue (a medical condition I assume Rock wasn’t aware of), and a few people, like Tiffany Haddish, came to Smith’s defense, I was afraid that the whole incident would be muddied by P.C. posturing. Would alopecia become another no-fly zone for stand-up comedians, like trans jokes? But sentiment has turned decisively against Smith. He’s resigned from the Academy, may face more disciplinary action, and there’s even talk of some film projects getting cancelled.
What turned the tide? More than the slap itself, or his F-bombs, or even that self-righteous acceptance speech, I think it was the partying. Those shots of Will and Jada smiling and celebrating at the Vanity Fair party after the ceremony, as if the world hadn’t just exploded, were too much for even the forgiving movie community to stomach. The apology-redemption cycle still needs to play out.
Redemption will come eventually, I am sure. But even in Hollywood, you have to earn your happy ending.