I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t been looking forward to attending the Oscars. The Academy does it up in a way that makes you feel like you are a passenger on the Titanic. Okay, maybe that’s a bad metaphor. In other words, luxury accommodations are appreciated if you live in an apartment with four pets in Burbank. Put it that way. Most of the time things go as planned, ceremony-wise but there are one or two upsets in the various categories. Last night it was reversed. The award wins could not have been more predictable. If you followed our “Most Likely” or Gold Derby’s consensus you would have gotten 22 out of 23 correct. But if you took any risks whatsoever you would have gotten a few categories wrong as I did when I swapped out Sound and Production Design at the last minute.
There were a few categories like Original Screenplay and Animated Short that were unpredictable. Best Actress was predictable but there were more than a few who believed they felt a surge for Penelope Cruz at the last minute. The rest of it was, I thought, on script.
CODA predictably won all three of its awards, a clean sweep. It is the first Best Picture winner in the era of the preferential ballot to sweep. That Dune won 6 Oscars but not Best Picture ought to be a sign to the Academy – a very loud blaring horn that it’s time to go back to five Best Picture nominees, especially if their future is streaming, which, judging by last night’s win, it is. Oscar voters will vote for the movie they like no matter where it comes from, no matter how many nominations it has or how much money it made or how many people saw it. The heart wants what it WANTS.
It make zero sense and looks really strange to see the night’s biggest movie, Dune, lose to the night’s absolute smallest, CODA, which was seen by under one million people. Of course more people will seek out CODA now, but it is really hard to argue that a movie that small is the “Best Picture of the Year.” Dune won six Oscars. And it too wasn’t nominated for Best Director. It makes you wonder now about the award for Best Director. Does it even matter at all anymore? Or has it become something more symbolic of Hollywood trying to right the change it seeks rather than award the best.
Or have they found a way to take themselves back to their beginning where they divided Best Picture into two categories – Best Production and Best Artistic achievement (or, as it was called in 1927, “Best Unique and Artistic Picture”). But even if that were the case, The Power of the Dog would win one and Dune would win the other. So the Oscars themselves seem to have become unglued, not just in their ratings or Will Smith or any of that. But if the director no longer matters then what are the Oscars even for? That is how I see it anyway since I was raised on the director being the star of the Best Picture race and that, to me, makes the Oscars better.
But any satisfaction to be gleaned from CODA’s win, Jessica Chastain’s win and even Will Smith’s win was overshadowed by Will Smith smacking Chris Rock across the face in what at first looked like a fake hit. But it wasn’t a fake hit. It was real. It was a violent attack on a live broadcast that shocked everyone into awkward silence and left many feeling slightly traumatized by it. Now of course, people will say “how can you care about that when bombs are dropping on Ukrainians?” Fine, fair, then I would flip it back and say “Why do you only care about Ukrainians when there is a humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan?” It is what it is. We’re all allowed to care about any number of things. We care because we’re human. We react because we are human. But especially those of us who are all too familiar with physical abuse.
The reactions, strangely enough, appear to be mixed. Remember, this was an altercation between two Black men, at a time in the Academy’s history where the entire film community is striving to change things for artists of color. So the reaction to Will Smith has been, I think, more muted than it would have been if, say, Bradley Cooper slapped Kevin Costner. Then you’d have long agonizing think pieces about white male privilege and “toxic masculinity.” But what we’re seeing today appears to be a much more somber reception, except for all of the people making fun of it and there are a lot of those too, mostly the people who truly loathe Hollywood and the Oscars (and there are a lot of those too).
It’s hard to imagine that it happened at all. My near-sleeping brain last night was wrestling with my rational brain asking “DID THAT HAPPEN”? Yes, it must have.
Chris Rock took to the stage in what I thought was the best moment in terms of presenters. His voice, his energy, his humor, his presence was exactly the kind of thing the Oscars need as a host. The three official hosts, Amy Schumer, Wanda Sykes and Regina Hall were funny enough, and sporadically struck the right tone. They weren’t bad. They tried. But Chris Rock? I mean, there is simply no comparison. His joke was exactly the tone an Oscar host has to have — not to poke fun of The Last Duel, which is a much better movie than many of those nominated, but to poke fun at the guests. Chris Rock is the kind of host the Oscars need to right their ship and get their ratings back.
You already know what happened, but in case you don’t – Chris Rock made a remark about G.I. Jane 2, which was clearly meant to tease Jada Pinkett Smith about her shaved head, which is due to an autoimmune disorder that she struggles with. Initially, Will Smith seemed to think it was funny, even if Pinkett Smith did not. Next thing we knew, Will Smith was striding toward Chris Rock. This resembled the kind of “bit” that guests and hosts sometimes plan ahead of time, and then pretend to have a fake confrontation — which actually might have been funny, had it been scripted. But it wasn’t. Will Smith smacked Chris Rock across the face and to his great credit, Rock did not strike back. He barely flinched and never lost his footing. Smith is bigger than Rock so it wasn’t a fair fight anyway. Will Smith then returned to his seat with a self-satisfied look on his face that was, I thought, out of character for the guy we think we know. Chris Rock, regained his composure and proceeded to announce Best Documentary winner, with as much grace as he could muster. (The winner, of course, was “The Summer of Soul,” as if the moment was not already fraught enough with ironic discomfort.)
I can only report how the room reacted from my vantage in the balcony where I was sitting, after Will Smith twice yelled, “keep my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth.” The smattering of confused laughter instantly dwindled down to nervous silence. Chris Rock looked shaken. He handled it like a champ, I thought, but not a single soul stood up to see if he was okay. They just tried to pretend like everything was normal. After Best Documentary was awarded, the show broke for commercials and everyone around me was murmuring, “was that real?”
Was there a better way the Academy could have handled it? Sure, but only if anyone in charge could get a quick grasp of what had actually happened, which was far from clear to anyone. I think they did what they had to do to keep the show rolling along. In hindsight, it’s always easier to figure out a solution. But I think I might have had someone come onstage to try to explain to the audience at the theater and at home what just took place. Instead, they chose to barely acknowledge it at all. That task fell to Amy Schumer, who did nothing more than joke nervously about it. Well, until Will Smith took the stage to accept his Best Actor Oscar. Then, to many observers, he made things even worse.
Will Smith’s speech was powerful, emotional, and more dramatic than any of the ten films nominated for Best Picture. He seemed to be on the brink of a mental collapse, with only his humor to fall back on. “I’m the crazy dad in King Richard,” he said. If you’ve ever been in a relationship with someone who is physically abusive, the thing that comes next is the tearful apology, which is why leaving can be so hard and why so many of us in the Dolby were rooting for Will Smith to pull it together. His speech was good but nothing can ever really make up for an act of violence like that. What many people saw was the perpetrator of a violent attack being given 7 full minutes to gaslight millions of viewers about what we all just saw. “In your highest moments, be careful, that’s when the devil comes for you.” Ah, well then. Turns out the devil made him do it.
ON LIVE TELEVISION.
It reminded me of the movie Network. It all felt so surreal. The whole thing suddenly collapsed under the weight of itself. What were we all doing there? Can the Oscars survive this? (Of course they can) Can Will Smith’s career survive this?
I think there will still be some who think this entire debacle was elaborately staged in order to boost the ratings for the Oscars. It clearly wasn’t. And I don’t know if anything will boost the ratings, considering the kinds of movies they like, the industry overall, the dividing country. A woman behind me said, “Did they bleep it out on TV because my kids are watching at home.” I think they bleeped out the word “fucking” perhaps but I think everyone saw Will Smith hit Chris Rock.
Most of the guests at the Oscars, especially in the orchestra seats but even on the upper levels, are there because they are part of a movie that is nominated. That means you can hear them screaming loudly for their teammate collaborators whenever their movie is mentioned. Where I was sitting, the Queen of Basketball filmmakers were there – and you would not believe how happy they were to win. Jude Hill’s dad was sitting near me. He cheered every time Belfast was announced. I’m sure he was happy to see it win Screenplay, as I was.
Sitting there in that room, though, the Oscar wins always make more sense than they do when analyzing them at home or even watching them on TV. That crowd, that audience, that community they are true believers in everything that Hollywood (and the Left of this country overall) represents. Many of them would be happy if every speech included a political statement. Only one really was and that was Chastain’s. But since it happened after “the slap” there wasn’t much applause. It all felt too surreal to just go on with the show.
Everyone who worked the event last night had to be masked. I know it’s protocol and everything but it was still surreal to see such a disconnect between the guests and the wait staff. I usually spend a lot of my time talking to them. I met a woman from Russia who came here to build a business. “I didn’t have a name for three weeks,” she said. Her father was upset that she was a girl. But then he fell in love with her and named her Eda. I talked to a young woman who was starting her own real estate business. She had the gig because her fiancé was a staff regular. Her name was “Britney.” “LIke Britney Spears” she said. I met a woman in the restroom who had come in to change into fancy attire because she helps to make sure the nominees are present when their categories are called. Her name was Emily. None of them had seen any of the films.
I met a long-time reader of the site, Patrick Cassano, who was very nice and funny. Sometimes I realize just how long I’ve been doing this gig and how many people have been reading my ramblings and it is kind of astonishing. I stood in line next to people from Janus films. We shared our place in line and clinked our glasses in cheers. The filmmakers from the Polish short, The Dress, asked me to take a group of photo of them with the Hollywood Hills in the background.
The Oscars aren’t some routine ego trip for most people. They are the high point in their lives, a moment of true recognition and achievement. You don’t get that unless you are there and watch just how excited they feel to have been chosen. I think about how careless and casual and silly so much of awards season feels. A lot of the votes seem lazy and ill-considered. But this is especially so when you meet the people who feel “lucky to be nominated,” all dressed up in their best clothes, hoping to win an Oscar. It still has value in that way.
If anything, the Will Smith debacle upstaged any kind of anger or frustration I might feel, for instance, about how the awards came down. Real people struggling with real problems – real people showing up in their best clothes who care very much about making films – real people working a job to close the gap on their family’s income – all of that means more because it is real. But even Will Smith, a man who clearly is not in control or easy-going or anything else. He is someone who has violent impulses he can’t control. That is as frightening as it is human.
We have to close out Oscars 2022 and get our movie-loving heads ready room for Oscars 2023. No one really summed up the night better than CNN’s Brian Lowry whose headline reads: “CODA wins the Oscar in streaming breakthrough but Will Smith steals the show.”
That streaming breakthrough part? That means the world of Oscar is about to change. But it’s a change that will be overshadowed by real-life drama that played out at the ceremony.
There is only one thing for the Academy to do now – invite Chris Rock to host next year.