For Better or Worse, With One Slap, Will Smith Electrified the Oscars

Hollywood’s biggest night was overshadowed by a slap. After enduring a terrible joke from comedian Chris Rock about his wife Jada Pinkett Smith’s hair, Will Smith cooly got up from his seat, walked onto the stage, and smacked Rock across the face before returning to his table. “Keep my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth,” Smith shouted at a visibly unsettled Rock, who pressed on. Less than an hour later, Smith won his first Oscar.

The moment sent shockwaves through both the Dolby Theatre and viewers at home, with many confused, at first, about whether the incident was a staged bit. By the time Smith tearfully accepted his Oscar for King Richard, it was evident that it wasn’t. “Richard Williams was a fierce protector of his family,” said a red-eyed and weepy Smith. “In this business you gotta be able to have people disrespecting you. And you gotta smile and you gotta pretend like that’s okay.”

While the controversial moment has already inspired a textbook’s worth of commentary— centered around everything from masculinity to race to complicated questions surrounding assault—a separate and obviously less important fact seems difficult to ignore. For better or worse, Will Smith electrified the Oscars.

The show was perhaps at its lowest point ever going into Sunday’s telecast. In 2021, the indie darling Nomadland cruised to a best-picture win—at the time becoming the lowest-grossing best picture in modern history, on a telecast that received the worst ratings in Oscars history. (Last night, the Little Indie That Could, CODA, dethroned Nomadland as the lowest-grossing best-picture winner ever). Certainly the pandemic was partially to blame, but seasoned Oscar watchers knew that COVID had only hastened a crisis that’s been mounting around the show—continually drawing smaller ratings for a telecast awarding smaller movies—for years.

So, in an effort to save a sinking ship, 2022 Oscars producer Will Packer risked alienating a bevy of filmmakers by cutting eight awards from the telecast and instituting two new populist, fan-voted categories in a desperate attempt to attract more eyeballs. “We have to understand that the Academy Awards show as we know it is at an inflection point,” he told Variety. “The next coming years, especially this year, are going to be a harbinger for what this show will become.”

Clearly, the pressure was on to deliver a ceremony that transcended in some way, one that could prove there was still room in our cultural landscape for a behemoth of an event. A glamorous, high-stakes production where it felt like anything could happen.

And, if we’re keeping things totally 100, Will Smith did just that.

Before the slap, the 2022 Oscars were off to a rough start. V.F. chief critic Richard Lawson called the ceremony strange and awkward: “There just wasn’t much of a sense of occasion,” he opined in his review. By storming the stage and smacking Chris Rock upside the head, Smith inadvertently delivered a much-needed jolt of energy back into the ceremony. It was a moment as jaw-dropping as Marlon Brando sending Sacheen Littlefeather to refuse his best-actor Oscar in 1973, or the streaker interrupting the ceremony in 1974—the kind of moment that reminds you why the Oscars, and live television, exist in the first place. But, just to be clear, that is not the same as saying that leaving his seat was remotely close to a good idea.

In the last decade, bonafide Oscar bombshells have been few and far between. By my count, we’ve really had only two: the great La La Land/Moonlight mixup of 2017, and John Travolta calling Idina Menzel “the wick-edly talented Adele Dazeem.” End of list. Especially this year, the ceremony was in dire need of an earth-shaking, “I can’t believe what I’m watching on my television screen right now” moment.

While violence is never the answer, some voices both without and within the entertainment industry seem to be blowing what happened between the two movie stars slightly out of proportion. In a since deleted tweet, director Judd Apatow said, “Will Smith could have killed Chris Rock.” We are all prone to hyperbolic reactions when unexpected and shocking things happen, but I think it’s safe to say that few healthy adults Rock’s age have perished from a single open-handed slap before.

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