Oscars Review: CODA’s Historic Win Upstaged by Will Smith and the Slap Seen ‘Round the World

Sunday’s telecast may not have been how the Academy drew it up, but everyone is talking about the Oscars
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It was the slap seen ‘round the world… or at least it would’ve been, you know, if the world actually watched the Oscars anymore.

We won’t know the TV ratings until Monday, but who even cares at this point? Whether 2 million fewer people tuned in than last year, or 4 million more, is completely irrelevant. That’s because the 94th Academy Awards will go down as the single most memorable awards show of all time… and in more ways than one.

We begin, as we must, with The Slap. Will Smith, one of the 25 most famous people in the entire world, took the Dolby stage a few minutes earlier than everyone expected to slap presenter Chris Rock across the face after Rock made a joke about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, looking like she was preparing to star in G.I. Jane 2.

For our younger readers, G.I. Jane is a movie from 1996 that starred Demi Moore and famously required her to shave her head. We’ve seen plenty of actresses shave their heads since then, of course, including Oscar winners Natalie Portman and Charlize Theron, but back then, it was something of a big deal. The thing is, Pinkett Smith has been open about having alopecia, so Smith may have felt it was a low blow.

Sunday night was surely an emotional evening for Smith, even before he formally won, since that moment was all but assured. It would cap a 30+ year career in showbiz, and prove to the world that Will Smith wasn’t just its greatest Movie Star, but a Great Actor as well. That may explain why, at first, no one really knew if The Slap was scripted or not. 

I’ll be honest. I thought it was a very well-timed stunt replete with a comical sound effect, and that Rock really sold it. But it wasn’t a joke, and that quickly became quite clear when Smith continued screaming at Rock to “keep my wife’s name out your fucking mouth.”

Dear readers, I confess to having a temper at times, it’s true, and I recognized the anger in Smith’s voice. This was real. This was not a joke. And everyone immediately stopped laughing.

Will Smith slaps Chris Rock onstage during the show at the 94th Academy Awards at the Dolby Theatre at Ovation Hollywood on Sunday, March 27, 2022. (Myung Chun / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

As soon as a commercial break arrived, Denzel Washington was seen comforting Smith, calming him down, but also admonishing him for both his behavior and his language — something that completely conflicts with the star’s family-friendly image. Smith also sought council from his publicist, Meredith O’Sullivan Wasson of the Lede Company, who earned her salary on Sunday night, deserves a nomination for Publicist of the Year at next year’s ICG Publicist Awards for her deft handling of the situation. 

When Smith did eventually return to the stage (this time invited), he invoked King Richard‘s subject Richard Williams and gave the man credit for being “a fierce defender of his family.” I don’t think Rock’s joke warranted Smith’s response, but I do respect a man for defending his queen, especially under the circumstances. Recall, if you will, that Rock made a joke at Jada’s expense when the Smiths announced they were boycotting’ an Oscars telecast that Rock was hosting amid the fallout of #OscarsSoWhite.

I have to be honest, I’m just glad that both Smith and Rock are Black, because if either one was white, this would probably be turned into a racial thing, and thank God that it didn’t. It did, however, prompt the Academy to tweet that “it does not condone violence of any form,” even though the organization did make the decision to allow Smith to remain at the Dolby for the presentation of the Best Actor award rather than remove him from the premises. That decision may have been at Rock’s behest, as the comedian declined to press charges when given the opportunity to do so by the LAPD. Can you imagine if Smith had been walked off in handcuffs either before, during, or immediately after his emotionally-charged speech, which had some drama of its own!

Oscars producer Will Packer had reunited Pulp Fiction stars John TravoltaUma Thurman, and Samuel L. Jackson to give out Best Actor, removing the envelope from the glowing briefcase that fans of the film have spent years theorizing about. It was a fun bit that succeeded in making you forget about The Slap for about a minute before Smith took the stage again to give the world’s most anticipated acceptance speech ever.

Thus, I was left bewildered when the director of the telecast cut away from Smith in the middle of his raw, real, and frankly incredible speech. One person I sat next to wondered if it was because he had snot all over his face from crying, and they didn’t want to embarrass the guy. But no… the real reason is that Venus Williams’ dress was revealing her left nipple (we’ve seen the photo). Yes, another #Nipplegate after Janet Jackson, folks. Live. On the Oscars. Minutes after Will Smith assaulted Chris Rock. 

As Packer tweeted, “Welp… I said it wouldn’t be boring #Oscars”

Smith’s open-handed uppercut also undercut the ensuing awards, from Questlove’s Best Documentary win for his documentary Summer of Soul to Jessica Chastain’s Best Actress win for The Eyes of Tammy Faye. I was fortunate enough to watch the Oscars with a group of friends this year and everyone was still digesting what happened during those pretty big wins.

Both Questlove and Chastain were definitely the frontrunners heading into the night, but I was surprised how the Academy really embraced “chalk” across the board. There were just very few surprises among the winners, so yeah, without The Slap and #Nipplegate: The Sequel, it might’ve been seen as a very boring Oscars… even though it wasn’t!

OK, so CODA may not be the sexiest Best Picture winner ever, but I loved it, and it made all kinds of history on Sunday night and its three wins were well deserved. Troy Kotsur became the first deaf male actor to win an Oscar, the film became the first Best Picture winner led by a mostly-deaf cast, and its big win also made Apple the first streaming service to win the Academy’s top prize — just two and a half short years into its existence, whereas Netflix entered the evening with 12 nominations alone just for The Power of the Dog, but walked away with only a single Oscar for Best Director.

Indeed, Jane Campion made history of her own, becoming just the third woman to win Best Director following Kathryn Bigelow and Chloe Zhao. Many thought that The Power of the Dog was a lock to win Best Picture just a few weeks ago because CODA wasn’t nominated for Best Director or Best Editing, but again, its win tonight proved that such statistical markers are increasingly irrelevant.

As for the show itself, hosts Regina HallAmy Schumer, and Wanda Sykes were pretty good, I thought. Schumer’s monologue featured some killer jokes, while Hall had a fun moment onstage with a bunch of hunky leading men, and I enjoyed the bit featuring the three of them dressed up as Tammy Faye Bakker, Spider-Man, and Richard Williams, respectively.

Of course, the show also went on for roughly three-and-a-half hours — way beyond the three hours that ABC had budgeted, so in the end, what exactly was the point of booting those eight categories off the live broadcast? Why incur a month of terrible PR to save yourself a few minutes? And why not just announce all eight of those awards at once in a satisfying montage rather than sprinkle them throughout the night, killing whatever momentum the ceremony had been building to that point.

The Oscars were building, building, building momentum towards Best Actress and Best Picture, and then it’s like — screech!!! — and here’s the award for Best Production Design that we gave out three hours ago. Who’s idea was this? And don’t even get me started on the gospel choir singing and dancing through the In Memoriam, which seemed fairly disrespectful to me. 

This may not have been how the Academy drew it up, but everyone is talking about the Oscars tonight. Everyone. It wasn’t Lee Harvey Oswald getting shot, but The Slap is one of the craziest things ever seen on live television. Like the La La Land-Moonlight gaffe, you can’t write drama like this. Though Academy President David Rubin and CEO Dawn Hudson shouldn’t let the door hit them on their way out. Good riddance to both of them, and anyone else who signed off on Twitter’s “Fan Favorite” and “Most Cheered Moment” awards, which respectively went to Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead and Zack Snyder’s Justice League, a movie that was willed into existence by its fans. Sensing a theme here?

While I hate that I’m not writing about CODA and how it proved that a movie with no box office to speak of can still win Best Picture, and that the sands of power are shifting beneath our feet in favor of our deep-pocketed streaming overlords, The Slap simply demanded our attention on Oscar night. It was a wake-up call as to how we treat other people, including celebrities, who are just as sensitive as the rest of us, if not more so. Smith clearly felt like he could do as he pleased on Sunday night, and while violence is never the answer, the fact is that if the Oscars weren’t entertaining this year, I don’t know what is.