Going into the 94th Academy Awards, the conversation was dominated by the radical changes that had been made to the show in the name of boosting its plummeting ratings, the result of heavy pressure from ABC to create a broadcast that would draw in younger audiences and create viral moments.
Well, no one is talking about relegating Best Sound to the pre-show now. And the viral moment? Maybe next time, don’t wish for it on a monkey’s paw.
As the most prominent supercouple in the room, Will and Jada Pinkett Smith had already been joked about several times by the time Chris Rock stepped up to present Best Documentary Feature.* But there’s a difference between being the subject of a joke and being the butt of a joke, and Rock stepped over the line between them when he made a crack about Jada looking like she was preparing for a role in G.I. Jane 2. (In addition to being miscalculated, the gag was also awfully dusty: The original G.I. Jane, in which Demi Moore shaves her head and gets jacked to join the military, came out in 1997.) Pinkett Smith went public in 2018 with the fact that she has the hair-loss condition alopecia, and her reaction to Rock was one you don’t often see at the Oscars, where being razzed by the presenters is accepted as one of the costs of fame, even one of its proofs. I kept waiting for her to drop the stern look and reveal she was just getting Rock back, messing with him the way he messed with her—and the broadcast seemed to anticipate that too, lingering on her for an uncomfortably long time before it cut back to Rock onstage.
Rock took it in stride. The audience was laughing, after all, and even Will seemed to be—but Jada was not amused. So Rock carried on with his routine, and when Smith got out of his seat and started striding toward him, Rock responded with an exaggerated “uh-oh!” like a class clown who sees the teacher headed his way. But Smith wasn’t playing along. He stalked right up to Rock and slapped him across the face.
“Will Smith just smacked the shit out of me,” Rock said.
What happened after that was chaos. The sound went dead for close to a minute—longer even than the broadcast’s moment of silence for Ukraine—but what Smith was shouting at Rock was clear enough: “Keep my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth.” (Clips from countries where the broadcast wasn’t bleeped quickly circulated on Twitter and confirmed he said it, twice.)
With a seasoned comedian’s instinct for righting the ship—although no joke in the history of the Oscars has ever gone quite this wrong—Rock quipped, “That was the greatest night in the history of television,” and returned to his presenter’s copy. But I doubt either he or anyone watching was processing the words coming out of his mouth. Eventually, he awarded an Oscar to Summer of Soul’s Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. The broadcast, however, never got back on its feet. Thompson couldn’t even get through his speech, attempting to tell an emotional story about his father and eventually conceding that he’d have to thank everyone in the press room backstage. A few minutes later, Sean Combs was onstage trying to make peace: “Will and Chris, we’re gonna solve that like family at the Gold Party.” The Smiths were back in the pocket now, laughing and clapping appreciatively as Will readied himself for the almost certain Best Actor win he’d been waiting 20 years for.
At that moment, it seemed like Will Smith might just carry on with business as planned. But during the commercial breaks, journalists in the theater’s upper levels saw Smith huddling with his publicist and Denzel Washington, among others, and by the time his name was finally called, he’d realized there was no separating his violent outburst from his moment of triumph.
“Richard Williams,” Smith began, “was a fierce defender of his family.” In King Richard, the movie that won him that Oscar, Smith plays the father of Venus and Serena Williams as a determined but fundamentally humble man, one whose main strength is his ability to endure. When gang members threaten his life for teaching his daughters to play tennis on a court in their territory, he keeps his head down and takes the beating they give him. “I know to do what we do you’ve got to be able to take abuse,” Smith said later in his speech. “You’ve got to be able to have people talk crazy about you. In this business, you’ve got to be able to have people disrespecting you. And you’ve got to smile and pretend like that’s OK.”
But the real Williams is a more confrontational figure, polarizing in a way that Smith has never been—at least until last night. Perhaps he’d simply had enough crazy talk, although co-host Regina Hall’s joke about the Smiths having an open marriage seemed to go down without a hitch. Perhaps it was the humiliation of not anticipating his own wife’s reaction, of feeling ashamed for thinking Rock’s joke was OK, and then suddenly realizing it wasn’t. Smith talked about his desire to be “an ambassador of … love and care and concern.” He felt contrite, or at least self-aware enough, to apologize to the Academy, and “to all of my fellow nominees.” And he joked that he hopes he’s invited back next year. But he didn’t apologize to Chris Rock, and he barely mentioned his wife.
It was the messiest moment in an Oscars that, for all the attempts to streamline the show, was messier than ever. (They couldn’t even keep it to the promised three hours, running longer than last year’s broadcast, which cut zero awards and aired all the speeches in full.) There were tremendously moving moments, like the acceptance speeches from West Side Story’s Ariana DeBose, who noted that she was the first openly queer person to accept an acting award, and CODA’s Troy Kotsur, who dedicated his win to the Deaf community. But The Slap is all anyone will be talking about—and for better or worse, it may be the reason they’ll be watching next year.
Correction, March 28, 2022: This post originally misstated that Beyoncé attended the Oscars alone. That reference has been removed.