If you could freeze-frame the exact moment that Hollywood reached its long-awaited descent into chaos, it would be time-stamped 10:26 p.m. ET Sunday March 27, when Will Smith smacked Chris Rock onstage at the 94th Academy Awards.
Delivered seemingly as revenge for Rock’s joke about wife Jada Pinkett Smith looking ready to star in “GI Jane 2″ (a reference to the actress’s bald appearance, which is apparently a result of her alopecia), the blow was the kind of jaw-dropping moment that unintentionally crystallizes an inflection point in the film industry’s trajectory. Heading into Sunday evening, there was a certain unspeakable dread hanging in the air: record-low ratings forcing producers to adopt desperate tricks to lure younger viewers, streamers taking the top nominations over traditional studios, COVID-19 having moved on from keeping audiences away from theatres to keeping Oscar nominees away from the gala. Smith’s shocking assault, his subsequent tear-filled acceptance speech/justification rant and the room’s confused reaction to the whole fracas pushed the underlying anxiety over into total discombobulation.
It is hard to even recall what happened after the historical blow (it wouldn’t be fair to say it was the slap heard ‘round the world, as ABC and Canadian partner CTV muted much of the aftermath, including Rock telling the audience Smith “smacked” him (but he included an expletive). Smith countered with an expletive of his own, telling Rock to keep his wife’s name out of his mouth. But a lot of other headline-worthy events did indeed happen – industry-rewiring moments that will linger just as long, or longer, than any on-stage melee.
For starters, the streaming wars are now over, and traditional Hollywood has lost on the prestige battlefield. Coda’s Best Picture win for Apple TV+ might seem like a forgivable, forgettable Academy misstep – a veer toward feel-good entertainment in a pandemic era absent of any such sentiment – but it also signals a massive shift in the industry’s power fault lines. (Not a little of which involves Netflix’s embarrassing failure to net more than one Oscar despite its many years and millions of dollars in trying to prove itself.)
And then there is whatever we’re to make of Jessica Chastain’s Best Actress speech, which vaguely evoked the Ukraine conflict, but also the pandemic, but also domestic hate crimes, but also … listen, it was a lot. And symbolic, however unintentionally, of Hollywood’s confused standing in the zeitgeist.
Should we be looking to the Academy Awards as the arbiter of culture, or the head-in-the-sand outlier? What does it say when the Academy decides to try its hardest to stop itself from honouring its own members, as it did on Sunday night when it awarded off-air and edited down acceptance speeches for such less glitzy categories as Best Editing and Best Sound? And then there is the pandemic of it all, a calamity half-joked about in various but equally embarrassing ways (turning Regina Hall into a man-eater is one approach, certainly). Like last year, but on such a larger, more cringe-inducing scale, audiences were ignored or treated as a mere nuisance.
And then there was The Smack – a something-snaps moment to rival Thanos (or The Flash’s entrance into the speed portal or whatever, to continue with the Academy’s eye-rolling capitulation to Zack Snyder’s army of online fans/cyber-bullies). It was confusing, hostile, toxic, ugly and immediately incomprehensible. Much like the current mess that the Oscars – and by extension the rest of Hollywood – finds itself in the morning after. I have no remote idea what the next step forward is, but I can recognize that Sunday night’s gala was a giant leap backward.
That said: No one can accuse the 2022 Academy Awards of being boring. Only infuriating, and more than a little sad.
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