VICIOUS and viral has it become: this footage of Will Smith walking so slowly and calmly up the stage of the Dolby Theatre in California and slapping Chris Rock, a presenter at the 94th Academy Awards, known as the Oscars.
The world was watching when it happened—after all, for Hollywood, the Oscars honors the world. This is of course debatable. Except for the Best Foreign Language Film, which has now become the Best International Feature Film, the show is US-based and targets basically a clear American audience, politics and aesthetic all. If ever there is a comparison to how international this awards ceremony is, think of a classroom in the US where every now and then three or four individuals coming from different ethnic backgrounds and speaking in American English are present.
But that is not what people are talking about. The millions who watched the proceedings remain aghast at the sense of daring—and also arrogance—of an actor to slap a fellow actor just because the joke was delivered at the expense of the former’s wife. “Keep my wife’s name out your f&@$ing mouth!” The actor delivered it twice, perhaps to drive home the point that this was not some rehearsed gimmick as, by this time, many in the audience were still laughing loudly.
How did the world react?
The many bits of news speak for themselves. “Will Smith hits Chris Rock on Oscars stage,” from BBC. “Will Smith Smacks Chris Rock at Oscars,” according to Variety. “Will Smith Strikes Chris Rock [and Then Wins an Oscar],” this from the Wall Street Journal.
The vloggers have been more direct and detailed in their appraisal of the fiasco. There seems to be an agreement that the slapping or punching act overshadowed all the other spotlight moments, including the winning of Will Smith for King Richard, and the selection of CODA, with its all-deaf cast, as winner for Best Picture. Many praised Chris Rock for staying so cool that he even went on to integrate Smith’s act into his spiel.
Were there options for Smith? Well, many vloggers said that he could have pushed Rock away, grabbed a microphone and lambasted the comedian. That would have been more humiliating for Rock and could have added a bit of class to the actor’s rage. But we forget—this is Hollywood!
The Oscars, of course, has known many scandals before, some conflicts direct and physical, some symbolic and ideological.
Remember the 1974 Oscars, when a man streaked his way past behind David Niven? Streaking was a fad in those years when individuals would run in the buff out in public. True to fashion, Niven gleamed and beamed and delivered a commentary: “Isn’t it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?”
Or, the time Marlon Brando refused to receive the award in 1973 for Best Actor for his role in The Godfather? In his absence, Brando sent Sacheen Littlefeather to read a letter of refusal stating his reason as his way of protesting America’s treatment of Native Americans.
Each year and for many years, the problem of representation has remained a crisis for those who are part of the guilds in the academy. Each year, the host or emcee never forgets this political aspect of the Oscars. Each year, the politics of the land and the world are part of the Oscars landscape.
At the center of the politics and economics stands the host. The greatest in my list is Whoopi Goldberg, who described herself as having been chosen for the job because she has crossed ethnic and political lines. Her entrances were always grand, comic but also a mastery in self-effacement. Each year, she satirizes the propensity of showbiz denizens to wear not one but multiple ribbons to signify their embrace of issues. In one of these appearances, she mockingly scolds the audience how no black woman wearing an expensive gown would ever be caught with ribbons to cover such an allure.
Goldberg used everyone from Jesse Jackson to Pat Buchanan, who she described as the “original boy in the hood” (reference: Ku Klux Klan). On the spot, she saw in one of the awards night the “Smith family,” as she marched to the side of the stage closer to where Will and Jada Smith were seated with Maggie Smith.
Goldberg spared no one. One time, referring to the campaigning common among nominees and their producers, she described the scenario as “throwing so much mud around that all nominees looked black.” Then the camera panned to Denzel Washington who fidgeted with his cuffs.
The words of Goldberg as host teeter on the edge of political incorrectness even as she maintains the most sublime of a comic role: to make fun of the world, to satirize society by way of wit and not by force or weapon. To do otherwise is to live in the world of thugs and violent human beings.
What’s my stand? Very simple and very clear: Hollywood is not the world.
Immediately after the incident, which is expected to ramp up the already flagging audience for the Oscars, the analysis of what happened came streaming in. Especially spot-on was the condemnation of toxic masculinity prevalent in any domain with business affixed to it, including show business.
Observers maintain also how the Rock/Smith act hijacked the golden moments of the golden evening. But, hey, the whole business has been hijacked a long time ago, when the Red Carpet became more important than other categories. Or have you not heard of the other issue—how the executive committee, in order to maintain more viewing hours, decided to shorten the live segment by removing eight categories out of this year’s TV program? This includes Best Documentary Short Subject, Best Original Score and Best Production Design.
Now, rant away.