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Column: The last word on the Will Smith-Chris Rock incident at the Oscars

Cairns on Cinema - John Cairns believes the Will Smith slap incident at the Oscars was for real, not fake
movies Red cinema velvet seats with
The Oscar show didn’t go quite as expected on Sunday night.

NORTH BATTLEFORD ‑ Well, I was all set to do a big column this week about the big announcement of an additional $8 million in the provincial budget for Creative Saskatchewan. I was all set to say how this was a great step forward for the creative industries in this province and so on.

Unfortunately, that idea goes straight to the trash heap. In its place will be yet another autopsy of yet another embarrassing Oscar show, one in which all-out war broke out onstage.

Everyone is talking about Will Smith’s infamous altercation with comedian Chris Rock, after Rock made a joke about his wife Jada Pinkett Smith. Around these parts, people seem to be wondering: was it real? Was it fake? I will spend this column dissecting what happened.

I should start with a few comments about what an overall dumpster fire of a night this was. The train wreck started even before the show went on the air.

As usual you had the red-carpet arrivals of the celebrities, which attracted the usual attention from fashion-obsessed reporters. 

It didn’t take long for one of the celebrities to make a big, internet-busting fashion statement. Oscar-nominated Best Actress contender Kristen Stewart showed up on the red carpet in an outfit that broke all the Oscar fashion rules. She was wearing… shorts. Not a dress. Not a gown. Short shorts.

This was surely a sign that this Oscar night was going to get bizarre, really fast.

While the red-carpet arrivals were getting attention on TV, the Oscar presentations had already started. The academy was presenting awards in categories like film editing, production design, sound, makeup and hairstyling, original score and other categories. These were presented off-air in a bid to shorten the length of the Oscar telecast for the bored viewers at home, with the presentations taped and spliced into the main show later on.

Word was leaking out about the winners on Twitter while ABC was showing their red-carpet coverage. (The movie Dune cleaned up with these awards.) Bottom line is a lot of people were really offended. Instead of enjoying their moment in the sun live on TV, these hard-working rank-and-file film artists were being pre-empted by inane celebrity fashion nonsense.

It takes some doing to mess up an awards show before it even began, but the Academy managed.

Then the Oscar show began, and I understand it went downhill from there. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, I couldn’t tune in to much of it. 

It turned out the Oscars were up against the important Battlefords North Stars SJHL playoff game in progress. Instead of concentrating on the awards show, I had to write a story about the North Stars hockey season going down the tubes in Flin Flon. 

Bottom line is I had to concentrate on posting the bad news about the North Stars online for all of our local sports fans. As I was doing this, the Oscars were busy staging their own imitation of a hockey game, complete with fighting and trash talking. 

I didn’t see the incident live. Instead, I learned about it after the fact on Twitter.

When I first saw the footage, my initial thought was that it was an act. Maybe not “staged” per se, but one of those crazy, spontaneous, outrageous acts that are typical of the Oscar show — like the time when that naked guy was running around on stage behind David Niven. Or when Jack Palance was doing push-ups. You get the idea.

What happened was that Chris Rock went up on stage to present an award, and he was cracking jokes. He then made what seemed like a throwaway crack onstage about Jada Pinkett Smith. “Jada, I love ya. G.I.Jane II, can’t wait to see it.”

Then, after initially laughing at this, Will Smith gets up, walks across the stage, and appears to slap Rock in the face.

At this point, it really does seem like this is “schtick,” which would explain Rock’s initial reaction and body language on stage. He didn’t seem to give an inch when he was hit. I think maybe his thought, as mine was, was that Will was feigning offence, going along with the gag.

But then, according to the uncensored footage I saw, Smith sits down and starts yelling at Rock, and it didn’t sound like a guy who was in a comedic mood. 

“Keep my wife’s name out of your f—king mouth!!” 

Rock responded by saying “wow, dude, it was a G.I. Jane joke,” to which Smith yelled again at the top of his lungs: “Keep my wife’s name out of your f—king mouth!!” 

“I’m going to, OK?”

At that point, dead silence in the hall. Rock looks stunned. 

By this point, this exchange looked too heated to be “schtick” to me. To the contrary, Will Smith truly looked offended at Rock’s “joke.” He looked like he wanted to kill him. It was scary. 

To me, any doubt was erased when footage leaked about what happened next during the commercial break. Smith looked visibly upset as he was consoled by Denzel Washington and Tyler Perry. That’s not a reaction typical of someone who is in on the joke.

At this point, I thought this was over. It wasn’t. 

To make a wild night even wilder, Smith wins Best Actor for his role in King Richard, the biopic about the father of tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams. 

So, Smith has to go up there to accept his Oscar for what ought to be the greatest moment of his entire career in Hollywood, and he is clearly an utter mess. He talks about how Richard Williams “was a fierce defender of his family — "I am overwhelmed by what God is calling me to do and be. I’m being called on to love people and to protect people … I know you have to be able to take abuse …” 

And I am looking at this and going what the heck?! Smith is then apologizing to “the Academy” and to his “fellow nominees.” And he also recounted what Denzel told him during the break: “At your highest moment the devil will come for you.”

Oh my God!

Anyway, after Smith’s thoroughly messed-up acceptance speech, I could only conclude that the incident with Chris Rock was not “staged,” it was not “fake.” What transpired was an incident that initially seemed to play out like your typical spontaneous Oscar moment. Except, it became obvious Smith was dead serious and genuinely offended by Rock’s comment, and it turned into “spontaneous combustion.”

If it really was a manufactured stunt to help create internet buzz about the Oscars, they could have done a better job about it. This incident went down like a lead balloon. People are thoroughly offended by the whole thing — by the joke, by Smith’s unhinged reaction and by his acceptance speech afterwards with his talk about “love” and other platitudes. What garbage! If this was all a set-up, it fell completely flat with everyone, which is another reason I’m convinced it wasn’t a stunt.

Besides, if it was a stunt, the academy wouldn't be wasting their time investigating the incident, as they are doing now, 

A reason cited by people for why Smith went off like he did was because his wife suffers from alopecia, a hair-loss condition. So, Rock’s joke must have hit too close to home for Smith. Or maybe it was all that built-up stress from two years of COVID-19 division and infighting that finally caught up with him and everyone else in Hollywood, and it all spilled out onstage.

In one sense, you can’t blame Smith for sticking up for his wife, but there were better ways to do it. He could have just stayed in his seat and shouted at Rock, or given him the finger or something. Or he and Jada could have both walked out of the Oscars. It would have been a more dignified response.

As for Rock, I surely believe he didn’t realize Jada had alopecia, and thought he was just making a silly G.I. Jane movie joke. Unfortunately for Rock, not only did the joke bomb, but he blew himself up. The Oscars are notorious for being a minefield for comedians who attempt to be funny in front of probably the most uptight audience you will ever find. On this night, Rock stepped into it big-time. He will surely never be allowed back at the Oscars again in any capacity whatsoever. 

Certainly, the Oscar show was not boring this year, for a change. This incident surely made waves for an Academy Awards telecast that has been declining in interest and relevance for years. But, unfortunately, the interest generated was only for the most trainwreck of reasons, which is no way to grow the show. 

I notice John Gormley suggested on the radio that perhaps the incident was the “slap that saved the Oscars.” I wouldn’t be so sure about that, because the Twitter reaction has been absolutely negative. The pundits thought this entire show was a debacle. 

Robert Daniels, film critic: “This was one of the worst Oscars (if not the worst) in its history. Everything was disgraceful, top to bottom: the creative decisions, the bits, the tasteless in memoriam, the production and editing.”

Scott Mendelson, Forbes: “All due respect to winners and presenters, but this year's #Oscars was a near-total disgrace in almost every conceivable way. Patronizing and unprofessional to an unimaginable degree, it's an embarrassment to those who argue awards should matter, that movies should matter. Shameful.”

Christy Lemire, film critic: “Even a feel-good moment like #CODA winning best picture can't wash away the lingering weirdness of what we witnessed tonight.”

I could go on and on about the rest of this bizarre evening, like the upbeat music during the in memoriam segment as one example. But this column is getting to be longer than the Oscar show itself, so it’s time to wrap it up.