The 94and The Oscars, which wrapped up last Sunday night, left just about everyone who watched it baffled, whether they were part of the elite crowd inside the Academy’s return to the Dolby Theater or, like all of us, collapsed on the couch.
Either way, this year’s Oscars party will forever be known as Not the Triumph of the Will.
It’s a sad truth that something improvised on live television has captivated us more than the hard work and millions of hours put into the entire field of nominated cinematic art, even though the nominees of 2021 ended up being, even though I thought there were one -the nominated films that I liked better than the nominees. But here it is: Will Smith acted impulsively and flipped the script. We saw him realize that he had hurt the person he loved the most: himself. Whatever is going on inside this head, this house, he opened a hole and fell in. It was clear to everyone in the room, and to the 16 million people watching ABC compared to 9 million last year, the lowest on record, that Smith was not in control of his instrument.
Like most of you who have seen The Slap, it was hard to fathom: Whoa, what was it? Those 30 seconds of free fall on TV rarely happen in movies. The DNA of the film is illusion; The Slap looked like another trick in the long history of pieces for breathing air into Oscar’s corpse. It wasn’t until the audio delay beeped Chris Rock, then Smith, and the camera had time to catch the faces inside the Dolby Theater that it sank: we were watching TV in live, and anything it wasn’t in the script.
Smith did not physically break Rock. If Smith had done anything else — a frozen smile and dead eyes usually work — Rock might have taken a few bits for tasteless and been forgotten. Rock saved his reputation from a tough place with a demonstration of what Hemingway said about courage: grace under pressure.
Granted, Smith hurt the Academy, which badly needed a win. Like Major League Baseball, the Academy is tasked with supporting an underlying business with gimmicks to salvage what franchise owners have exploited to dehydration. Reeling from accusations of whiteism, the Academy opened its doors and doubled its membership. Abandoning character stories for superheroes, the major corporations that endorse the Academy have gone all Spiderman, Batman, and Dune, at best, and shoved their movies out of consideration for anything but technical awards. So they doubled down on Best Picture nominations in hopes of securing a major nomination for the bizarre blockbuster.
It was maddening to the company that on the way up, before becoming an outcast, the spiritual heir to the founding immigrant filmmakers, Harvey Weinstein, hijacked the company with reasonably well-made character stories. It’s a little more nuanced than that – you can argue that the late Miramax recreated the A-Pictures, the ones made for prestige more than money, which the studios made themselves. It is not for the Academy to fix, but to reward and exploit, and so it has built a museum (by definition a monument to the past) which also opened in 2021 to scandal.
The Academy found itself in near insolvency with cost overruns for the Museum, then opened without mentioning the Jews who built the industry. Whatever god of social currency the Academy was in thrall to, it missed the only lesson in film history worth learning: a class of social outcasts cast out because of its nose, of his hair, of his appearance, of his flavored English of banks, finance, insurance, transport, energy, aviation, government, all corporate life – the central institutions of 20and Century America – persevered to harness ingenuity, earn money and rise to power. With the movies. This is what the film industry is a monument to. That’s why their logos were spotlights and drums, a woman with a torch, a roaring lion. If nothing else, the recovery of the damaged Academy was on the line when Will Smith walked up and slapped Chris Rock.
In what amounted to an insertion shot, Smith blew up a career that in its early days still didn’t believe black people could “carry an image,” meaning making money from star power. black. After Sidney Poitier in the 60s, then later Denzel, Sam Jackson, Morgan Freeman and Spike Lee on the male side and especially Hallie Berry, Alfre Woodard, Cicely Tyson, Whoopi, Oprah, Pam Grier and Jada Pinkett Smith herself on the side female, the new black stars of the 90s transformed the race cinema of the 30s and 40s into mainstream cinema by doing the right thing. As recently as the mid-1980s, it seemed impossible.
Now, at the age of calling the male rage, he’s Will the Wildman. Its way back, if there is one, comes down to risk analysis. He must convince the producers that the public will always come to see him. Even before that, producers will be calculating not only if he killed his bankability and their investment, but if he could leave on set: Keep my – fill in the blank – out of your mouth! Keep my – fill in the blank – out of your bleepin’ mouth!! Will Will shout it out to a co-star? A cameraman? The producer herself? A production assistant? Suddenly, Will Smith at 53 is no longer the Fresh Prince of Bel Air full of Just Like You. Now he’s just like a man.
At least he also damaged the Academy. You’d think they know, but after the Museum debacle and the fundamental mismanagement of what Best means, I have no idea what they know. Before the Academy decided what to do, Smith resigned. Will Smith’s sad legacy now is that he’s the first Oscar winner to climb the mountain and jump off it, all in the same night.
I hope the Academy will know not to strip Will Smith of his Oscar. He won it by a vote of his peers, though the whole Oscars process has been marred by campaign spending like there’s no tomorrow – as it increasingly looks like there’s no there may not be. He could end up like Pete Rose or Louis CK or Woody Allen, like Guess Who’s Not Coming to Dinner. And here’s the thing: As the Oscars approached, Smith did what I’ve been wanting to do all week, watching the pygmy senators on my kitchen TV accuse Federal Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson of being a pornographer. juvenile with a transgender agenda. Only Will did it in front of 16 million people watching Hollywood gloat and holding their collective breath that what they saw was just another stupid Oscar prank. This was not the case. No chance.
Think of the bullet that was dodged. Had Chris Rock insulted Maggie Gyllenhall, who landed a writing nomination for The Lost Daughter, for continuing New York cinema’s long family tradition of being an ugly mother just like her mother (screenwriter Naomi Foner) and turning it into a stunning dress to wear to the Oscars. It could have been Jake Gyllenhaal, who slapped Rock. Think about what that After Party might have looked like.