Sure, he won. And the rest of us lost.
Just kidding. Last night was about one thing and one thing only, thanks to Will Smith‘s hand. Or more accurately, his impulse control: After weeks if not months of lead-up, the actor’s win was all but guaranteed; he had to have known when he walked into the Dolby Theater last night in Los Angeles that he was almost certainly walking out with a statuette for his lead performance in the very enjoyable biopic King Richard as the devoted, irascible father of two future tennis greats.
But the prospect of that triumph didn’t sufficiently thrill him, apparently. (Though he would more than claim his time once he got to the podium). Smith is a famously likable star, genial and charming and generally unflappable, so when Chris Rock dropped an innocuous if not particularly timely joke about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith (G.I. Jane still lives somewhere on Roku, if you really want to find it), what happened next seemed at first like a planned skit or a technical glitch. Did ABC’s editing console just go dark?
Nope, it was the smack heard ’round the world, or at least on several continents with uninterrupted feeds. Smith had a prime seat in the room, as most Best Actor nominees would, though there were still a lot of steps from his chair to the stage. And at no part of that long walk did he seem to stop to reconsider his intent or the consequences of it. The result, of course, is that no one will speak again of the 2022 Oscars ceremony, or of any Oscars at all, without talking about The Slap.
And that’s a disservice to a lot of people, including pretty much everyone who won last night, from the recipients of eight awards that were relegated to a pre-show taping (for Sound, Editing, and Score, among other things that, you know, movies are made of), to the final prize of the night, for the gentle family drama CODA. Ariana DeBose and Jessica Chastain and Jane Campion and Questlove and Troy Kotsur and Kenneth Branagh all gave lovely and moving and memorable speeches. But is anyone lingering on those wins today, or even Timotheé Chalamet’s poor, cold clavicles?
Hardly, because Smith chose to take a joke that may or may not have been in poor taste — if we’re really grading this on the full scale of questionable awards-show humor, Ricky Gervais somehow still walks among us unscathed — and respond in a way that would have felt laughably extra even on a telenovela. In a year where movies were being honored for taking on toxic masculinity (The Power of the Dog), man’s inhumanity to man (Dune, West Side Story, Belfast), and empathy in the face of otherness (CODA, The Eyes of Tammy Faye), Smith came in like an agent of chaos and dropped his open-palmed bomb.
It’s true he apologized, in a teary, rambling, and often bizarrely self-aggrandizing speech. (Do rivers hit people? Asking for a friend). And the Academy has just announced a formal review of the incident, “in accordance with our Bylaws, Standards of Conduct and California law.” Still, it seems impossible to imagine this incident won’t have a chilling effect on future awards shows — or on any comedian or presenter, for that matter, who wants to push or even mildly prod the limits of what constitutes “acceptable” roasting, if it all might end in aggravated assault.
There’s a sour pall in that, and a lesson too in how easy it is to let your id (and fists) fly free and not be held accountable, as long as you’re a movie star. By making the moment — and thus the ceremony, if not the entire internet — about himself, Smith didn’t just dishonor his fellow winners and nominees; he trashed the idea of a show meant to thrill, madden, and, yes, sometimes bore us in equal measure. Even Richard Williams knew that you can disagree with the ref and have your histrionics on the court. But the crass, overriding ego trip we saw last night? That’s no way to play the game.