Violent slap upstages historic wins at Oscars

Kelly Feng, Opinion Editor

Like most people in the country, I was lukewarm about watching the Academy Awards. Now in its 94th year, the production is an endless re-run of lavish musical numbers, self-referential speeches and a revolving door of hosts. Two possible awards kept me glued to the television: the prospect of Jane Campion winning her first directing Oscar for “The Power of the Dog,” and the chance of the first-ever streaming movie, “CODA”  winning Best Picture.  

The evening began with the three-person monologue performed by Amy Schumer, Regina Hall and Wanda Sykes, individually enthusiastic but lacking group chemistry. The producers felt three hosts would work better than a single host. With the best of intentions, the first hour and a half offered promise, but as the clock ticked on,  the Oscars began to exhibit the same problems as telecasts in the past.  

One main blunder was to shunt eight categories out of the main telecast, presenting them before the main event and later broadcasting trimmed-down versions. The decision made no difference in the length of the show, and worse, it insulted the artisans. What’s the point of the Academy Awards if we can’t honor all of the winners?  

But there were highlights in the first half, notably Beyoncé’s excellent rendition of “Be Alive” from “King Richard” coming straight from a Compton tennis court. Other standouts included Reba McEntire with “Somehow You Do” and Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell with “No Time to Die.” The marquee event, “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” probably came a little too late, nearly two hours into the broadcast after most people were either bored, getting a snack or sleeping.  

There were also a couple of tributes, first honoring the James Bond series. Apparently, the Academy had difficulty locating any of the living James Bonds to present the clips, choosing a skateboarder, a surfer and a snowboarder instead. The final tribute, paying respect to 50 years of “The Godfather,” was introduced by Francis Ford Coppola, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. There was little interaction among the trio, and it seemed like a cobbled afterthought.  

Still, there was nothing unusual about the glittering, if lackluster show, highlighted with inspiring speeches by Best Supporting Actor and Actress winners Troy Kotsur for “CODA” and Ariana DeBose for “West Side Story.” 

The evening took a different mood when Chris Rock stepped on stage. Rock delivered his usual ribbing of celebrities, joking about Javier Bardem and his wife Penelope Cruz as both Best Actor and Actress nominees, before turning his attention to Best Actor nominee Will Smith and wife Jada Pinkett Smith. Rock compared Pinkett Smith’s hair to the “G.I. Jane” film, where Demi Moore had shaved her head. For context, Pinkett Smith has alopecia and she has been open about it in the past. Whether Rock knew of her condition is unknown. Initially, Smith laughed at the joke, but only 15 seconds later, he is seen barreling onto the stage, where he suddenly slapped Rock.  

The “slap” clip has now been watched more than the “Zapruder” film, making it clear it was not a staged joke as most people first thought. Even when Rock exclaimed, “Will Smith just smacked the s— out of me,” the audience laughed. The “King Richard” star took his seat, then yelled, “Keep my wife’s name out of your f—— mouth!” When he uttered the same line the second time with increasing rage, Smith sent the astonished crowd into silence. Although shocked and baffled, Rock kept his composure and presented the documentary winner to “Summer Of Soul.” 

The sad thing about this slap is there was no way it could be an isolated event. Because it was so shocking, abrupt and unprecedented, the audience spent the rest of the broadcast processing it, unable to relish any historic wins. While millions took to Twitter, scrolling to make sure they weren’t hallucinating, Campion won the Best Director for “The Power of the Dog” and Jessica Chastain won Best Actress for “Eyes of Tammy Faye.” 

If the evening couldn’t get more bizarre, Smith won the Oscar for Best Actor for “King Richard.” His rambling and teary speech has been described as everything from “gaslighting” to a “pity party”, where he likened his violent behavior to the role of Richard Williams, saying, “Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family.” But the tennis family patriarch never struck anybody, and Smith’s speech only added fuel to the already disturbing fire.  

Completing the evening, “CODA” won the Oscar for Best Picture, not an unexpected win but a history-making one for being the first streaming movie to win an Academy Award. 

By then, few people were paying attention.