Well, that was one hell of an Oscars show, wasn’t it? Plenty of talented people, lots of diversity, and of course the usual gowns and jewels on the red carpet. But all that was overshadowed when Will Smith walked on stage, slapped Chris Rock and then let off some F-bombs.
It was a shocking moment, and at first, I thought it had been staged, but Rock was clearly rattled, and when Smith returned to his seat and yelled, it was clear this was no stunt.
The puzzling thing is there is footage showing Smith laughing while Rock made the jokes. That same footage shows Jada Pinkett Smith stony-faced, and raising her eyebrows. She clearly did not appreciate the joke.
Moments later, his demeanour changed, Smith left his seat and assaulted Rock. So, between laughing at the joke, and walking on stage, something appears to have happened. Did he notice his wife’s reaction? Did she say something to him?
Whatever it was, Will Smith broke the rules Hollywood sets for itself.
Smith has been in the public eye since he was a teenager. He knows the business, and has made a lot of money from it. He is a great actor, capable of performing a spectrum of roles. With the exception of After Earth, I have loved everything I have watched him in.
He knows about PR, image, and public opinion. The Academy Awards are the biggest event in show business globally. The entire Oscars universe is about putting on a show, a smile, and continuing with the charade.
You don’t say ‘fuck’ at the Oscars, and you certainly don’t get up on stage and slap a presenter, no matter what the provocation.
Everyone knows the rule. The jokes may be crass, they may at times be cruel, but they are part of the environment, and what participants do is put on a false smile, laugh, or an expression of faux shock.
Maybe, just maybe, what Will Smith has done is brought out the humanity that has been missing from these awards shows.
Behind the tinsel, the fake tans, and the outrageous displays of wealth, are real people. They may be famous, influential, and seemingly full of ego, but ego often masks fragility. And I suspect the Hollywood community is probably one of the most fragile sets of people on the planet.
Most of us have been brought up with the notion that we must ‘turn the other cheek,’ when insulted. We all remember that age-old chant that begins with “sticks and stones…” Yet, as we see, words do hurt us. They cause more problems than we care to admit.
The Oscars are supposed to be about honouring talent and exceptional creativity. But not everyone has had an equal chance to win one. Due to constant and justified claims around how ‘white’ the ceremony has been, the Academy is making an effort to make them more diverse, and this year it certainly looked that way.
The awards have changed as time has passed. Years ago, the Academy Awards dropped the words ‘and the winner is,’ because they wanted to be ‘kinder’.
Yet over the years, the show has become more and more about getting a laugh by airing the dirty laundry or making fun of people’s foibles and darker moments. There is a weird dichotomy where people are simultaneously celebrated, but also torn down.
It’s never really bothered me before.
Sure I’ve cringed sometimes when I’ve witnessed jokes, but, probably like a lot of people, I’ve just thought that all of that goes with the territory.
But we need to remember that comedy can be toxic. Acts that highlight people’s weaknesses, or physicality are hilarious if ‘you’ aren’t the butt of those jokes. But they can be deeply hurtful if you are the one at the receiving end.
Trust me, I am not condoning Will Smith’s behaviour. It was unquestionably appalling, and today, he has had the good sense to apologise. Having respected him as a performer for a long time, I am truly shocked that reacted the way he did.
But something is going on in his head, and that something may be making him very vulnerable right now.
Whatever motivated his bad behaviour, for me, it highlighted the fundamental tension within the Academy Awards between making fun of people and honouring their achievements.
There is a place for comedy at award ceremonies, and it is a certainty that in the future, people in the public eye will continue to be mocked. But, if the Academy Awards genuinely want to be ‘kinder’ and more diverse, maybe they need to look carefully at how they run the show. Otherwise, the notion that the awards are about honouring the best will just be another piece of Hollywood fiction.