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An ugly moment makes the wrong kind of Oscars history

Will Smith slaps Chris Rock onstage during the 94th Oscars at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood.ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

There were highs, and, oh yes, there were lows. The emotional nadir of the Oscar telecast on Sunday night was the extremely tense moment between presenter Chris Rock and Will Smith.

After Rock joked about Jada Pinkett Smith’s short hair — “ ‘G.I. Jane 2,’ can’t wait to see it,” he said — Smith came up from the audience onto the stage, hit Rock, and then yelled at him. The microphones were cut, but Smith shouted, “Leave my wife’s name out of your [expletive] mouth”; Pinkett Smith has spoken publicly about her struggle with alopecia-related hair loss. It was an ugly moment, one that we will no doubt hear about in the coming days and — and, as these Oscar things go — years.


The room seemed to vibrate with shock even as Rock tried to regain his composure and continue with his presentation. “I did not know this was going to be the most exciting Oscars ever,” Sean Combs said a few minutes later. “Will and Chris, we’re going to solve that like family at the gold party, but right now we’re moving on with love.”

Note: The clip below includes profanity.

When Smith later won the Oscar for best actor, for his portrayal of Richard Williams in “King Richard,” he started his acceptance speech with, “Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family.” The double meaning was crystal clear. In tears as he spoke, Smith apologized to the Academy and his fellow nominees (but, notably, not to Rock) for his earlier behavior. He pointed out something Denzel Washington had just told him: “At your highest moment, be careful, that’s when the devil comes for you.”

Whew. Was there even an Oscars show before this ‘gate? Yes, there was, and it all began with Beyoncé.

The producers were smart enough to know that when you have Beyoncé, you deploy her properly. After a quick introduction from the stage of the Dolby Theatre by Venus and Serena Williams, the telecast opened with a cut to the singer performing her nominated song “Be Alive” in the Compton neighborhood where the Williams sisters started out. The backdrop was a bright lemon-lime green, and so were all the costumes; basically the Oscars opened inside a tennis ball with the Queen.


The emotional peak of the night had to be Troy Kotsur’s acceptance speech for his best supporting actor win, as the only deaf man to ever get an Oscar. He was greeted with clapping as well as the ASL version of applause, and he was both funny and poignant, remembering his father and giving a nod to Gloucester, where “CODA” was filmed. Even his interpreter seemed moved as he spoke for Kotsur.

Liza Minnelli’s appearance in a wheelchair to present the award for best picture with Lady Gaga was affecting, too. With Gaga sweetly tending to her, the fragile and flustered Minnelli, who hasn’t been making public appearances, was able to participate in celebration of the 50th anniversary of her “Cabaret” performance.

The trio of hosts, Amy Schumer, Wanda Sykes, and Regina Hall, worked surprisingly well throughout most of the night. They began together with some of the expected goof-on-Hollywood banter, and it wasn’t bad — which, as regular Oscar viewers know — is pretty darn good. They took swipes at “Being the Ricardos” and “Don’t Look Up,” there was a nice quip from Schumer that the Golden Globes would be featured in the night’s In Memoriam segment, and Florida took a slap for its “Don’t Say Gay” legislation.


Each of the three hosts also had her own bit between the awards presentations. Schumer fared well in her queasy-making way by pretending Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal were a couple and by praising Leonardo DiCaprio’s commitment to leaving a cleaner planet for his girlfriends. Hall tried her best with subpar material about putting the moves on Bradley Cooper, Tyler Perry, Timothée Chalamet, Josh Brolin, Jason Momoa, and a few other leading men. Fortunately, her likability survived intact.

The brief reunions were an added plus — Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, and Francis Ford Coppola of “The Godfather”; Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, and John Travolta of “Pulp Fiction”; Woody Harrelson, Wesley Snipes, and Rosie Perez of “White Men Can’t Jump”; and Elliot Page, Jennifer Garner, and J.K. Simmons of “Juno.” So was the cross-generational love between winner Ariana DeBose and Rita Moreno, both of whom took the supporting actress statue for playing Anita in “West Side Story,” decades apart. “I’m so grateful your Anita paved the way for tons of Anitas like me,” DeBose said, adding that she was proud to win as an openly queer woman of color.

The Oscar telecast faced particularly intense scrutiny this year. The Academy decided to present eight important categories, including sound and editing, before the live show, in a desperate effort to save time and stop the plunging ratings. So everything we saw was weighed against that controversial decision. A James Bond clip montage? Embarrassing countdowns of fan-voted favorites? A comedy routine that was essentially a long ad for the Academy Museum?


A lot of what we saw did not quite justify excluding so many live wins and acceptance speeches. Furthermore, editing pieces of those advance award presentations into the live show — without noting they were prerecorded — was disingenuous, to say the least.

But that won’t be the narrative when we look back on this year’s big event. It will be about Smith’s full arc, from fury to peace. I suspect we just saw the big dramatic opening scene in the inevitable Will Smith biopic.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at Follow him @MatthewGilbert.