Is there any chance the 94th Academy Awards will be remembered for anything other than that moment between Will Smith and Chris Rock and its emotional aftermath? You likely don’t need a recap of the moment in question—you probably watched it dozens of times, inspecting various videos on Twitter to work out whether it was real (it was) and exactly what Smith said when he sat back down. (“Keep my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth” twice, to our ears.)
But to do my due diligence—and, honestly, to remind myself it happened and is real and is a thing I am now writing sentences about it in a review of an awards show. Here it goes: At this year’s Oscars, Chris Rock made a joke about Jada Pinkett’s shaved head and her husband Will Smith walked to the stage and slapped him in the face.
Despite Sean Combs’ noble attempts to turn the mood around moments later as he introduced a segment honoring the 50th Anniversary of The Godfather—”Will and Chris, we’re gonna solve that like family at the Gold Party”—and the show-must go-on pluck with which proceedings continued, it was almost impossible to shake the shock and lingering ick of that sudden moment of violence. Smith would later win Best Actor for his performance as Richard Williams in King Richard and address the moment directly, red-eyed and sobbing as he apologized to the Academy and his fellow nominees (but not to the man he just slapped), celebrated his collaborators on the film, and opened up about his state of mind: “I wanna be a vessel of love,” Smith said.
That the slap will likely be the defining thing of this year’s Oscars is a shame, not just because of the awfulness of the moment itself, but because of the moments it threatens to overshadow. Against all expectations, for a large chunk of their running time, the 94th Academy Awards were lively, frequently hilarious, and often moving. Which is not what many were expecting.
Ever since last year’s ceremony drew the Oscars’ smallest-ever audience—9.85 million viewers in the U.S., down from 23.6 million the year before and well below the 40 million-plus viewers the show could draw in the 1990s—there’s been a whiff of desperation, even crisis, around the whole endeavor. As with most awards ceremonies of its ilk, ratings had been in decline for years, but with slate after slate of under-seen nominees, streaming’s disruptions to the industry, and a global pandemic that redefined the theatrical game, it was starting to feel that—to borrow from the big winner at the highest-rated ceremony ever—the iceberg of irrelevance was no longer on the horizon, but right ahead.
When ships start to sink, crews start to panic, and the pre-show word out of Academy HQ suggested this year’s producers, Will Packer and Shayla Cowan, were willing to throw out almost any idea to keep things afloat. Ideas like two shiny new audience awards, the Oscar Fan Favorite and Oscar Cheer Moment, voted for by the public on Twitter and the Academy’s website, a not-so-veiled attempt to capitalize on the popularity of Spider-Man: No Way Home and bring in “the youths.” And ideas like inviting the decidedly non-super-filmy likes of Kelly Slater and DJ Khaled to present because… of course.
But from the moment the show opened, it was clear Packer and Cowan had some good ideas, too—including opening with a Beyoncé number, which is pretty much always a good idea. Their best idea, though, might have been their choice of hosts. After two years with no emcee, we got a trio of them: Regina Hall, Amy Schumer, and Wanda Sykes. “This year, the Academy hired three women to host because it’s cheaper than hiring one man,” quipped Schumer in an opening monologue (triologue?) that had a roughly equal number of hits (“I watched that movie three times and I’m almost halfway through it,” Sykes said of The Power Of The Dog) and misses. A ratio that felt comfortingly like the Oscar openings of yore.
They re-teamed throughout the night for several bits, including a short and inspired walk through the audience handing out consolation prizes to losers, and also got their chance to shine solo. Hall’s horny summoning of some of the most desirable men in the room for a random backstage COVID check might have felt like a throwaway, or even in poor taste, in less capable hands. And Schumer was delightfully barbed, skirting Gervais-at-the-Globes territory as she scolded Aaron Sorkin for “the innovation to make a movie about Lucille Ball without even a moment that’s funny.” (Kudos to Schumer too, for a deft tension-breaker in the wake of the Smith-Rock fracas.)
It’s a trio you’d be happy to see return to steer a less eventful ceremony.
Speaking of comforts of Oscars of yore, the clips were back. After last year’s odd decision to not show clips of the nominated films and performances in many categories, viewers were treated to plenty of footage—hopefully enough to entice them to actually watch the films themselves. Packer and Cowan made a number of other nice producing decisions, including reuniting several casts and filmmakers to mark a handful of major anniversaries—Rosie Perez, Woody Harrelson, and Wesley Snipes for White Men Can’t Jump’s 30th was perhaps the most surprising, and the standout.
Where you stand on the world’s first live performance of world-conquering Encanto earworm “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” will largely depend on how much of a “Bruno” purist you are. I loved the addition of Megan Thee Stallion, Luis Fonsi, and Becky G to the original cast members, which is apparently not the popular opinion among Twitter’s (very feisty) Encanto hive.
Did it all work? To borrow from the aforementioned earworm: No, no, no. The presenters who had us wondering WTF in the lead-up to the Oscars still had us wondering WTF when all was said and done. Kelly Slater, Shaun White, and Tony Hawk shared some terrible banter before introducing a clip-based homage to 60 years of James Bond—because “champions!” Meanwhile, DJ Khaled ran out at the opening of the show as the three hosts were being introduced in a bit I would have been sure was just a man rushing the stage if his name hadn’t been in the official list of presenters.
Similarly, the popularly voted awards went about as well as you might have expected. Energized online fan bases—especially Zack Snyder’s—overtook the votes, delivering such embarrassing results that the producers all but buried them in two quick clips packages that didn’t explain what they were, how they worked, or what the winners received, if anything. (For the record, Snyder’s Netflix zombie heist flick, Army Of The Dead, won Fan Favorite Movie and something involving the Flash in the director’s 2021 cut of Justice League won “Cheer Moment.” Let’s never do this again, please.)
As for that controversial decision to exclude eight categories from the live broadcast and cut them into the show via edited packages? For certain categories, like Best Documentary Short, the producers played a quick rundown of the nominees and an edited speech from earlier. For select other pre-recorded categories, the nominees were actually read by presenters during the live ceremony, as in the case of Best Sound, which was announced by Dune co-stars Jason Momoa and Josh Brolin—after a frisky full-body COVID inspection from Hall. In all cases, it felt choppy and weird and not worth whatever precious minutes were saved.
If there is a chance that this year’s show will be remembered for something beyond the slap, let’s hope it’s for some of the more powerful speeches (by Troy Kotsur, Ariana DeBose, and Jessica Chastain), the sight of a room-full of the world’s biggest stars giving a standing ovation and silently applauding the Best Picture-winning team behind CODA, and the fact that against the odds—and enormous pressure—this year’s Oscar producers showed that the Oscars can still be a good time on TV and a forceful way to honor film.
The moments that will stick include some of the last of the night, which were some of the quietest, when Lady Gaga appeared with Liza Minelli to announce Best Picture. In a wheelchair, and struggling at times to follow the script, Liza was frailer than many remember her, and maybe ever hoped to, but she still showed sparks of that Liza with a Z moxie. At one point, Gaga lent down and said, “I’ve got you,” and we could hear Liza saying, “I know.” It was old Hollywood and new Hollywood, kindness and love, star power in overdrive, and a moment that hopefully no shadow can obscure.