Itt was quite a coup for the Oscars to land a rare performance from Beyoncé, singing her nominated song from King RichardVenus Williams and Serena Williams started their careers on the Compton tennis courts. But the fact that the luminous production number, featuring dozens of musicians and dancers swathed in neon, tennis-ball chartreuse, opened the telecast meant you had to wonder: Could any act that followed Beyoncé possibly make the same impact?
Well, one did—just not in the way that anyone involved in the show’s production had planned. It was obvious that the 94th Academy Awards would go down in history as the year Will Smith jumped on stage to make a joke about Chris Rock’s wife Jada Pinkett Smith. He then won top acting awards for his performance in Yes, King RichardHe accepted the award, giving a disconcerting speech about family and love. Media will be spending the coming week trying to determine who is responsible for Smith’s actions, Rock and other vaguely defined social forces. The toxic masculinity. But since this is a review of the telecast as a whole, I’d be remiss not to acknowledge the extent to which the shock of Smith’s interruption was compounded by how snoozy and promotional Sunday’s Oscars felt during the two-hour interval between Beyoncé and the slap.
It wasn’t supposed to be so boring. I have trouble recalling the last year when the Oscars weren’t mired in controversy, from #OscarsSoWhite and #OscarsSoMale to the Kevin Hart saga that led to three host-free years and the spectacle of men who’ve been accused of sexual misconduct “supporting” Time’s Up. Even by this standard, the 2022 run-up was contentious. While responses to the first hosts since 2018—Regina Hall, Amy Schumer and Wanda Sykes—were muted, virtually all other news regarding the telecast provoked a backlash. There were fan favorites, celebrity appearances and awards determined by Twitter. It reeked of futile pandering to an 18-34 demographic that’s never coming back to linear TV, much less awards shows. And that’s exactly what it was. These out-of place presenters seemed almost all too awkward. Crowdsourced top 5 lists featured superhero fandoms. Meanwhile, producer Will Packer’s decision to pre-record some categories earlier in the evening, in a misguided attempt to keep the show moving, turned out to be a bust. This year’s show ended up being even longer than its predecessor, zooming past the 11:30 (ET) mark amid the Smith-Rock sideshow.
Beyonce, a US singer and songwriter performs during the 1994 Oscars at Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre on March 27, 2022. Photo by Robynbeck / AFP
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Learn MoreAfter Joke About Wife Jada: Will Smith slaps Chris Rock during the Oscars
The hosts should’ve been able to riff on these missteps, as well as the many debates that swirled around the nominees: Was Licorice Pizza Was it appropriate to be critical of racism? It was Don’t Look Up Are you a perceptive allegory about climate change or are you excruciatingly self-indulgent? Was the night’s big winner CODA A moving documentary about a young girl born to a deaf mother. Or did the film primarily focus on deaf characters? Instead, although I found Hall’s thirsty act winning and Schumer was wise to keep her engagement with the Smith ordeal minimal (“I’ve been getting out of that Spider-Man costume, did I miss anything?”), they skimmed the surface, almost always erring toward noncontroversial humor. Aaron Sorkin can be too serious, Lady Gaga is funny and Jared Leto has funny accents. House of Gucci, Leonardo DiCaprio keeps getting older but his girlfriends stay the same age—we’d heard better versions of these jokes before.
Beyoncé aside, the highlights were the heartfelt acceptance speeches by newcomers to Hollywood’s A-list, from best supporting actor Troy Kotsur shouting out the world of deaf theatre to best supporting actress Ariana DeBose expressing how proud she was to represent her communities as an “openly queer woman of color, Latina, who found her strength through art.” In a subtle, probably unintentional rejoinder to the burst of machismo that immediately preceded his best documentary feature win, for Summer of SoulQuestlove broke down talking about his dad. None of the award winners hampered themselves with imposing their political views or hogging microphones. (Best director winner Jane Campion, always a bracing off-the-cuff speaker, appeared to be on her best behavior after having to apologize for slighting the Williams sisters at the Critics Choice Awards—another controversy Sunday’s hosts gave a wide berth.)
These pure moments were unfortunately overshadowed and marketed by Disney. It is easy to forget that not only ABC, which aired this ceremony, but Hulu and Marvel as well as Pixar are all owned by the Disney megacorp. This makes the whole pre-Smith event seem like one huge advertisement. Commercial breaks overflowed with plugs for the Disney empire’s films, TV shows, and platforms. It was kind of distasteful, I thought, to follow up Kotsur’s win with a video of Chris Evans congratulating him, then transitioning directly into a promotional clip from his upcoming Toy Story spinoff, Lightyear. Is that just an advertisement? It was almost as if Disney was trying to distract from the media maelstrom surrounding its bungled response to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill by bombarding viewers with tantalizing images of its content.
The 94th Oscars will be hosted by Wanda Sykes and Regina Hall.
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I don’t think that promotional tone is entirely unrelated to the blandness of the telecast’s scripted portions. For most brands—especially ones as big, broad and family-oriented as Disney—there’s no upside to risking an association with anything provocative or controversial. The jokes needed to remain mild. It was important that the stage banter remained light-hearted. And if the presenters could be grouped to ABC and its parent company’s advantage, like the trio of Disney princesses past and future, so much the better.
Of course, Will Smith shattered that veneer, in a bizarre altercation made all the more confusing by the broadcaster’s choice to mute the time-delayed audio as the actor jumped onstage, slapped Chris Rock and shouted at him to keep Smith’s wife’s name out of his mouth. (An uncensored version from Australian TVTwitter quickly picked up on the news. Even though the Oscars were far from an Oscars of the century, it was a spectacle that started with his outburst followed by his best actor acceptance speech.
Regardless of whether his anger was warranted, Smith upstaged every award and segment that came after Rock’s presentation. Questlove’s victory, The Godfather’s 50th anniversary, an In Memoriam segment that paid tribute to lost legends like Sidney Poitier and Betty White—they all got steamrolled by a conflict between two guys who really should’ve waited to settle their differences backstage. Jamie Lee Curtis cuddling a puppy while another very famous man was on live television.
Smith looked to be genuinely in pain, at the podium, as he connected his alarming attempt to defend Pinkett Smith with his character Richard Williams’ divisive persona. “Art imitates life. I look like the crazy father,” he said. “Love’ll make you do crazy things.” There’s almost certainly more to this story than those of us outside Smith’s and Rock’s circles of trust will ever know. To his credit, he apologized to Smith’s Academy and the nominees for his speech. However, the damage was already done. Lots of trophies got handed out on Sunday, as millions of dollars’ worth of promotional content filled our screens. But with even the biggest and most heartening awards reduced to footnotes, that final hour didn’t give us much worth celebrating.
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