Oscars ceremony was an assault on good taste, in more ways than one

smith rock commentary

Chris Rock, a moment after getting slapped by Will Smith onstage as this year’s Oscars ceremony.

Well, Will Smith finally got his hit.

For years, the only thing the actor has wanted more than a smash has been an Oscar. But although he finally won his golden statue last night, the honor was overshadowed by his earlier open-handed slap of comic Chris Rock, and a self-justifying acceptance speech that portrayed him as a protector of his family’s honor.

The producers had promised this would be a new kind of Academy Awards show. It was, but probably not in the way they hoped.

Genuine legends were kept offstage. Arbitrary celebrities — Sean Combs! Shaun White! — were shoved into the spotlight in hopes of engendering some buzz or youthful relevance. The traditionally bittersweet “in memoriam” section — ugh, what a downer! — was jazzed up with a dance number and staged so clumsily that the names and pictures of the departed were regularly obscured.

No, this was not your parents’ Oscars.

And you know what? I miss my parents’ Oscars.

Jessica Chastain accepts her Best Actress Oscar.

The show had promised few surprises going in. (Asked to help someone fill out an Oscar pool ballot before the ceremony, I easily predicted all six major categories.) So when the names and titles were called — “CODA” for best picture, Jane Campion for best director, Smith for best actor, Jessica Chastain for best actress, and Troy Kotsur and Ariana DeBose for supporting performances — no one in the audience sounded particularly shocked. (See complete list of winners below.)

The gasps at home came from the show’s assaults on tradition and taste — two things the Academy Awards are at least supposed to celebrate.

The first big change had been, of course, the Academy’s decision to relegate eight categories to second-tier status, handing them out earlier off-screen and only showing brief clips during the televised ceremony. I won’t be hypocritical and decry that now. I’ve long said the evening’s 23 categories could be trimmed a bit (the first Oscars handed out only 12 awards).

But I had hoped eliminating the time spent on best short documentary or best short animated film would allow the Academy to restore its much-missed honorary awards. No. This year’s honorees — Elaine May, Samuel L. Jackson, Danny Glover and Liv Ullman — were still judged not-ready-for-primetime.

How could they be, when the producers needed to squeeze in a salute to James Bond movies (introduced by a surfer, a snowboarder and a skateboarder)? Or a 50th-anniversary nod to “The Godfather” (which included Robert De Niro, who wasn’t even in the first movie)? Or Wanda Sykes doing a pre-taped, unfunny promo for the Academy’s own museum?

It was good, in theory, to have Sykes, Regina Hall and Amy Schumer as hosts; the Oscars have gone without an emcee for years, presumably because they were afraid of edgy comics. (Last night may have only ended up validating that worry.) But none of these hosts were particularly funny, with Hall’s onstage groping of male stars actually offensive. (Schumer — perhaps wisely — seemed to disappear for much of the show.)

What was frequently onscreen were an awful lot of ham-handed promos for Disney (which, of course, owns ABC). Also a slightly disquieting feeling that perhaps the fix was in. Or was it merely a happy coincidence that the award for best-animated feature, which went to a Disney film, was presented by three Disney “princesses”?

Ariana DeBose accepts her Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

There were, of course, some genuinely emotional, even historic moments. Kotsur, becoming only the second deaf performer to win an Oscar (his “CODA” costar, Marlee Matlin, was the first). DeBose becoming the first openly LGBQT actress to pick up one.

And although it was sad to see an obviously frail and uncertain Liza Minnelli wheeled out to announce best picture, it was heartwarming to see how tender and generous her co-presenter Lady Gaga was. “I got you,” she whispered to the legend, and it was abundantly clear that Lady Gaga got it, period — what, and who, this show is supposed to celebrate.

Something Smith clearly had no grasp of.

The supposed spark was Rock making fun of Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, and her bald head. Because I don’t follow the Smith family as devotedly as they seem to expect, I didn’t know that she has alopecia, or had shaved off her remaining hair last year. I don’t know that Rock did, either. If he did, making fun of someone’s medical condition is grotesquely off-limits.

The curious thing, though, is that while the camera caught Jada Pinkett Smith grimacing at the joke, Smith was clearly laughing along. It was only a few seconds later, when he realized what Rock had said — or how it had bothered his wife — that he strode on stage and slapped the comic, before returning to his seat and loudly cursing him out.

And what were the consequences? There were no consequences. No security guards appeared. No one escorted Smith out, or even lectured him from the stage.

Lady Gaga and Liza Minnelli at this year’s Oscars ceremony.

Because this is the world we live in, now — where people feel free to vent their rage at anyone in any situation, whether it’s the president giving an official address or a flight attendant asking you to put on your mask. Hostility now masquerades as honesty, anger as authenticity.

Smith seems to think so, anyway. In his rambling acceptance speech — in which he apologized to his fellow nominees and the Academy for causing a fuss, but never to the man he’d struck — he presented himself as a chivalrous knight. “I am being called on in my life to love people and protect people,” he announced, while allowing that “love will make you do crazy things.”

But love for whom? Protection for what? For your wife? Or for yourself and your own fragile male ego, which you had to re-assert, street-corner style, by bitch-slapping the man who had insulted your woman?

Uglier still? Smith’s tearful, non-apology apology still brought cheers and applause from the audience. Later, after-party photos even showed him dancing to his own music, getting jiggy with it and reveling in his own privileged celebrity.

Sorry, but on what should have been one of the greatest nights of his life, he was simply an embarrassment. As was the show.

And the funniest thing was that, after all the nips and tucks and omissions and revisions — it ran even longer than last year’s.

TROY KOTSUR

COMPLETE LIST OF OSCAR WINNERS

Best Picture: “CODA,” Philippe Rousselet, Fabrice Gianfermi and Patrick Wachsberger, producers
Director: Jane Campion (“The Power of the Dog”) (WINNER)
Lead Actor: Will Smith (“King Richard”)
Lead Actress: Jessica Chastain (“The Eyes of Tammy Faye”)
Supporting Actor: Troy Kotsur (“CODA”)
Supporting Actress: Ariana DeBose (“West Side Story”)
Original Screenplay: “Belfast,” Kenneth Branagh
Adapted Screenplay: “CODA,” Sian Heder
Documentary Feature: “Summer of Soul (… Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised),” Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Joseph Patel, Robert Fyvolent and David Dinerstein
Animated Feature Film: “Encanto,” Jared Bush, Byron Howard, Yvett Merino and Clark Spencer
International Feature Film: “Drive My Car” (Japan)
Original Song: “No Time to Die” from “No Time to Die,” music and lyric by Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell
Cinematography: “Dune,” Greig Fraser
Original Score: “Dune,” Hans Zimmer
Film Editing: “Dune,” Joe Walker
Production Design: “Dune,” production design: Patrice Vermette; set decoration: Zsuzsanna Sipos
Sound: “Dune,” Mac Ruth, Mark Mangini, Theo Green, Doug Hemphill and Ron Bartlett
Makeup and Hairstyling: “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” Linda Dowds, Stephanie Ingram and Justin
Visual Effects: “Dune,” Paul Lambert, Tristan Myles, Brian Connor and Gerd Nefzer
Costume Design: “Cruella,” Jenny Beavan
Documentary Short Subject: “The Queen of Basketball,” Ben Proudfoot
Animated Short Film: “The Windshield Wiper,” Alberto Mielgo and Leo Sanchez
Live Action Short Film: “The Long Goodbye,” Aneil Karia and Riz Ahmed

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3 thoughts on “Oscars ceremony was an assault on good taste, in more ways than one

  1. You hit all the points that have run through my mind since the show ended. I’m curious how this will be processed – or ignored – in the weeks to come.

  2. Another well written piece, Stephen. I hate to sound like the old guy in the crowd, but has it really come to this? Yes, Rock may have been insensitive to Pinkett, Smith should have had thicker skin, but no matter what, once he resorted to violence he should have been asked to leave. He made his choice to strike Rock, live with the consequences.

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