“At your highest moment, be careful. That’s when the devil comes for you.” – Denzel Washington to Will Smith, after Oscar 2022’s most shocking moment.
At the 2022 Academy Awards, the devil came for Will Smith, and Will Smith gave into temptation.
But I won’t give in. At least not yet. There’s a time and place for everything, something that Will Smith can apparently lose complete sight of even in the most obvious of circumstances. The Smith-on-Rock violence is easily the headline of the 2022 Oscars, but it shouldn’t overshadow the history that was made.
So first: the history.
CODA, the little feel-good indie drama that only had 3 total nominations, went on to win Best Picture — beating Hollywood heavyweights The Power of the Dog and Dune, which had 12 nominations and 10 nominations each. That’s an even bigger upset than Moonlight, a low budget indie Best Picture winner that had 8 nominations including Best Director (which CODA did not).
Along with becoming the first Sundance movie to win Best Picture, CODA also broke the glass ceiling for streamers, becoming the first streaming title to win Oscar’s most coveted honor, marking a sea change within the industry.
More staggering still: the streamer was AppleTV+, not Netflix. Despite aggressively pursuing Oscar’s biggest prize for years now (by wooing big name directing talents like Martin Scorsese, Alfonso Cuarón, David Fincher and others, and also spending hundreds of millions of dollars on multiple Oscar campaigns), powerhouse Netflix failed at its mission. At Netflix HQ, that has to make the night’s losses doubly hard to take.
And the kicker? Netflix lost to a movie that Apple didn’t even produce; Apple simply bought CODA out of the Sundance Film Festival.
That’s not how the narrative was supposed to go. For a good part of the awards season, it looked like Jane Campion would finally bring Netflix the Oscar glory they coveted. Her critically-acclaimed The Power of the Dog won multiple critics group prizes and ultimately secured an Oscar-leading 12 nominations. Yet after all that, Dog only salvaged one win: Best Director for Campion.
Meanwhile, CODA rode a huge wave of love for its moving family story fueled by deaf representation. That combo simply became too appealing for Oscar voters to pass up, especially for a movie that’s at its best in the final act. Perhaps more than any year of recent memory, Academy members wanted to vote for a movie that made them feel good rather than for one they admired but weren’t passionate about. And that’s exactly what they did, highbrow cinema be damned.
The CODA win broke historical precedence on other fronts, too. Not only had a streaming title never won before, but the last time a movie won Best Picture with 3 nominations or less was way back in 1932 — 90 years ago! — when Grand Hotel won Best Picture without having any other nominations. (Making that win less shocking, though, was the fact that there were only 8 total categories in 1932, not 23 like there are today. That makes CODA‘s victory more compelling.)
It’s also the first time in Oscar history that films directed by women won the Academy Award for Best Picture in back-to-back years (with the 2020 prize having gone to Chloe Zhao‘s Nomadland).
CODA’s two other nominations (which it also won, finishing 3-for-3) were in above-the-line categories: Supporting Actor Troy Kotsur and Best Adapted Screenplay for writer / director Siân Hader. The last time a movie won Best Picture without having any below-the-line (technical / artisan) categories was over 40 years ago back in 1980 when Robert Redford‘s Ordinary People won Best Picture; its five nominations were all above-the-line.
Kotsur and Hader both delivered the kind of meaningful speeches that Academy members hope for, too, as each repped the under-represented deaf community with thoughtful sentiments and genuine, heartfelt emotion. Both speeches were exactly the kind everyone hopes for when watching the Oscars.
While The Power of the Dog lost every category it was up for except for one, the one it did win made more Oscar history: Jane Campion’s Best Director victory marked the first time that women have won the directing award in back-to-back years (following Chloe Zhao’s win last year). It’s also just the third win by a woman overall; Kathryn Bigelow was the first female Best Director winner in 2009 for The Hurt Locker.
It was also only the second time ever that a movie has won the Best Director prize but nothing else. The first? Back in 1967 when Mike Nichols won Best Director for The Graduate. Historically, that’s not bad company to be in.
Dune, meanwhile, ended up with the most wins of the night. Of its 10 nominations, the sci-fi epic won 6 total Oscars, all in technical categories: Score, Cinematography, Sound, Production Design, Film Editing, and Visual Effects.
But now, the incident.
Will Smith has been waiting his whole career for this moment, working toward this specific night, this Oscar night. But then, within less than hour of grasping it, he ruined it. It’s one of the most stunning examples of career self-sabotage we’ve ever seen — and on live TV, no less.
You know what happened. (But for reference, here’s the moment uncensored, including strong language.) Smith went up onstage to violently slap Chris Rock after Rock made a rather tame, off-the-cuff G.I. Jane 2 joke in reference to the closely-shaved head of Will Smith’s wife, Jada. As roast-jabs go, what Rock said was soft, even instantly forgettable. That is until Smith made it unforgettable, and possibly even defining.
After it started to sink in for everyone what they had just seen, that the slap was real and not staged — emphasized by the fact that Will Smith was yelling obvious F-bombs at Rock that ABC censors were muting, and the stunned crowd was reacting in real time with genuine shock and bewilderment — the whole mood shifted dramatically.
It was disturbing. Will Smith was unhinged. Over what? A bland, benign hair joke?
Some Twitter defenders of Smith point out that Jada has a health condition that has caused her to lose her hair, making Rock’s joke insensitive and out of line. Even if it was it doesn’t justify battery, especially in the mode of a complete sucker punch.
Then for Smith to profanely double-down on the violent outburst, that escalation made his response wildly disproportionate to the offense.
Furthermore, there’s an issue of time and place. If Smith felt it was necessary to confront Rock in that manner, then do it later, off-stage and away from cameras where it wouldn’t throw a pall over the night for everyone else, especially the winners for whom it’s the biggest night of their professional careers.
It was completely selfish for Smith to do that onstage. If you feel a need to defend your wife then do it, but wait to do it backstage. Not on the actual stage before an award is about to be handed out. Instead, Smith’s actions but a dark cloud over everything. Rock and others did their best to pivot calmly amidst the shock, but the damage was done. The night was ruined.
When Smith won the Best Actor award for King Richard as he was expected to, he used his speech to craft a response about how he feels compelled (even called by God) to protect the people he loves and cares for, just like the man he played in his Oscar-winning portrayal, Richard Williams. There was genuine contrition in what he said, it was definitely a real moment for Smith (no matter how well-crafted and considered his words may have been), and his apology to the Academy and its members was no doubt sincere, but what was conspicuously absent was any apology to Rock.
It was probably the darkest moment in Oscar history. It was that disturbing, that unsettling, that shocking to watch and process. There are reports saying that the act violates specific codes of conduct laid out by the Academy, with a possible consequence being a rescinding of Smith’s Oscar win.
Some wondered why he wasn’t immediately escorted out, but I’m not surprised simply because it was so shocking. It took a while to understand, to grasp, to comprehend, and by then the show was clearly trying to pivot and get back on track. The fact that Smith was the likely winner of an upcoming major award confused the whole atmosphere even further. It’s just totally bizarre and wholly unexpected, so I can’t blame anyone for not doing what may seem obvious with some hindsight.
What also helped was what we didn’t see: Denzel Washington immediately going to Smith during the commercial break to talk some sense into him, mentor him, and speak wisdom into him. Smith’s rep was also seen kneeling by his side, no doubt doing instant damage control and helping Smith craft whatever he was going to say when he was named Best Actor.
Rock segued with laudable composure to bring the focus back to what the moment was supposed to be about (an award for Best Documentary), and the remaining hosts and presenters performed admirably as well, including Amy Schumer who, after a commercial break, came back with a dry joke of “I just finished changing off-stage, did I miss something?” deflection that helped to pop the tension bubble further.
Yet while the rest of the winners were able to have their moments — including CODA‘s big underdog victory to cap the night — the damage had been done, to Will Smith’s reputation especially.
But what of the actual Oscar show itself? Honestly, who cares? Because of the Smith incident, it all seems even more inconsequential than it already is. As such, one can’t help but be completely distracted by the Smith moment. Yet even with that aside, the show was, well, fine at best and same-old same-old at worst. Despite concerted efforts to bring the show to within three hours — which included the highly controversial decision to have 8 of the 23 awards handed out prior to the broadcast, then have edited clips of those winning speeches aired within the broadcast itself — the show’s runtime still ended up being 3 hours and 40 minutes, which is on the long-side of average for these shows even without the changes that were made for this broadcast.
On the whole, producer Will Parker leaned into “putting on a show,” but the result of that was a ceremony that was far less about celebrating cinema. The result: several song numbers (some being more highly produced than usual, like Beyonce’s opener on the tennis courts of Compton) and some hit-and-miss stand-up bits by the three hosts Amy Schumer, Wanda Sykes, and Regina Hall. Some bits worked (Schumer’s solo monologue, Sykes’s pre-taped Academy Museum tour), others didn’t (the trio’s joint tri-ologue opener, plus the running gag of Hall being horny — the COVID pat-down of Josh Brolin and Jason Momoa being the most egregious).
Then there was perhaps the most tone deaf decision of the night: to have two upbeat numbers performed during the In Memoriam segment. What made that especially discordant wasn’t even so much the song choices but rather the dancing singers and choir that performed them, effectively distracting from those being remembered in the memoriam reel.
Also stupid: the two “fan” polls.
The first was called “Top 5 Most Cheer Worthy Movie Moments.” I won’t list them here, but I’ll say this. The winner that finished #1 is literally the one that no one ever talks about, let alone cheers for: The Flash “entering speed force” in Zack Snyder’s Justice League. Who ever talks about that? Nobody, that’s who. I don’t know anyone who would even know that the Flash’s superpower is called “speed force.”
The other poll was, more simply, “The 5 Favorite Movies of the Year.” Can’t screw that one up, right? Oh yes you can, and the Oscars did. At #4 was the third-highest grossing movie of all time, Spider-Man: No Way Home. What three movies could possibly beat that? These three, in ascending order: Minamata (a failed Johnny Depp movie that was never even released), Cinderella (a live action musical that went straight to Amazon Prime), and Army of the Dead (director Zack Snyder’s straight-to-Netflix zombie action movie).
How do these results even happen? Because they’re Twitter polls, that’s how, and respective fanbases can easily rig them. Case in point: Zack Snyder films won both contests. The Snyder Bros basically organized and showed up, and that’s how you get asinine time-wasting bits that dumb down the Oscars rather than elevating them. It’s gimmicky pandering to an audience that isn’t interested in the show to begin with, and never will be.
If one thing worked better than I’d expected it was the edited clips of the acceptance speeches that had been pre-taped. They were edited into the flow of the broadcast rather smoothly. More importantly, all nominees were read on-air for each category just like they were for all of the live ones, and the speeches were heard for each as well (though probably not in their entireties). The announcer even read the winners by saying “And the Oscar goes to…” rather than “went to”, making it seem like the moments were live. Viewers who weren’t aware they were pre-taped may not have even known the difference. The only thing missing in each was the walk up to the stage.
So, on the plus side, they implemented that controversial decision as well as they could have, which is saying something given how much protest there was from the industry, including from heavyweights like Spielberg, Cameron, and others. On the downside, though, it didn’t really save any time so it was all for naught.
Indeed, by the end of it all, the show still ran a total of 3 hours and 40 minutes, well past the three-hour maximum the Academy promised to land at. This was supposed to be the year that ABC and producers “fixed” the Oscars, in a way that would make them appealing to a mass audience again and bring the ratings back up significantly, but it’s hard to see any area where this show could be considered a success.
RATINGS UPDATE: the numbers are in, and only 16.6 million people tuned in to watch the 2022 Academy Awards; one wonders if it would’ve even been that high had tweeting about the Will Smith incident hadn’t caused non-watchers to suddenly tune in. While that total is significantly up from last year’s all-time low of 9.8 million viewers, it’s still well under the last pre-pandemic total of 23.6 million in February 2020 — which, at the time, was also a historic low and was a big drop from the year previous when the 2019 show attracted 29.6 million viewers. By any measure, the 2022 changes to the Oscar telecast did not reap the intended affect.
A night of miscalculations ended with the decision to literally roll out Liza Minnelli to announce the winner for Best Picture. I get it: it’s the 50 year anniversary of Cabaret, her Oscar-winning film and role. But her physical and mental decline is so obvious that it put her and co-presenter Lady Gaga in an awkward, uncomfortable position (but props to Gaga for handling it with such grace and care). At some point, a producer has to make a tough but necessary call to not move forward with that decision. Instead, it looked desperate and didn’t honor Minnelli as intended. God bless her.
Oh, and finally, the thing I hated the most: having a DJ and House Band rather than a traditional orchestra. Using the word “hated” may sound extreme, but the reason I feel that strongly is that music from a DJ and House Band makes the event feel more casual or like a party, not like the glamorous black-tie classy affair it’s supposed to be. DJ and band music turns the Oscars into something else, and something lesser. Sure, by the final hour-plus, they introduced a below-stage orchestra, but the Smith incident became so distracting that I lost sight (and sound) of how well that orchestra played.
As far as my own Oscar predictions went, my final tally was an admirable 18-for-23, but a bit short of elite level (I’d need 20 or more for that).
Below is the complete list of winners. (To see a list of all the nominees, click here.)
*To watch each acceptance speech, click on the category title.*
THE 94TH ANNUAL ACADEMY AWARDS
BEST PICTURE – CODA
BEST ACTRESS – Jessica Chastain, The Eyes of Tammy Faye
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR – Troy Kostur, CODA
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY – CODA, Siân Heder
BEST INTERNATIONAL FILM – Drive My Car (Japan)
BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE – Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
BEST MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING – The Eyes of Tammy Faye
BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT – The Long Goodbye
BEST ANIMATED SHORT – The Windshield Wiper
BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT – The Queen of Basketball
(To read a full list of the nominees, click here)