Spare a thought for Sean Penn today, who is presumably trying to track down a blast furnace. Penn, who went to Ukraine to shoot a doc on the Russian invasion for Vice last month, and who’s now in Warsaw with his relief organization, vowed on CNN on Saturday to publicly smelt his Oscars if the members of the Academy leadership didn’t offer President Volodymyr Zelenskyy a chance to speak during the live telecast. If they refused, Penn suggested a boycott: “I think every single one of those people and every bit of that decision will have been the most obscene moment in all of Hollywood history.” They apparently did, opting instead for a moment of silence and a donation push via Crypto.com, though if their failure to answer Penn’s challenge was noticed by anyone, it was soon overwhelmed by the sight, historic in its own right, of Will Smith slapping presenter Chris Rock after a joke about wife Jada Pinkett Smith’s alopecia.
Left to the mysteries of time is the question of whether Zelenskyy, in the midst of managing a thousand ongoing crises, would have leapt at the chance to appear somewhere between a tribute to the 28th anniversary of Pulp Fiction and the chopped-down remains of a previously recorded acceptance speech. But that declaration from Penn, who was not at the Oscars, but who was shown ordering a pizza to class as Jeff Spicoli in a tribute clip from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, was a reminder that even skeptical members of the Academy retain a misplaced faith in the ability of Hollywood’s biggest night to span the self-congratulatory and the urgent. The Academy Awards has always had a tumultuous relationship to the world outside the confines of the Dolby Theatre and to what its obligations are as a broadcast allegedly being viewed by a billion people around the world. But if that number was ever actually accurate, it sure hasn’t been for a long time.
In a ceremony increasingly defined by slipping ratings and eroded relevance, all the debates about the appropriate place of politics at the Oscars felt downright quaint. It’s not that celebrities shouldn’t be allowed to talk about issues important to them. It’s just that “politics,” as included in the broadcast between anniversary montages and fan-poll results, seems to have become a vague notion incorporated as desultory ballast attached to the nominees and the ceremony to make them seem more weighty. Jessica Chastain, accepting Best Actress for The Eyes of Tammy Faye, gave a speech that slid haphazardly from being about suicidal ideation to the extra vulnerability of the LGBTQ community to hate crimes around the world, ending with a message on behalf of radical love as though she’d played a saint instead of someone who lived in opulence grifted off vulnerable parishioners. Sean Combs, introducing The Godfather segment, suggested the films were about such themes as “overcoming all the odds” and “the value of family and community.” Kenneth Branagh, having somehow won Best Original Screenplay for Belfast, swerved dangerously close to describing the Troubles as “heartwarming.”
This wasn’t just a matter for acceptance speeches — in the opening monologue, hosts Regina Hall, Amy Schumer, and Wanda Sykes got light applause for directing a chant of “Gay, gay, gay, gay” toward the State of Florida, as though celebrities were ever the ones in danger of being silenced by that execrable “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which was created by politicians who received financial support by Disney, a multiple nominee. But that’s the fundamental dilemma of the Oscars, which is an industry event that has been positioned as one for the public. That’s why there are craft awards, saluting hugely important aspects of moviemaking that go generally unremarked upon by the average moviegoer. The banishing of so many of those categories to a pre-televised part of the ceremony, alongside the mystifyingly upbeat “In Memoriam” and the increasingly apologetic jokes about how unwatched and unwatchable the nominated titles are, are all signs of an event trying to cling to the illusion of general interest and to stop its inexorable slide back toward being niche.
The movies didn’t get small — the Oscars did, their place in the public awareness scaled back by changing viewing habits and abundant access to celebrities in other formats. The Best Picture nominees were available via streaming, not that that seemed to make a difference. Meanwhile, Spider-Man: No Way Home made $1.8 billion, but the Academy’s pitiful bid to include the movie, which only received a visual-effects nomination, more prominently in the ceremony was undone by the Snyder Cut legions. The Twitter polls for “Fan Favorite” film and biggest “Cheer Moment” instead were topped by Army of the Dead and a clip entitled “The Flash Enters the Speed Force.” It was a lesson in online standom but also one about who actually cares about the endorsement of the Oscars — and it wasn’t the people who went out to see the biggest movie of the pandemic years.
The funny thing about the slap heard around the world (once the world did some rewinding and online investigating to confirm it wasn’t a preplanned bit) was that it was the best thing that could have happened to the Oscars, destined to keep the ceremony in conversation for weeks. The incident that spawned a million takes was shocking both because it was so unexpected and because it made the awards feel abruptly intimate — not some distant glitzy gathering but a work event for a constricted group of people with its own internal hierarchies and long-standing grudges. Will Smith getting up out of his front-row seat and walking the relatively short distance onto the stage to smack Chris Rock was a breaking of protocol, and it was also a breaking of the Oscars pretense that this is the night Hollywood gets together to enjoy its own company. It’s an industry function, and plenty of industries have their own star system and awards, and they’re probably all as messy — they’re just not televised.
The Slap has understandably commanded the most attention, but it’s the speech that Smith gave not long after, when accepting the award for Best Actor, that was the most uncomfortable and mesmerizing part of the evening. Smith, tears streaming down his face, made an astounding attempt to find some reasonable connection between what he’d done earlier and his role in King Richard, to arrive at the sort of platitude that regularly gets used to connect screen work to some larger issue. But he couldn’t quite get there in his ramble, which eventually resolved itself into an acknowledgment, a mention of his mother, and something closer to an apology. The A-list façade cracked to reveal something vulnerable and unplanned, which is, in its conflicting, electric uncertainty, why a lot of us still watch the Oscars — not for montages of James Bond or the empty banalities but for unscripted moments from some of the most carefully manicured and impeccably public-personae people in the world. Movie lovers, unite?