oscars 2022

What I Saw Inside the Room When Will Smith Slapped Chris Rock

Photo: Myung Chun/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

When you relegate the craft categories to the status of a canape tray; when you spend the run-up to the telecast all but apologizing for the films your members nominated; when you decide to hand over the celebration of cinema to random Twitter users; in short, when you strip the Oscars of everything to do with honoring what we love about movies, who should be surprised when the only thing left is pointless celebrity drama?

Thus, the slap heard round the world. In the middle of what had been a fairly de rigueur Oscars ceremony, enlivened only by The Flash entering the Speed Force, Chris Rock came out to present Best Documentary Feature. Just as he had when he hosted the 2016 ceremony, Rock took a dig at Jada Pinkett Smith, noting her shaved head and telling her he was looking forward to G.I. Jane 2. (Pinkett Smith has alopecia.) What happened next would overshadow the entire show. From his seat in the front row, Smith got up, approached the stage, and slapped Rock across the face. Those of us attending the Oscars were as confused as those watching at home. From where I was sitting, high up in the rafters, it was initially unclear if what had just happened was real, or just a bit. (Didn’t it look like a stage slap?) But Rock’s reaction told it all. Never a comedian to get rattled, he for once seemed visibly unnerved. Smith returned to his seat, and began shouting, “Keep my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth!” Rock was incredulous: “Dude, it was a joke.” If those in the audience didn’t know it was real before then, we certainly did now.

From there, the mood inside the Dolby Theater had curdled. How do you even react to that? Poor Questlove, whose speech was overshadowed as everyone in the audience craned their necks to try to see what was happening up front. The Godfather tribute and the In Memoriam segment likewise had to compete for attention with Twitter as everyone scrolled, looking for intel about what happened next. Where was Rock? Where was Smith? What was going on down there?

To make matters worse, the show chose this exact moment to dispense with the hosts, who could have at least guided us through the moment. As the night progressed without any official acknowledgement of what had just happened, the crowd was in a state of stunned confusion.  Surely, somebody onstage would have to say something. They couldn’t ignore it entirely — the Best Actor category was coming eventually, and Smith was all but guaranteed to win. But in the meantime, they just … kept on with the show as if nothing had happened. Punch lines fell flat. At points, people in the mezzanine level took to standing up and leaning over the balcony for updates on what was going on downstairs. Apparently, celebs were lining up to pay their respects to Will and Jada, but all we could hear from upstairs were mysterious roars of applause emanating from the deep. One publicist repping another Best Picture contender texted me, “This is the most unhinged evening of our lives.”

Photo: Myung Chun/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Finally, the unavoidable. Best Actor came and there was Smith up at the podium. It was a moment that had been widely predicted since Labor Day, but not like this. He teared up and took as much time as he needed — no one was going to dare play him off. In a five-minute speech, surely one of the longest in history, he attempted to say what needed to be said. At first, he attempted to draw a line between himself and Richard Williams. Both, he said, would do anything to protect their families. There were more than a few audible sighs in my section at this moment. “He’s doubling down,” one woman near me muttered incredulously.

He then spoke on the counsel he’d just received from Denzel Washington, a fellow nominee. “When you’re at your highest point, that’s when the devil comes for you.” But slowly he approached something close to contrition. He apologized to the Academy, and to his fellow nominees (but notably, not to Rock). And he drew another comparison to the real Williams: Now he had become the “crazy dad” distracting from everyone else’s accomplishments. Finally, he threw love to his female collaborators, and who could argue with that? He left the stage to a standing ovation from the orchestra, where the stars sat. Folks higher up in the mezzanine clapped. I’m still not sure how much of this applause was genuine support, and how much was simply the audience releasing the tension that had been building for over an hour.

Of course, the night was not over. Jessica Chastain won, so did Jane Campion, and finally so did CODA. But I doubt they had any illusions that the night would go down as anything other than the “Will Smith Oscars.” As the star made his way out of the Dolby, he was surrounded by camera phones, but still managed as discreet an exit as possible. A-listers like Tracee Ellis Ross wore thousand-yard stares, as if they’d just survived the battle of Ypres. Reports from the press lounge said winners had been instructed to answer questions about their work — and nothing else. “Someone called this the ‘worst Oscars ever,’” a fellow pundit told me as everyone drifted towards their after-parties. “But how do you even quantify it like that?” Perhaps the most damning indictment: For one night, the Oscars felt like the Golden Globes.

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What I Saw at the Oscars After Will Smith Slapped Chris Rock