Academy Awards Review: The Show Lost Its Luster Long Before Will Smith’s Slap

The weirdest ceremony in years produced moments that we never want repeated

Fans of the Oscars knew when the evening started that the 94th Annual Academy Awards would be one of the most controversial ceremonies in many years. But needless to say, we had absolutely no idea what we were in for. This was easily the weirdest Oscars ceremony in years, and not, sadly, in a way anyone would ever want repeated.

Before the Oscars even began, longtime enthusiasts were fuming over the Academy’s awkward and unnecessary attempt to speed up the show by announcing eight winners in the hour before the official start time, while the red carpet was still being aired. Viewers could watch Jason Momoa getting interviewed on ABC about how excited he was to give out the awards while, simultaneously, watching him actually give out those exact same awards on cellphone footage on Twitter.

Why, exactly, the Oscars wanted to re-create the experience of running late to the theater, knowing that you were already missing one third of the show, is a head-scratcher. What’s more — aside from sending the disrespectful message that Film Editing, Original Score, Production Design, Animated Short Films, Makeup and Hairstyling, Sound, Documentary Short Subjects and Live Action Short Films were somehow less important than all the other categories — the scheme didn’t even work.

Those awards uncomfortably edited into the ceremony at odd, dissatisfying moments — it genuinely looks like they forgot to cut to the Best Makeup and Hairstyling winner until the very last minute, confusingly making it the antepenultimate award of the night. Worse, the show ran three hours and 42 minutes long anyway. (That’s the lengthiest ceremony since “The Shape of Water” won in 2018.)

One might have expected some extra controversy to come from first-time hosts Wanda Sykes, Regina Hall and Amy Schumer, who are no strangers to shock humor. Between the three of them they unleashed some genuine zingers. “I guess Academy members don’t look up… reviews!” was worth a hearty chortle, and Schumer’s merciless riffs about how unfunny Aaron Sorkin’s Lucille Ball biopic was were on point. But they also spent an awful lot of the evening sexually harassing the male attendees for the purposes of comedy, making at least some of their marks look a little uncomfortable.

Of course, the joke that got the biggest reaction of the night came from Chris Rock, who after making a clearly ill-advised joke about Jada Pinkett close-cropped ‘do and a nonexistent sequel to “G.I. Jane,” found himself on the receiving end of an audible slap in the face from Will Smith. Rock, dazed, referred to this as “the greatest night in the history of television,” but that’s hardly accurate.

Smith’s unexpectedly violent defense of his wife threw a pall over the rest of the ceremony, transforming the actor’s acceptance speech just minutes later into a strange mixed message about love and the importance of protecting one’s family, which was either a previously scripted message that directly related to the events of his film “King Richard,” or a surreal meta commentary on the events of just moments before. Possibly both.

“Will Smith said it all,” Anthony Hopkins said shortly afterward, as he was presenting the award for Best Actress. “Let’s have peace and love and quiet.” It was far and away the subtlest shade thrown all the evening.

Nobody seemed to have predicted that this awards ceremony would fly off the rails in exactly this way, but the ride was pretty shaky to the begin with. DJ Khaled’s advertised appearance consisted entirely of interrupting Sykes, Hall and Schumer as they walked on stage for the first time, turning their moment into an eye-rolling distraction.

Then there was the absolutely nonsensical decision to celebrate the 60th anniversary of James Bond with an introduction by Tony Hawk, Kelly Slater and Shaun White, whose only connection to the 007 franchise is that, presumably, they’ve seen at least some of the movies. But what else could they do? The Academy failed to call actual Bond stars like Judi Dench, Rami Malek and Javier Bardem — who were all in attendance.

And if the idea was somehow to tie Hawk, Slater and White’s extreme sports backgrounds into the montage of iconic James Bond stunt sequences, then it’s all the bigger insult. The Oscars can make time for these guys, but not for the Best Stunts award that stunt performers and fans have been begging for for many, many years?

The Best Original Song nominees were, with the exception of Van Morrison’s “Down to Joy” from “Belfast,” all performed at the ceremony. Beyoncé Knowles kicked off the evening with a live performance from a tennis court in Compton, where everyone and everything was colored just like a tennis ball. Of course she killed it, she’s Beyoncé, and all the other nominated performances were perfectly respectable, even Diane Warren’s underdog “Somehow You Do” delivered by Reba McEntire.

Throughout the night, however, the promos kept teasing that the non-nominated “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” would be performed live on the air. And it was, after a fashion. The decision to have Megan Thee Stallion perform rewritten lyrics so they were all about the Oscars — not to mention refer to the three hosts as “hoes” — was profoundly dissatisfying, and suggests that perhaps it was intended to be the opening number of the evening before Knowles officially confirmed late in the Oscar season. (It still would have been weird, though.)

An unsettling strain of Disneyfication also ran through the entire ceremony, which aired on Disney-owned ABC. Not only did “Encanto” just happen to win Best Animated Feature right after “Dos Oruguitas” was performed (and right after a condescending introduction referring to all animation as kids films, and calling the films annoying for adults because children watch them over and over) but Chris Evans just “happened” to appear in a prerecorded segment congratulating Troy Kotsur for his landmark win, and then segued into a moment of shameless self-congratulation as he introduced the trailer for his upcoming Pixar film “Lightyear.”

Perhaps the biggest problem with trying to goose the Oscars’ entertainment value is that the Oscars, by their nature, are only good television if the awards make them so. Youn Yuh-jung holding Troy Kotsur’s Oscar so he could sign his acceptance speech was sweet and memorable. Ariana DeBose speaking frankly about her queerness was inspiring.

Instead of making the awards the focus, the producers resorted to desperation. The show was a microcosm of industry-wide panic, as Hollywood desperately clings to the outdated idea that the Oscars are still a major cultural event, and that pandering to hip young audiences could somehow obfuscate the fact that the fans of the actual Oscars are getting screwed out of what we’re all actually here to see.

It sure is hard to watch Samuel L. Jackson get ribbed for winning an Honorary Oscar at the Academy Awards, while Jackson — an acclaimed performer whose films have made billions of dollars — doesn’t even get to receive that Oscar on camera. Perhaps we don’t have much right to get up in arms about the eight awards that were handed out earlier in the evening; after all, we didn’t protest a decade ago when the Oscars cut the lifetime achievement awards, some of the best and most prestigious and most moving moments of past shows.

Instead we get discordant b-roll announcing the greatest “Cheer Moment” in film history, as chosen by people online, who apparently haven’t seen any films that came out before 1999. And then of course there was the “Fan Favorite Film,” which had a lot less to do with which film was a fan favorite and a lot more to do with whose diehard fan base had the most free time to stuff the ballot box on social media (surprising no one, the winner of both prizes was a Zack Snyder project).

Maybe it’s time to forget about “fixing” the Oscars and, instead, try to remember what exactly the Oscars are. Or at least what they’re supposed to be, at their very best. Instead of a celebration of film, this year’s show delivered a panicked lunge at ratings, and the only part of the evening that actually made those viral waves wasn’t fun to watch. It was strange and sad and violent and brought down everybody’s night.

But even before that point, the Oscars had already lost their luster.