The chatter after the telecast was all about Smith — and how it made the industry look
An abrupt hush fell over the bar just outside the Dolby Theatre auditorium where a packed room of agents, producers, executives and media watched Will Smith accept the Academy Award for Best Actor during Sunday’s Oscar ceremony.
“Twenty bucks says he doesn’t apologize,” said Rami Malek, who had been a presenter earlier in the evening, leaning on the bar.
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“I’ll take that,” Patrick Whitesell, executive chairman of Endeavor, replied. “Twenty bucks says he does.”
Smith did apologize to the Academy and to fellow nominees — but not to Chris Rock, whom he had just smacked on live television for insulting Jada Pinkett Smith, the actor’s wife. Instead, the actor broke down and wept openly as he talked about protecting those he loved. He compared himself to Richard Williams, the often combative father of tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams whom he played in “King Richard.”
“Lame,” one disgusted studio marketing executive said. And that was pretty much the verdict from Hollywood insiders at the ceremony and at the Governors Ball, where Smith’s outburst was all anybody wanted to talk about.
Smith himself did not attend the Governors Ball, skipping the press room and Academy party to head to Vanity Fair, where he partied.
The slap and the crass outburst — twice telling Rock to “Keep my wife’s name out your f—ing mouth” — was at first greeted with shock. “I couldn’t believe it — I thought it was a gag,” one prominent member of the Academy said.
“How crazy was that?” said another agent, Rich Klubeck, still reeling a few moments after witnessing the attack and Smith’s subsequent acceptance speech.
But the shock quickly turned to anger toward Smith for tainting Hollywood’s big night, according to about 20 people at the close of the telecast and at the Governors Ball that followed.
“I’m sad — really sad,” one prominent producer told TheWrap. “After all that we are trying to do to create change. And this Oscar’s was so diverse.” The fact that the incident involved two Black celebrities at a ceremony that actively sought to demonstrate inclusion was lost on no one.
“He should have stood up and said, ‘I have some issues with Chris Rock which I will discuss with him,’ and apologize to the room and then accept his Oscar and get off,” the marketing chief said.
One top television executive observed that Smith just seemed to “snap,” and gave credit to Rock for keeping his balance and “pouring it through.” That was about as sympathetic as the response among Oscar attendees got.
Several described Smith’s outburst as a prime example of “toxic masculinity,” others said that it was a stain on the Oscars that would surely be used to mock thin-skinned and petty celebrities throughout the industry. Several noted wryly that the confrontation would probably help the dismal telecast ratings.
But the overall takeaway was that Smith’s outburst would spill over to broader impressions of the entertainment industry, especially when the world is focused on a humanitarian tragedy in Ukraine.
“Framing it as ‘I’m a protector’ did not work when he just hit somebody,” one Governors Ball attendee said, noting that Rock’s crack about Pinkett Smith’s hair did not justify the intensity or violence of her husband’s response. “It was a gentle joke.”
Ah, the joke. The joke referred to Pinkett Smith’s close-shaved head, a response to the actress’ long battle with alopecia and severe hair loss.
But it turns out Smith and Rock have history, stretching back to 2016 when Rock made another unkind joke about the Smiths, who had declined to attend the Oscars that year to protest the dearth of Black nominees. On that Rock belittled Pinkett Smith’s celebrity status in his joke: “Jada boycotting the Oscars is like me boycotting Rihanna‘s panties. I wasn’t invited.”
None of that excused Smith’s behavior, Oscar guests said. “He should have been escorted out of the room,” one member of the Academy Board of Governors said. If that meant Smith could not claim his Best Actor statue, this member said that did not matter.
A second member of the Board of Governors agreed. “The Academy is pissed,” he said, though it was only just after the Oscar ceremony had ended. “And so is the public.”
This member predicted that censure by the Academy would likely follow for Smith.
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Sharon Waxman, is the founder, CEO and Editor in Chief of TheWrap. She is an award-winning journalist and best-selling author, and was a Hollywood correspondent for The New York Times. Twitter: @sharonwaxman