Chris Rock was right about one thing. It was indeed the “greatest night in the history of television.” Or at least pretty darn close.
Forget all the hand-wringing over the past few weeks about sinking ratings – the Oscars actually ticked up from 10 million viewers last year to 15 million this year – and all the hair-pulling over which awards should be broadcast live and which should be pre-taped, which seems now, post-slap, like a quaint debate over silverware settings at the Governor’s Ball.
What happened last night at the Dolby Theater proved definitively that the Academy Awards are still capable of delivering a jaw-dropping water-cooler moment that can have the whole world talking the morning after. Granted, it took a major movie star committing an act of physical violence to pull it off, but whatever. As a TV show, there’s no denying it was riveting.
I literally jumped from my sofa to get a closer view of the screen when Will Smith marched up to the podium to smack Rock in the face after the comedian cracked a relatively bland if still distasteful joke about Smith’s wife’s shaved head (“Jada, I love you. ‘GI Jane 2,’ can’t wait to see you”). Was it real or some sort of schtick? Was my TV broken or did ABC cut the sound? And then, right afterwards, why was P Diddy plowing through the rest of the show — move along, nothing to see here — as if the most extraordinary thing that had ever happened at the Oscars hadn’t just happened?
Like millions of others, I was watching TV with one eye while frantically scouring the internet on my phone with the other. Eventually, I found the now-famous clip of someone’s TV screen in Australia — where ABC’s filters did not move fast enough — showing the full, un-muted interaction. “Keep my wife’s name out your fucking mouth,” Smith, obviously still fuming, shouted at Rock when he returned to his seat. Then, a beat later, he shouted it again, even louder!
It was like watching an A-List adaptation of “The Jerry Springer Show.”
Like all the best water-cooler moments, this one quickly morphed into an ethical litmus test that had Hollywood — and much of the rest of the world — arguing with each other over social media and in the press. Those siding with Smith pointed out that his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, had shaved her head because of alopecia, an auto-immune disorder that can cause clumps of hair to fall out. Among those who thought Rock had it coming was Tiffany Haddish, who told People Magazine that the slap was “the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen because it made me believe that there are men out there that love and care about their women.” But she was in the minority.
Team Rock, on the other hand, pointed out that, you know, it was a joke, and not even a particularly harsh one at that. Mia Farrow, of all people, rushed to Rock’s defense on Twitter. “Jokes are what Chris Rock does,” she tweeted. “Always has been edgy. This was a mild joke for him. And I love GI Jane.”
Others, like Kathy Griffin, noted that smacking comedians on stage was maybe not the greatest precedent to set while Judd Apatow posted that Smith had “lost his mind” and “could have killed” Rock with his “pure out-of-control rage.”
Neither side is entirely wrong, but they both kind of miss the point, which is that last night, one of the biggest film stars of the last 30 years — a 53-year-old actor who for decades has paid teams of Hollywood publicists to keep his genial public image polished — completely lost his shit on live TV.
Most famous people go to extremes to keep their private lives and feelings unexposed. Which is precisely why capturing a celebrity in an unguarded moment of unscripted human honesty is such an incredibly rare and highly compelling event (and explains why clips of actors like Christian Bale and Tom Cruise shouting at crew members on film sets always go viral).
But at the Oscars on Sunday, Smith didn’t merely let his guard down. With his outburst and then that remarkable, tearful non-apology apology during his acceptance speech for the Best Actor trophy — delivered less than an hour after whacking Chris Rock in the face — he cracked open his persona like an egg and made an omelet all over the Dolby stage. He lost it at the freakin’ podium of the Oscars, arguably the single most public venue in the history of mankind.
Now that’s entertainment.
Of course, the smack heard round the world isn’t anything like a long-term solution to the Academy Awards’ myriad problems. Its ratings are still terrible: last nights was the second lowest rated show ever. Its nominated movies continue to grow more obscure and esoteric every year. And, when movie stars aren’t assaulting one another, it’s still a hypnotically boring snooze of a ceremony. But, giving credit where it’s due, Will Smith did save this year’s Oscars. In at least one way, he made it the most riveting in 94 years.
Somebody ought to give that man an award. And maybe a slap.