Will Smith Made the Oscars Memorable

A hit! A palpable hit! For years, people have wondered what to do with the Academy Awards. How do you freshen them up—make them topical, urgent, and crisp? How do you bring back the television audience, which has sunk to such drastic levels that the only guaranteed viewers are the immediate family members of the nominees, plus their more intelligent pets? Last year’s solution was to hold the ceremony at a railway station, which gave the unfortunate impression that the guests could hardly wait to pack their bags, toot their whistles, and chug out of town. That didn’t work. This year, the shindig returned to the Dolby Theatre, and to standard fare: rolling speeches, standing ovations, pleas for universal tolerance, and dresses that would have looked lovely if the designers hadn’t run out of material long before they were finished. So, where was the shock of the new? What was different about 2022, apart from the fact that Timothée Chalamet had forgotten to wear a shirt? Just as we were starting to worry, and asking if the big moment would ever come, Will Smith went and beat us to the punch.

As Will Smith left his seat, strolled up to the stage, and slapped Chris Rock, my first thought was: nice topspin. Minimum back lift, it’s true, and not enough follow-through to give the shot proper heft, but, hey, it won the point. If Smith is going to make a habit of aggressive indignation, he’ll need to spend some serious time on the practice courts and really work on those forehand slaps. Mind you, it could be argued that he’s twenty years too late. In 2002, he was nominated as Best Actor for playing Muhammad Ali; imagine what kind of shape he and his biceps were in, after all those hours in the ring. Any Oscar presenter fool enough to risk a dig at the Smith family would have been laid out cold.

My second thought, as the slap hit home, was: Why did nobody think of this before? It’s such a brisk, economical method for waking the TV audience from our slumber and preventing us from fetching another tub of Phish Food and switching over to an old episode of “Columbo.” When Steve Martin made a gag about the swan dress worn by Björk at the Oscars of 2001, she could have flown to the podium and pecked him to the ground with her angry beak. And why stop at the presenters? Nominees for the acting prizes are traditionally required to smile at one another through sharpened teeth, but it would be so much more enjoyable—and more morally honest—if their carnivorous competition could be laid bare for all to see. Take 1951, and the best Best Actress contest in the history of the awards: Bette Davis versus Eleanor Parker, Anne Baxter, Judy Holliday (the eventual winner), and, in the veterans’ corner, Gloria Swanson. I can almost hear the words of that evening’s host, Fred Astaire, graciously inviting the contenders onstage for the announcement: “Now, you know the rules: no blades, no biting, and stay away from the eyes. Otherwise, ladies, the floor is yours, so let’s get ready to rumble! It’s swing time!”

One of the charms of the Academy Awards is the speed with which, not unlike trips to the dentist, they somehow vanish from the memory, along with all the pain that they involve. Without the aid of Google, try writing down a list of the Best Picture winners over the past decade, and see how far you get. I liked “Nomadland,” for example, but the fact that it was crowned last year, in the train station, had utterly slipped my mind. Movies—the good ones—endure. Prizes don’t.

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What does survive is a bag of bits. Each Oscar ceremony leaves us with nothing but a moment, or a meme. Of 1974, say, little remains except the unclothed fellow who interrupted (but naturally did not faze) David Niven, who was a co-host of the proceedings. From five years ago, we have the Mystery of the Wrong Envelope. And now Will Smith has preserved a little piece of 2022 for posterity, with a single deed that could have been designed for social media. The Academy had sought to grab some of the action, in advance, by setting up a new category entitled #OscarsCheerMoment; the most sensational scene from last year’s movies was to be decided, on Twitter, by the population at large. The lucky victor was the sight of Flash entering the Speed Force—a sequence of rarest beauty from “Zack Snyder’s Justice League.” In the event, it was solidly trounced, with one blow, by Smith Force. Exit Flash, unmourned.

One other innovation, this year, bore the ham-fisted imprint of the Academy: the decision to hive off various awards into a separate mini-ceremony, to be filmed shortly before the live transmission, then edited down and inserted into the telecast. (By a grim irony, one of the insulted categories was that of Best Film Editing. How encouraging for the winner, Joe Walker, to learn that his crafting of “Dune,” though expert enough to earn him a golden statuette, did not permit him, as it were, to sit with the grownups. At least we got to hear his speech, the most modest of the night.) The only way to make this plan work would be to film the whole of the Oscar ceremony out of sight and out of hours. It could be reduced to a flurry of shock tweets—a slap here, a swear word there, and a bonus shot of the silliest garment on display. The triumphant stars would save face, in the knowledge that their dronings, rich in platitude and gratitude, would never make the cut, and our Sunday evening would be magically freed up. Job done.

My own private hashtag, for what it’s worth, would go to Questlove for “Summer of Soul.” Though rightly garlanded as Best Documentary, it was in many respects the most spirited film, of any species, that I saw last year. A special hurrah, too, for the elegant woman who accompanied Ryûsuke Hamaguchi into the spotlight, as he collected his Oscar for “Drive My Car,” and who stood beside him, as he voiced his thanks, with a notepad and pen. Was she was poised to translate his words; to take an order for drinks; or to feed him funny lines, like one of Bob Hope’s gag-scribes of old? We may never know.

And so to the climax, and to the anointing of “CODA” as Best Picture. It’s a heartening movie, or, to be accurate, a heartening bunch of movies stuck together: a story about fishing quotas, a study of deafness, and a hymn to family values, all topped off with a layer of “High School Musical.” Whether it coheres is open to question. Certainly, if you happen to crave a tale of striving against tough odds on the coast of Massachusetts, I would prefer to nudge you toward “Manchester by the Sea,” which picked up a couple of Oscars in 2017. And yet, in a sense, you have to feel sorry for “CODA,” which was doomed to be demoted to second fiddle, even in the midst of celebration, by the first-fiddle antics of Will Smith—and by his subsequent address to the crowd, which went on so long that it may well be nominated for Best Documentary Short at next year’s awards. Has the Academy still not learned how to bring such oratory to a close? It’s easy. Go on Spotify, choose The Pretenders’ “Stop Your Sobbing,” and crank it up loud.

In the end, what caught the eye at the Dolby Theatre was something you can find in all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world. First guy takes a pop at second guy for dissing first guy’s wife: You reckon it matters, honestly? You think that what was done to Will Smith, or by Will Smith, amounts to genuine and lasting harm? Go tell it to the Ukrainians.

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