It’s no secret that in recent years the Oscars have been struggling with ratings, but thanks to Chris Rock and Will Smith, viewer numbers for Hollywood’s night of nights are likely to be through the roof this year.
In case you missed it, comedian Chris Rock took to the Academy Awards stage on Sunday, March 27 night to present the Oscar for Best Documentary. During his prelude into the nominees, Rock addressed Jada Pinkett Smith’s hair loss, saying, “Jada, I love you. G.I. Jane 2, can’t wait to see it.”
Pinkett Smith, who lives with the hair loss condition alopecia, looked uncomfortable at the gag while her husband, Best Actor nominee Will Smith, was initially seen laughing. But just seconds later, Smith stormed the stage and punched Rock square in the face.
After returning to his seat, Smith screamed “keep my wife’s name out of your f–king mouth” twice at Rock, as Rock responded, “Wow, dude, it was a G.I. Jane joke.”
While being the punchline to a joke rarely feels good, a husband using that as an opportunity to violently peacock on a global stage is hardly a move in the right direction, either. Justifying violence as “love makes you do crazy things” — as Smith later did — sounds like something we’d hear Kanye West say, not an actor at the top of their career.
And what Smith seems to have forgotten in all of this is the role people like Rock are asked to play in events like the Oscars.
Comedians are invited to present awards precisely because of their ability and willingness to tell jokes that divide an audience. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences specifically seeks out people like Chris Rock who have the ability to take a boring awards night to a night to remember and have been doing so for decades.
During his five years as Golden Globes host, Ricky Gervais made a mockery of Hollywood’s elite every year. In 2020 alone, Martin Scorcese, Robert De Niro, Harvey Weinstein, Felicity Huffman, Jeffrey Epstein and the Hollywood Foreign Press (who host the event and hired him for the job) were all on his no-holds-barred awards special.
At one point, Gervais went so far as to joke that “Leonardo di Caprio attended the premiere [of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood] and by the end, his date was too old for him.” Di Caprio, who like Smith, was in attendance and an award nominee simply laughed it off and played the good sport.
Both Smith and Pinkett Smith are multi-millionaires who sat front row at the awards show wearing custom couture and tuning out of the many atrocities and real-world issues going on right now. As Ricky Gervais once said, “let’s have a laugh at your expense.”
When, later in the night, Smith won in his category for his performance in King Richard, he said people in his industry should “be able to take abuse” and tolerate people “disrespecting you” as if punching someone in the face and screaming abuse while the world watches on is not disrespectful in its own right.
The real loser in Will Smith’s Oscars outburst isn’t just Chris Rock’s jaw, though. Musician, DJ and director Questlove ultimately took out the award of Best Documentary Rock was there to present. His film, Summer of Soul (… or The Revolution Could Not Be Televised), explores the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival and its long-term impact on Black culture, music, fashion and history in America. But will anybody who watched the awards show ever remember that? Did anyone in the room truly listen to Questlove’s acceptance speech?
What’s more, as only the fifth man of colour to ever win in the Best Actor category, Smith’s win should have been a momentous moment of joy. Instead, it was overshadowed by unnecessary violence and excuses.
But hey, as Chris Rock pointed out, “that was the greatest night in the history of television.”