I Know Who Bears Most of the Blame For What Happened On Sunday’s Oscars
And It’s Not who You Think
Sunday night’s Academy Awards were a historic one. Ariana DeBose became the first LGBTQ performer of color to win an acting Oscar when she took Supporting Actress for West Side Story. Troy Kotsur became the first deaf man to win an Oscar for acting when he won for Coda. Kenneth Brannagh and Jane Campion finally reached the pinnacle of their professions after more than three decades after Brannagh won for writing Belfast ands Campion took the Best Director prize for Power of the Dog. And there were so many little joyful moments along the way — including the climax when Lady Gaga presented with Liza Minnelli for Best Picture. All of them deserve to be celebrated and talk about for years…which is why it’s almost tragic that this year’s Oscars will be forever known for when Will Smith walked up on stage and hit Chris Rock after he made a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith.
As is the case with so many viral moments, America is choosing sides: People on Smith’s side will say that Rock was out of line. People on Rock’s side, especially comedians, are saying that Smith has crossed a bridge too far. There are those who want Smith to face assault charges or at least have his Oscar taken away.
What I think that all of these columnists, professional or otherwise, seem to be missing a larger point. Lost in all of the outrage about what has happened is that there is an unindicted co-conspirator in the actions of Sunday night. One that basically helped set everything into motion, but will certainly face no real consequences for it. I speak, of course, of the Motion Picture Academy themselves.
Some may think I’m a writer taken on the cache of former Oscar winner turned conspiracy nut Oliver Stone. Not so. I have four very specific reasons to blame the Academy for what happened, three of which deal with how everything came to happened and a fourth one that slightly blames one of the participants but really is a testimony to the third point.
1. Chris Rock’s presence at the Oscar went against the better sense of the Academy.
To be clear Chris Rock is one of the greatest comedians of all time, full stop. Ever since he debuted on Saturday Night Live thirty years, he has always been edgy, cheerfully profane and always pushing the boundaries of good taste…all of which go against everything that Academy Awards stand for on Oscar night. In the seven or eight appearances he made on the show — including the two occasions he hosted — he always brings his brand of humor to the event and it almost invariably goes over badly.
What’s more Sunday’s Oscars already had two boundary pushing comedians hosting: Wanda Sykes, who worked with Rock on his HBO series and is basically a master of his uncomfortable humor, and Amy Schumer, who in a sense is a child of Rock’s in her approach to comedy and performing. Given their methods of pushing the envelope (which Sykes did in her segment touring the Academy museum) the Oscars had to know they were going to have enough potential trouble from the audience and critics as it was. So why was Rock there at all? This leads to my next point:
2. Why Rock was presenting Best Documentary.
Screenwriters love foreshadowing and so does the Academy. The heavy favorite for Best Documentary was Summer of Soul, produced by the musician Questlove. (I don’t know if anyone noticed but Questlove did win and this artists moment of triumph was overshadowed by what happened a moment before, another great Oscar tradition.) In their heavy handed white privilege way, the Oscars no doubt wanted to have a hip black performer give the award, and I guess they figured any black musician activist like say Common or Beyonce or hell, Sean Combs (who had to cool things down for the record) was too much of a risk. I have a feeling some stodgy executive thought: “Hey, Chris Rock made the documentary Good Hair! (which they didn’t nominate for anything) And he’s a presenter. He’s a safe choice!” How’d that work out for you guys?
3. The Seating Arrangement for that night’s Oscars.
To be honest, I think this was by far the biggest factor in what happened. All of the major nominees from every major film were in the front of the theater at their own tables, presumably so they could just walk right up and accept the award. (This, of course, makes perfect sense. You know what’s been causing the Oscars to run so long all these years; those extra twenty seconds it takes them to walk down the aisle.) Smith was maybe ten feet away from the stage when Rock told his joke. If he’d been sitting in an aisle seat, say fifty or sixty feet away, someone or something would have intervened. An usher would have gotten in Smith’s way. Jada would have told him to calm down. Rock would have seen what was coming and made a comment that would have cooled off this situation. He’s a comedian; he’s used to hostile crowds. By the time anybody had a chance to do anything at all; it was too late to do anything. Which brings me to one last comment. It may not strict be relevant, but it bothered me even when it happened:
4. The Joke that Rock Told.
Yes Rock is an insult comic who says harsh things about powerful people. Which is why his actual joke seemed so out of character. His exact words referred to Jada starring in G.I. Jane 2, the sequel to a Demi Moore movie in 1997. It was in bad taste, no question, but it was also the kind of joke that is completely out of Rock oeuvre. Jada may have been rolling her eyes not so much at being insulted, but due the fact that Rock had to go back nearly a quarter of a century to come up with a joke. This is the kind of insult that Don Rickles would consider too smart and Dennis Miller too obscure a reference. And coming from a comedian who is known for being on point to the time, it genuinely doesn’t sound like a Chris Rock joke. The one he told immediately preceding it — about Javier Bardem not being able to win if his wife Penelope Cruz lost — is exactly the kind of reference I expect from Rock, and it looks like both Bardem and Cruz appreciated it. To go from that to a joke that wouldn’t have landed if he’d told to Demi Moore… it’s not his brand.
As to the question whether the Academy will punish Smith, as they say they are considering. I actually have a lot more to say about this, and may actually do so in a later article. But I’ll be simple: they won’t. They say there was a meeting immediately after the incident about what to do. I guarantee you what the members were deciding were who to send the bigger gift basket to: Smith or Rock.
Because honestly, the Academy owes both of them a huge favor because they did something they really wanted: they changed the subject. Do you remember what the big controversy about the Oscars was before the night began? Several major awards — among them the short subjects — were presented in an earlier ceremony and clips were shown throughout the night. (As a side note, I’m relatively certain the only reason the documentary award wasn’t one of them was because Summer of Soul was nominated. Food for thought.) There was a huge outcry from almost every major technician who works in film — editors, cinematographers, musicians, you know, all the people the Academy says they represent. They were considering staging a protest and may have even been walking on a picket line Oscar night.
But now, thanks to Smith’s attack on Rock, no one’s talking about it. The Academy can do what it always does, and resolve the problem quietly out of the eyes of the media that is now laser focused on the Smith-Rock imbroglio. And as we all know that’s all the Oscars care about: the movie stars matter, everyone else plays second fiddle if they do at all.
And if we’re being honest, they’ll take the wrong lesson from this too. Did you know that between the incident and Smith’s winning, the viewership jumped more than half a million? It would not stun me that when they start doing ads for next year’s Oscars, they’ll being showing footage of Rock and Smith with the voiceover: “What will happen this year?” What they say about no publicity is bad publicity is especially true in Hollywood. No doubt they’ll think they can resolve this by having Rock and Smith present an award together, with Rock showing up on stage with a black eye. You think I’m joking? Remember when John Travolta utterly butchered Idina Menzel’s name in the intro to singing ‘Let It Go’? That’s exactly what they did the next year. “Nothing too original, cause hey, this is Hollywood!”
Finally, for all of you who are taking this seriously right now and consider it a flashpoint, I leave you with this thought. Right now, on some corner of the internet, theories are being floated that the entire incident was staged. For what purpose will depend on who’s doing the posting, but I guarantee you at some point in the coming weeks, it’ll be all over the place. For the record, I thought that was what happened the moment Smith hit Rock. Based on that, what chance does this logic have against social media?
Hell, maybe they’ll even use this article as a source.