Yes He Did An Awful Thing. That’s Not Why The Oscars Are Upset
As the world knows by now, Friday Will Smith tearfully resigned from the membership of the Motion Picture Academy as a consequence of his attack Chris Rock at last Sunday night’s ceremony. I have no doubt this was a difficult decision, but the only option Smith had. His actions on Sunday completely and totally desecrated the high standards that the Academy Awards have expected of their membership for the last century…and I can’t even be bothered to keep a straight face any more.
I so badly want to be Seth Meyers or Amy Poehler and shout ‘Really!” at the Academy membership. “Really?! This is where you draw the line in the sand. This decision about how shameful this is to the Academy? This is more embarrassing than James Franco and Anne Hathaway hosting? Really!”
Now I realize that the lion’s share of my readers and probably the general public isn’t aware of the long history the Academy has of shameful moments. So I’m going to give you a brief rundown of some the most shameful things that members of the Academy did during the Oscars and were never even asked to consider resigning.
It’s worth noting that, for an organization that says that its Awards are the highest achievement of their membership, for much of the twentieth century some of the greatest actors and actresses in Hollywood couldn’t even be bothered to show up. Katharine Hepburn was nominated twelve times and won four Oscars for Best Actress. She never showed up to accept any of them. Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton held the record for most nominations without winning until O’Toole passed it. For the lion’s share of their nominations, neither showed up. Some of Britain’s greatest thespians — Charles Laughton, Alec Guinness, Albert Finney, Glenda Jackson and Maggie Smith — treated them similarly (save for Smith who showed up to collect one of her Oscars.) Lest you think this is strictly the British holding their noses, Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro spent the 1970s basically not even bothering to show up for any of their nominations. (DeNiro didn’t show up for his Supporting Actor Oscar for Godfather II and Martin Scorsese practically had to beg him to show up for Raging Bull.) Dustin Hoffman spent the first half of his career openly considering the Oscars obscene. (Given his rambling, lengthy acceptance speeches and what we now know of his personal behaviors towards female co-stars, the Oscars might well wish he never showed up when he did win.) Paul Newman, who was a good guy, just didn’t think them worth his time, though he was a good sport and showed up when his wife was nominated.
Now admittedly absenteeism is not really the worst of sins and sometimes nominees are too busy. What about George C. Scott and Marlon Brando? In 1970, Scott made it clear he wasn’t going to accept the Oscar if he won for Patton. Brando made similar noises when he was nominated for The Godfather. In the latter case, when a Native American named Sacheen Littlefeather went up to accept the prize, she basically echoed Brando’s thoughts on how useless the award was, and by her account, felt lucky to get out of there alive. Were either Brando or Scott asked to leave the Academy for declaring their Oscars worthless? No. Both were nominated again for Best Actor the very next year (Scott for The Hospital; Brando for Last Tango in Paris)
Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave were two of the most politically polarizing actresses in the 1970s. When Redgrave took the Best Supporting Actress for Julia, she made one of the most politically alienating speeches arguing for Palestine and mentioning ‘Zionist hoodlums’ threatening her.” The crowd booed her and she took a lot of grief, but they never asked her to leave. Indeed, she got two more Oscar nominations. Fonda was more decorous in her acceptance speeches for Klute and Coming Home, but in the latter case, she caused a major imbroglio when she criticized The Deer Hunter and started a campaign urging the membership not to vote for it for Best Picture. (It didn’t work.) She hasn’t been thrown out either.
Up to this point, some of you are still saying: That may be biting the hand that feeds you, but it’s not criminal. Mel Gibson? Drunken anti-Semitic rant, nominated for Best Director of Hacksaw Ridge in 2016. Roman Polanski, convicted of statutory rape, fled the country won Best Director in 2002. Casey Affleck, assault charges right around the time he was winning every major critics prize for Manchester by the Sea. They may not have had him present Best Actress the following year, but he’s still a member. By the way, has the Academy done anything about Kevin Spacey yet or are they hoping Ridley Scott will edit him out of every major film he’s done?
And all of this pales to the trifecta of the most nominated person in Academy history Woody Allen. The Academy kept nominating him even though he has yet to show up for a single one of his nominated films. They kept nominating him after he left his long-time girlfriend for his adopted daughter. And when Ronan Farrow publicly tweeted about his sexual assault on his sister Dylan for which he was never convicted during his receiving a lifetime achievement award for the Golden Globes, not only did they not kick him out they mounted a defense of him. Now that the charges are public, Hollywood’s backing away from him, but he’s still making movies and they haven’t kicked him out of the Academy.
So when you add all of this up, were Will Smith’s actions worse than any of this? And before you say: “he assaulted Rock because he made a joke about his wife,” let’s not pretend that if at the Governor’s Ball, Smith and Rock walked away and Rock showed up with a black eye the next day, the Academy would have reacted as harshly or as quickly. (Fun fact: the night Lana Turner was nominated for Peyton Place, she went home and before she could take off her dress, her boyfriend Johnny Stompanato yelled at her for not taking him and beat her to a pulp. But you know, he wasn’t in Hollywood.)
No Smith is under fire because by attacking Rock while the cameras were rolling, he forced them to make a decision. Smith was going to get the Oscar, the votes had been cast, his name was in the envelope, and they don’t take away your Oscar for bad behavior even if it happens the hour before you get it. If they asked him to leave, they would be forced to figure out what to do when Smith won. And people from the Oscars say they planned to call the police. I don’t believe it. The Academy has been relying on policing its own for years. They’ve done a crappy job, no question, but they don’t let in outsiders.
And that’s the real reason they are asking Smith to resign. Left to their own devices, they rather sweep this under the rug. But unfortunately, I have no doubt that quite a significant bulk of membership — mostly old white men who because they once had a drink with Jack Warner think they know more about the film business than critics and who can’t possibly be racist because they voted for Denzel (once…and they can’t remember which film) — threw a shit fit about Smith and Rock where I’m certain the most polite phrase used was ‘those people’ and the most printable adjective was ‘uppity’. These are people who at their core who think the most people of color should have to do with the Oscars is host it occasionally and maybe choreograph it. They’ve been fighting all the rules changes every step of the way and in their minds, this incident proved them right. They’re thrilled the ratings went up, of course, but now they have to give in to their demons and get rid of the man they think caused the problem. They’ll never invite Rock back, either, by the way even though he got hit. I have no doubt those same old men considered them basically mouthy. (Hell, I’m willing to bet some of them couldn’t tell who hit who.)
So yes Smith resigned. And he’s starting to lose movie deals. Meanwhile Mel Gibson will be in the next Lethal Weapon movie and Kevin Spacey will slowly begin making movies again and James Franco and Casey Affleck will make a buddy comedy soon enough. Hell, Louis C.K. won a Grammy last night. The whole situation would scream out for a joke that Chris Rock himself might make…and to be clear, he actually has to far friendlier audiences.