Have you seen Will Smith laugh? It is an absurdly infectious performance of a laugh, a full-throated “HA!” that booms through the cheap seats, a laugh you can hear even if your television is muted. One of the world’s most successful movie stars, the 53-year-old spreads that aforementioned guffaw too eagerly: the man is a disgracefully easy laugh, frequently cracking up mid-sentence, routinely responding to feeble talk-show hosts like he’d been freshly tickled. I have sat across from Smith, made a basic pun and felt — very momentarily — as if I were one of the Monty Python lads.
It, therefore, didn’t feel surprising that when Chris Rock, during a lousy Oscar ceremony, made a thoughtless joke about Smith’s wife the actor Jada Pinkett-Smith, Will laughed. It was his first instinct even as Jada looked pained and raised her eyebrow. Withholding laughter is the right reaction to a joke you don’t like, but Smith, demonstrably incapable of such restraint, belatedly felt more was needed. Sitting but a few paces from Rock, he strode up to the comedian and struck him in the face.
Rock’s joke was uncalled for. He laughed about Pinkett-Smith’s baldness while the actor has gone on record about her troubles with alopecia, and Rock had no business mocking her ailment. However, this isn’t the first time an awards show host has crossed a line. No celebrity has ever gone and hit a comic, not even the proudly nasty Ricky Gervais. What we saw from Smith was not a reaction, it was an episode.
The moment was so entirely unexpected, and Rock so composed, that it was easy to mistake this for yet another badly scripted scene from an awfully inert ceremony. The 94th Academy Awards — streaming in India on Disney+ Hotstar — proved to be a complete and utter misfire. And here was Will Smith, continuing to yell at Rock. “Keep my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth,” he snarled, and while all of us incredulously wondered if he really had yelled the F-word during a live broadcast, he did it again, louder, with all the cameras on him. Ever the TV professional.
The Oscar broadcasters always cut the feed at the first hint of salty language, but Smith may have left them too shocked to react. It was minutes later, during Best Documentary winner Questlove’s emotional acceptance speech that the broadcast halted for ‘technical difficulties’. When things resumed, the assault was being brushed under the carpet. Smith — clearly in need of mental help as well as physical restraints — continued sitting in front of the stage, laughing as musician Puff Daddy said “Will and Chris, we’re going to solve this like family. Right now we’re moving on with love.”
Moving on, however, was not on the cards. The Best Actor trophy would be announced soon.
Has there ever been a worse Oscar ceremony? No, and it isn’t even close. This year the Academy took the shameful decision to present some trophies ahead of the actual show, then splice them into the live broadcast later — which predictably did not reduce running time, and served only to make categories like Best Editing seem like ‘lesser’ categories.
Tastelessness abounded. The hosts were cringeworthy. The ‘In Memoriam’ montage was punctuated with personalised salutes to a few performers — like Betty White and Ivan Reitman — while others we lost flashed in the background like afterthoughts. Also, while I have never felt all Indian performers need to be mentioned in the Oscar segment, the omissions of Lata Mangeshkar and Dilip Kumar felt unforgivably galling. Also: a moment of silence for Ukraine was sandwiched between a musical performance and a commercial break.
Meanwhile, Francis Ford Coppola, flanked by The Godfather stars Robert De Niro and Al Pacino (but not Diane Keaton, alas) ended a note of thanks with a “Viva Ukraine!” that rang louder. Best Supporting Actor winner Troy Katsur signed a beautiful acceptance speech. Billie Eilish slayed a No Time To Die performance. Lady Gaga touchingly looked after the great Liza Minelli on stage. Wesley Snipes wore a helluva suit. Those were the (only) good bits.
Will Smith won Best Actor for King Richard. Visibly emotional, he took the stage and called the man he had played — Richard Williams, the father of tennis icons Venus and Serena Williams —“a fierce defender of his family.” Smith went on, vaguely trying to justify his need to ‘defend’ women he knows and those he plays alongside on screen. He quoted fellow Best Actor nominee Denzel Washington, saying Washington had taken him aside after the assault to warn him: “At your highest moment, be careful, that’s when the Devil comes for you.”
“Art imitates life,” Smith said, half-sobbing and half-laughing. “I look like the crazy father, just like they said about Richard Williams.” The Williams sisters didn’t applaud, looking instead at Smith with concerned eyes. We basically witnessed a man having a breakdown on live television. May he find help soon.
I first realised how incredibly gifted Will Smith was when I saw the 1993 film Six Degrees Of Separation. In the drama, Smith plays a silver-tongued young man charming his way into an affluent white family by claiming to be the legendary actor Sidney Poitier’s son. It is a marvellous performance, and there could be something lyrical about Smith finally winning his Oscar in the year that we lost Poitier, the first black man to ever win the award. This should have been the night of Smith’s life. It turned out to be a wild, wild waste.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film and TV critic, screenwriter and the author of ‘The Best Baker In The World’ (2017), a children’s adaptation of ‘The Godfather’.