Will Smith’s slap heard around the world has generated an enormous amount of buzz over the past week – arguably more than any Oscars’ moment ever could.
The 94th Academy Awards needed a revival. Coming off a 2021 Oscars that saw the lowest ratings ever at 10.5 million viewers and a 1.9 rating in the key 18-49 age demographic, ABC showrunners had to turn the sinking ship around.
The plans failed. From the performance of the popular song “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” to cutting out the amount of time it takes for a winner to walk to the stage and eight — yes, eight — awards from the telecast, the attempts to spice things up resulted in a viewership of around 16.6 million and a 3.8 rating: the second-worst ratings ever (though still technically a 58% improvement!).
Given the lack of watching, one would presume no one would be talking about the Oscars the day after, let alone a week after. Yet, that’s the case because of one eye-catching moment.
It all began during a routine where Chris Rock made a joke about Will Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, starring in G.I. Jane 2 with the reference being that Demi Moore’s character was bald in the movie, similar to Pinkett Smith. Pinkett Smith suffers from alopecia, an immune disease that causes hair loss.
A few seconds later, Smith — who was laughing when the joke was made — proceeded to walk up to the stage, slapping the comedian across the face, and strolled right back to his seat. The awkwardness wouldn’t end there. “Will Smith just smacked the s**t out of me,” Rock laughed, to which Smith didn’t mince words in a rebuttal: “Keep my wife’s name out [of] your f***ing mouth!”
“I’m going to,” Rock expaerastingly said. Despite his pondering to keep the fight going (as evidenced by his muttering of “I could…”), Rock continued on, as did the rest of the show. For attendees however, the moment was brutal, with the sound being so quiet a pin could echo throughout the Dolby Theater.
“It’s basically assault,” a Hollywood source told the New York Post. “Everyone was just so shocked in the room, it was so uncomfortable. I think Will would not want to give his Oscar back, but who knows what will happen now.”
For those watching the screen, however, it was a moment of pure, guilty-pleasure bliss. Viewership during that 15-minute timespan following the slap spiked by 511,000 viewers.
Following a dip, ratings would once again rise by 614,000 viewers around 11 p.m. ET, when Smith walked up on stage to accept the Academy award for best actor for his portrayal of Richard Williams in “King Richard.” Watchers were treated to more awkwardness in a tear-filled, bizarre acceptance speech by Smith, who apologized to the Academy but not Rock.
“Love will make you do crazy things. To do what we do, you got to be able to take abuse,” Rock said. “You got to be able to have people talk crazy about you. In this business you got to be able to have people disrespecting you. And you got to smile, you got to pretend like that’s okay.”
Smith, 53, formally apologized to Rock the next day through an Instagram post, but the damage was done. The Academy stated it does “not condone violence,” and is upset that the altercation “overshadowed” the illustrious event.
Though Rock has no plans to file charges against Smith, a punishment could still be imminent. Smith has 15 days to submit a written response to the Academy, which will be meeting next on April 18 and may take “any disciplinary action” including expulsion, suspension, and other sanctions.
Making Smith’s matters worse is his apparent refusal to leave after the slap, the news of which was revealed days after the Oscars. It’s unclear whether the Academy suggested or ordered Smith to leave, but either isn’t an ideal look for the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” star.
Of course, the true dagger — taking away Smith’s best actor award — won’t be on the table according to Whoopi Goldberg, who’s a member of the Academy’s board of governors. A measure such as that would certainly help to back up the Academy’s desires of showing physical outbursts aren’t acceptable and have severe consequences.
Still, it would be the first ever Oscar to be revoked – something that not even film producer Harvey Weinstein, who was convicted of rape and sexual assault, had done to his 1999 best picture award. The revoking would likely open up an even greater firestorm, something the Academy clearly wants to avoid.
“I don’t have a bunch of s**t about what happened, so if you came to hear that, I had like a whole show I wrote before this weekend. And I’m still kind of processing what happened, so at some point I’ll talk about that s**t. And it’ll be serious and it’ll be funny, but right now I’m going to tell some jokes.”
While the actual viewership during Smith’s slap and speech doesn’t jump off the page, the real responses came from the digital world. Social media had a field day with the event, with the Oscars bringing in 22.7 million total social interactions, the most ever for the event and double the 9.5 million social interactions from 2021’s Academy Awards.
Despite the Academy’s responses and actions that show an effort to maintain the prestigious and sparkling reputation Hollywood’s biggest night carries, the viewership and preceding media coverage all but suggests that viewers aren’t enamored by celebrations anymore, but by blowups and emotional outrage.
The 57-year-old Rock is also set to benefit financially off the further buzz about the feud. On Monday, ticket marketplace TickPick tweeted out that they “sold more tickets to see Chris Rock overnight than we did in the past month combine.”
Rock, who began his “Ego Death Tour” Wednesday night in Boston, saw the last remaining tickets in the farthest sections of the venue go for more than $700. “So how was your weekend?” Rock began to roaring applause and laughter. Despite the clear interest in hearing his side of the story, the comedian opted not to delve into the topic – at least for now. “I wrote a show before all this nonsense happened,” Rock said, receiving several standing ovations that caused him to tear up.
Adding logs to the flames have been the takes of other actors and actresses who didn’t hesitate for a moment to jump in. Jim Carrey, who was “sickened” by the incident, stated that Smith was “living beyond his bandwidth” and cracked under pressure. Meanwhile, NBA Hall-of-Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar felt Smith perpetuated stereotypes of the black community, along with diminishing women.
Of course, the woman at the center of it all — Pinkett Smith, 50, who was at the center of controversy for her affair with rapper August Alsina, which led to an open relationship between her and Smith — called for a “season of healing.” Pinkett Smith made no references or apologies in regards to the event, however.
“But for those on the sidelines, the pageantry can get tiresome. Having something, anything, shake up the proceedings can remind us that even at incredibly manicured events, everything is not pre-planned from the minute Sundance screens its first pictures.”
Regardless of the outcome of Smith’s Academy troubles and his relationship with Rock, the 2022 Academy Awards left an impact on Hollywood history for all of time.
Is it for all the wrong reasons? Without a doubt. Even if it may have been entertaining, violence is never the answer. But it could serve a reminder that stars are not above us in the slightest, as Vanity Fair’s Chris Murphy points out. They endure just the same emotions — and elicit the same reactions — as we do.
“It’s also easy to forget that celebrities are actually humans, prone to the same irrational behavior that we mere mortals are,” Murphy said.
That precisely may be the reason why this has sparked such a unique reaction. Because despite all of the Oscars’ attempts to encourage fan interaction and match ever-shrinking attention spans, the show’s core scripted, tame, and pompous ideals remain unchanged, and that’s exactly the problem for anyone who’s not delivering a speech.
It’s why Ricky Gervais’ 2020 Golden Globes speech — from joking about Jeffrey Epstein to chiding the in-person audience for their hypocriticism and attempts to highlight their opinions on world issues — was such a talked-about moment. It went against the norm.
The idea of an actor or actress facing an obstacle and letting their true emotions show is the eyecatcher, not Amy Schumer stealing yet another joke or the lowest-grossing film ever to win best picture. As much as the Academy may try to recapture their once-glory, the true unpredictability will always win out in the end.
Andrew Rhoades is a Contributing Reporter at The National Digest based in New York. A Saint Joseph’s University graduate, Rhoades’ reporting includes sports, U.S., and entertainment. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.