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At This Year’s Oscars, Real Historical Achievements and Diverse Wins Were Overshadowed by Wild Antics

History was made at last night's 94th Academy Awards, but the true achievements seem destined to be ignored in the face of embarrassing tricks, both real and unplanned.

THE OSCARS® – The 94th Oscars® aired live Sunday March 27, from the Dolby® Theatre at Ovation Hollywood at 8 p.m. EDT/5 p.m. PDT on ABC in more than 200 territories worldwide. (ABC)ARIANA DEBOSE

Ariana DeBose at the 94th Academy Awards

ABC

For its 94th annual Academy Awards, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences first promised a return to normalcy. The Oscars ceremony would once again be held at Hollywood’s Dolby Theater after a single year at downtown LA’s Union Station. For the first time in four years, the show would welcome back hosts, with the comedic trio of Amy Schumer, Regina Hall, and Wanda Sykes stepping into the storied gig. Producer Will Packer assured big, fresh changes to increase ratings.

But things were off on a bad foot from the start. First, there was the much-discussed choice to jettison eight diverse categories to the pre-show festivities, including a number of craft awards and all three short film honors. During the non-televised “golden hour,” plenty of wonderful stories unfolded. British Pakistani actor Riz Ahmed and British Indian director Aneil Karia’s “The Long Goodbye” claimed Best Live Action Short Film, making Ahmed the first Muslim to win in the category. Ben Proudfoot’s “The Queen of Basketball,” about the first and only woman to be drafted into the NBA, won Best Documentary Short. But that’s not what people actually saw, and certainly not what will be remembered from the 2022 Oscars.

In the show’s final hour, the festivities totally devolved when Best Actor nominee Will Smith — who would soon pick up his first Oscar for “King Richard” — slapped presenter Chris Rock after the comedian tossed out an ill-advised joke about Smith’s wife Jada Pinkett Smith.

After “the slap heard round the world,” taking stock in what went right proved difficult. Some good did happen: A woman won Best Director. The acting categories recognized some historic first- and second-time wins. The second Japanese film ever won in Best International Film (three others had previously won non-competitive Oscars). A film about a deaf family, cast almost entirely with actually deaf performers, won Best Picture.

But some hard, unavoidable truths remain. While last year featured the most diverse assemblage of nominees in the Academy’s history, the acting categories this time around were overwhelmingly made up of white contenders. The stories nominated for Best Picture were overwhelmingly white, too. Still, seven years out from April Reign starting the #OscarsSoWhite conversation, films like Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s “Drive My Car,” Reinaldo Marcus Green’s “King Richard,” Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story,” and Sian Heder’s “CODA” all outlined the various forms diversity can take while allowing new talents to emerge.

Ryusuke Hamaguchi

Ryusuke Hamaguchi backstage at the 94th Academy Awards

Gilbert Flores for Variety

Every year, the Oscars are rife with historic parallels. No mirror was clearer than Ariana DeBose taking home Best Supporting Actress for playing Anita in “West Side Story,” a role her co-star Rita Moreno won for in 1961, becoming the first Latina actress to win. DeBose is the first openly queer Afro-Latinx actress to claim an Oscar, and only the second Latina for acting. (Yes, that means that Latinas have only ever won for the same role.)

“You see an openly queer woman of color, an Afro-Latina, who found her strength and life through art. And that is, I think, what we’re here to celebrate,” said DeBose during her emotional acceptance speech. “So if anyone has ever questioned your identity, I promise you this — there is indeed a place for us.”

Twenty-five years after Marlee Matlin became the first deaf performer to earn an Oscar for her Best Supporting Actress turn in “Children of a Lesser God,” her “CODA” castmate Troy Kotsur became the first male deaf actor to win an Academy Award, and only the second deaf actor overall. While accepting the award for Best Supporting Actor, the breakout actor dedicated the award to his father.

“My dad, he was the best signer in our family, but he was in a car accident and he became paralyzed from the neck down and he no longer was able to sign. Dad, I learned so much from you. I’ll always love you. You are my hero,” Kotsur said.

The live performances, another attempt at a return to normalcy, proved to be a highlight, including “Dos Oruguitas” from the “Encanto” soundtrack and Beyoncé’s “King Richard” track “Be Alive,” plus a vibrant rendition of the smash hit (but not nominated) “Encanto” track “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” featuring guest spots for Megan Thee Stallion and percussionist Sheila E.

at the 94th Academy Awards held at Dolby Theatre at the Hollywood & Highland Center on March 27th, 2022 in Los Angeles, California.

Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith at the 94th Academy Awards

Christopher Polk for Variety

But that slap. This year, in a show filled with outlandish bits that pushed the boundaries of taste, a staged confrontation between Smith and Rock didn’t, at first, appear totally far-fetched. But the seriousness soon became abundantly clear. The altercation between Smith and Rock placed a pall over the rest of the evening. Directly afterwards, for instance, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson nabbed Best Documentary Feature for “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised).”

During Thompson’s heartfelt speech, no one, it seemed, could wipe their mind of what had just been televised. Would the presumptive Best Actor winner even be allowed to accept his award?

A few moments later, Jane Campion achieved the lone win for her queer Western “The Power of the Dog,” claiming Best Director. Nearly 30 years ago, Campion was nominated for the first time in the category, only to lose to Spielberg. (That year, she also won Best Screenplay.) In this rematch, however, she came out on top. And after that Critics Choice Awards snafu, wherein she succumbed to an unforced error by ridiculing the Williams’ sisters achievements, this time, she brought a prepared speech.

But who was even paying attention? While Campion made history becoming the third woman to secure a Best Director win, the second in two years after Chloé Zhao’s 2021 win for “Nomadland,” even she couldn’t overpower Smith’s blunder and its aftereffects.

Smith did win Best Actor for “King Richard.” His speech, however, proved painful. Tears streamed from his eyes. He apologized to the Academy and his fellow nominees (but not Rock), but not before he reflexively used his character’s real-life hurdles to excuse his own behavior. “Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family,” Smith said. “In this time of my life, in this moment, I am overwhelmed by what God is calling on me to do and be in this world.”

Smith spent his speech pitching himself as a protector and defender of the cast, an ensemble including Best Supporting Actress nominee Aunjanue Ellis. The bid drew mixed results from the crowd. For an actor so associated with a cool, unbound persona, the words and the actions did not compute. It took a mentor like Denzel Washington, nominated for Best Actor for “The Tragedy of Macbeth” — and who, in many ways, now holds the role of Sidney Poitier, a respected Black actor acutely aware of Smith’s responsibility as a Black actor in a white industry — to take him aside to quell the flames.

Jane Campion, winner of the Oscar for Directing for “The Power of the Dog” at the 94th Academy Awards held at Dolby Theatre at the Hollywood & Highland Center on March 27th, 2022 in Los Angeles, California.

Jane Campion at the 94th Academy Awards

Gilbert Flores for Variety

Lost in the kerfuffle: By winning his first Academy Award, after two previous nominations for “Ali” and “The Pursuit of Happyness,” Smith became only fifth Black man to win Best Actor (joining Poitier, Washington, Jamie Foxx, and Forest Whitaker). In an awards show still struggling to recognize above-the-line Black talent — only one Black woman has ever won Best Actress (Halle Berry), no Black woman has ever been nominated for Best Director, no Black creative has ever won Best Director, the list goes on — Smith’s crowning achievement should’ve been cause for a major celebration.

Instead, the moment laid overshadowed.

The only event that partly recaptured the night’s magic was Best Picture: Lady Gaga and Liza Minelli presented, sharing a heartfelt exchange as they opened the final envelope, and Heder’s “CODA” took the top prize, making the Apple the first streamer to win Best Picture. Featuring a mostly deaf ensemble, the uplifting family drama set in Gloucester, Massachusetts, stars Emilia Jones as a daughter of deaf parents trying to leave her small town.

With the win, “CODA” also became the first Sundance winner to take home Best Picture. (The feature documentary winner “Summer of Soul” also launched from the festival.) It also became the first film since 1932’s “Grand Hotel” to claim Best Picture without a corresponding nomination for either directing and editing.

Most importantly, it’s the first time movies directed by women won the Best-Picture Oscar in back-to-back years. With the win, the film went three for three (Heder also won Best Adapted Screenplay), and a different kind of diversity emerged, one not solely based around gender or race. That’s what people should remember from these Oscars.

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