The 2022 Academy Awards will always be remembered as “The Oscars When Will Smith Slapped Chris Rock.” As soon as the frightening assault occurred, its impact and infamy were inescapable. Something this ugly has never happened at the Oscars (not in my memory, at least), but any kind of unscripted curveball has a way of defining these telecasts. Last year’s ceremony was expected to be “The Pandemic Oscars” before it became “The Oscars When Chadwick Boseman Lost,” and the 2018 Academy Awards saw a “La La Land”-slide turn into “Moonlight, Actually” in its confounding final moments. The last word on live awards shows isn’t easy to predict, nor can it be controlled. Producers set a theme, but the night’s ultimate thesis isn’t so easily assigned.
Smith’s slap — delivered after Rock made a crass joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s hair — wasn’t even an isolated moment. It took over the final hour-plus of the broadcast. As the presumptive favorite to win Best Actor, audiences knew his impromptu trip to the stage wouldn’t be his last of the evening. Sean Combs could promise the beef would be squashed at the after-party, but viewers didn’t have to wait for backstage reporters to get the scoop. They could hear from the man himself.
“Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family,” Smith started, choking up between sentences. “In this time in my life, in this moment, I am overwhelmed by what God is calling on me to do and be in this world. […] I’m being called on in my life to love people. And to protect people. And to be a river to my people.”
“Thank you D,” he said to fellow nominee Denzel Washington, who reportedly took Smith aside after the incident to share some advice. “He said [to me], ‘At your highest moment, that’s when the devil comes for you.'”
“I want to apologize to the Academy, I want to apologize to my fellow nominees,” Smith said. “This is a beautiful moment. I’m not crying for winning an award. It’s not about winning an award for me. It’s about being able to shine a light on all the people. […] I hope the Academy invites me back.”
These words and the many more he shared will be scrutinized and analyzed for weeks, if not much longer. Reactions tied to Smith’s slap and resulting comments are as myriad as they are complex. The crowd at the Dolby Theater responded with louder cheers than boos, and the cameras showed many standing to applaud the Best Actor winner as he left the stage. Perhaps, in the room, it’s easier to fall back on customs; to clap when you typically clap; to return to the “celebration.” Tension seeks relief, and there was certainly tension present. But for those viewing at home — the audience that ABC and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences fought so hard to win back after last year’s ratings debacle — there was no moving on. Smith’s slap was this year’s Oscars.
And it was horrible.
And inadvertently, fatefully, some would argue inevitably, so was the rest of the show.
Well before Smith’s slap derailed every other decision regarding the 2022 Oscars, there was a long, vexing lead-up to tonight’s sloppy, confounding event. Earning the most ire was producer Will Packer, ABC, and the Academy’s choice to hand out awards in eight categories prior to the telecast and edit them into the broadcast in a shortened form. This was done, they said, to save time. Running long was the ultimate enemy of the Oscars telecast.
This year’s Oscars was the longest ceremony since 2018, running a full 39 minutes over their allotted time.
No matter. As many Academy Award enthusiasts pointed out when the decision was first announced, it doesn’t matter how long the Oscars are, so long as they’re good. Was it immensely disrespectful to relegate and condense eight winners’ honor of a lifetime? To signify that their professions aren’t as worthy of the time given to their more famous peers? To try to speed by the essential artistic accomplishments that help build an awe around filmmaking? You bet! But if the 2022 Oscars used that saved time to add elements that would bring relevance back to an institution losing its cultural currency, the producers (and others) argued it would all be worth it.
So, let’s take a look at what they added.
In the first opening monologue, Wanda Sykes joked that “The Power of the Dog” was too long. “I watched that movie three times, and I’m almost halfway through.” The film is shorter than seven of the 10 Best Picture nominees. Perhaps this was an earlier indicator that the Academy has a fuzzy relationship with time, as a concept.
In the second monologue of the night, Amy Schumer said she didn’t see any of the Best Picture nominees. She would later dress like Spider-Man, in yet another attempt to shoe-horn Marvel movies into a show aired by ABC, which is owned by Disney, which also owns Marvel, which is why we saw at least three ads for “Moon Knight” during the breaks. “Spider-Man: No Way Home” is two hours and 28 minutes long.
“Dune” co-stars Jason Momoa and Josh Brolin were presenters for Best Sound, the first pre-recorded category to air during the ceremony. The clip was introduced without explanation. Audiences who don’t follow Film Twitter likely thought the “Dune” duo was live, at first, and only realized something was amiss when the rushed editing resulted in winners making lightning fast trips to the stage. If that was all that was cut, perhaps these controversial maneuvers would’ve been smoother. But rather than hear the full acceptance speech, producers chose to let us hear Momoa burp. On stage. At the Oscars.
In sticking with another hotly contested decision, the 2022 Oscars made time to honor two “fan favorite” winners. The Greatest Movie Cheer Moment of All-Time was, obviously, from a “film” that never played in theaters. Meanwhile, this year’s fan pick for best movie was “Army of the Dead,” the second 2021 film from a director with an, ahem, passionate fanbase.
Movie lovers got to learn that BTS, the super-popular South Korean boy band, has two favorite musicals: “Coco” and the live-action “Aladdin” starring — you know it! — Will Smith. And the pop stars weren’t the only random fans included: A snowboarder, a skater, and a surfer paid tribute to cinema’s suavest secret agent, while Robert De Niro showed up to honor “The Godfather” — a film he was not in! (Yes, he won an Oscar for “The Godfather: Part II,” but its 50th anniversary isn’t until 2024.)
“Encanto” won Best Animated Film and, even though “Dos Oruguitas” lost Best Song to Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell’s “No Time To Die,” the Oscars still made time for another number from the Disney musical: the chart-topping, not-nominated “We Don’t Talk About Bruno.” (Did I mention Disney owns ABC?)
The producers also made sure to play off winners who did get to receive their awards live, during the broadcast, such as “Drive My Car” director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, “Dune” visual effects supervisor Gard Nefzer, and “Cruella” costume designer Jenny Beavan — the legend who wore this to the Oscars when she won for “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Their time was presumably cut short in order to honor “Pulp Fiction’s” landmark 28th anniversary (28!) by watching John Travolta and Uma Thurman dance near Samuel L. Jackson — oh, and his acceptance speech for winning an honorary Oscar was also not included in the broadcast, because who wants to see that?
To be fair, there were actual highlights within the 2022 Academy Awards telecast. Ariana DeBose got the winners off on the right foot with an elegant, well-written speech that promised “there is indeed a place for […] queer women of color.” Troy Kotsur took the opposite tactic, appearing almost totally off the cuff while getting a laugh with his Popeye reference and tugging our heart strings with his closer: “Look at me now! I did it!” Youn Yuh-Jung made the moment even stronger, first by signing Kotsur’s name after opening the envelope and then standing directly next to him throughout his speech, holding his trophy and beaming at the elated winner. Questlove, Jessica Chastain, and the “CODA” team — which won Best Picture in true underdog fashion, given its three total nominations — all spoke from the heart, and spoke well.
Unfortunately, it’s doubtful many people will remember what they said, since every word came after Smith’s slap, his own lengthy acceptance speech, or both. Shocking moments have a way of overshadowing everything around them, whereas beautiful ones can elevate an entire show. But what’s often beautiful about the Academy Awards is natural; it’s the jubilance of winners, the electricity of a live show, and the unifying love everyone feels for movies themselves. This year’s Oscars actively sought to destroy each of those foundational elements. They pared down the winners, they zapped the energy by pre-taping key segments (not even Beyoncé was live! Beyoncé!), and they reaffirmed many fans’ worst fears: that the people putting on the Oscars appeared to hate the Oscars.
Hate won when producers cut categories, hosts mocked the nominees, and the powers that be placated to popular opinion over the voice of actual Academy voters. Hate won when Smith slapped Chris Rock. Hate should have no place at the Oscars, but here we are, looking right at it. And as much as we may like to, we can’t forget the 2022 Oscar telecast was a catastrophe outside of its defining moment. Otherwise, the years to come will only follow suit.
The 94th Academy Awards took place Sunday, March 27 at the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles, California.