The Oscars were seeking to rekindle their popularity. Last night’s 94th Academy Awards were prepared to try anything, including modifying the structure of the show by awarding eight of the technical prizes separately, something that sparked an outcry among the entire profession. But last night’s ceremony will be remembered for one thing only: the violent actions of Will Smith, the winner of Best Actor for his role in King Richard, who slapped comedian Chris Rock after the latter made a joke about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, who has alopecia. During his acceptance speech, Smith apologized to the Academy and the other nominees for having assaulted Rock. He explained that fellow actor Denzel Washington, who spoke to Smith during a commercial break, had told him: “At your highest moment, be careful, that’s when the devil comes for you.”
Smith’s award-winning role was that of Richard Williams, the real-life father of tennis legends Venus and Serena. In his speech, the actor referred to Williams senior as “a fierce defender of his family.” He was speaking to an audience who were in an uncomfortable state of silence, still unsure as to just what they had just witnessed. Outside the theater, the moment was already a topic of fierce debate on social media.
Smith continued: “I’m being called on in my life to love people and to protect people and to be a river to my people. I know to do what we do you’ve got to be able to take abuse, and have people talk crazy about you and have people disrespecting you and you’ve got to smile and pretend it’s OK.”
Two hours later, the Academy published a brief statement in which it said it “does not condone violence of any form. Tonight we are delighted to celebrate our 94th Academy Awards winners, who deserve this moment of recognition from their peers and movie lovers around the world.”
There is already a history between the Smith family and the comedian, who is yet to make a statement on what happened. Rock was the host of the award ceremony in 2016, a year after the Oscars were singled out for being “so white.” Many Black artists called for a boycott, among them Pinkett Smith, who refused to attend. “Isn’t she a TV actress?” he joked during that ceremony. “She’s gonna boycott the Oscars? Jada boycotting the Oscars is like me boycotting Rihanna’s panties. I wasn’t invited. That’s not an invitation I would turn down, but I understand, I’m not hating.”
The incident involving Smith blew up a ceremony that was seeking to boost audience figures and convey a message of diversity and inclusion after years of criticism from different collectives. Away from this incident, there were few surprises during a night that crowned CODA – a movie about a deaf family – as the big winner. It took Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor for Troy Kotsur, who has become the second deaf person to win an Oscar after Marlee Matlin in 1986 for Children of a Lesser God.
In CODA, Kotsur plays a fisherman who is forced to accept the wishes of his daughter, who wants to leave the family business to study music. The actor gave one of the most emotional speeches of the night. “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,” he said as he collected his award.
Meanwhile, the predictions for Best Actress came to pass and Jessica Chastain took the award for The Eyes of Tammy Faye, leaving Spanish actress Penélope Cruz empty-handed.
CODA’s triumph was a silent one, as the 2,600 members of the audience at the Dolby Theater raised their hands in the air, which is sign language for applause. The movie had become a serious contender in recent weeks, after The Power of the Dog was initially the favorite, after having picked up a series of other industry prizes.
The movie got its premiere last year at the Sundance Festival, and was then purchased by Apple TV for $25 million. At the time that price tag looked excessive, but now it seems more than justified and will also serve to boost the streaming service, which is still seeking to establish itself as a studio in Hollywood. Apple TV now has its first Best Picture prize, something that still eludes Netflix, which has only garnered three awards from 27 nominations so far.
The other big favorite of the night was The Power of the Dog, which had 12 nominations but in the end only walked away with Best Director, for Jane Campion. The New Zealander is the third female filmmaker to take the prize. Hollywood has honored Campion nearly 30 years after her first nomination for The Piano.
Meanwhile, box office success Dune, from Canadian director Denis Villenueve, swept the board in the technical categories with six Oscars. Among these was Best Original Score, with composer Hans Zimmer beating out the competition, which included Spaniard Alberto Iglesias. This marks the second Oscar for Zimmer after his success in 1994 for The Lion King.
It was also a night for comedians to shine. Amy Schumer, one of the three female hosts along with Regina Hall and Wanda Sykes, displayed her biting sense of humor. “This year, the Academy hired three women to host because it’s cheaper than hiring one man.” She also quipped: “You know what’s in the In Memoriam package this year? The Golden Globes,” in reference to the troubled rival awards show.
The night also featured tributes to franchises such as James Bond, which recently turned 60 years old; 50 years of Cabaret, with star Liza Minnelli handing out the award for Best Picture, and 50 years of The Godfather. The director of the mafia classic, 82-year-old Francis Ford Coppola, took to the stage accompanied by stars Al Pacino and Robert de Niro, to give thanks to Mario Puzo, the author of the novel on which the saga was based. He also had words of thanks for Robert Evans, the legendary producer of his movies, with whom he had a tense professional relationship. His words made it clear that some ructions in Hollywood can be overcome.
One of the questions ahead of the award ceremony was whether or not the war in Ukraine would be a protagonist of the night. In the end, it wasn’t. Actress Mila Kunis, who is of Ukrainian descent, presented the performance of nominated song Somehow you Do by Reba McEntire. “Recent global events have left many of us feeling gutted,” she said. “Yet when you witness the strength and dignity of those facing such devastation, it’s impossible to not be moved by their resilience. One cannot help but be in awe of those who find strength to keep fighting through unimaginable darkness.”
Then messages appeared on the screens calling for a minute’s silence after McEntire’s performance: “While film is an important avenue for us to express our humanity in times of conflict, the reality is millions of families in Ukraine need food, medical care, clean water and emergency services. Resources are scarce, and we – collectively as a global community – can do more,” the message read. “We ask you to support Ukraine in any way you are able #standwithukraine.”
Later in the evening, Coppola said “Viva Ukraine” at the end of his speech, with Al Pacino joining him. Some of the guests, such as Jamie Lee Curtis and Paolo Sorrentino, were wearing blue ribbons in support of Ukrainian refugees.
The producer of the ceremony, Will Packer, had worked to make the three-hour event more dynamic, and opted for a powerful opener: Beyoncé singing Be Alive, from King Richard, live on a tennis court in Compton, California, which is where Venus and Serena Williams grew up. Meanwhile, a DJ was present in the Dolby Theater to liven up the tedious waiting around. The overall result was an event with a lot of rhythm.
As previously mentioned, eight of the 23 categories were awarded in an earlier ceremony, which were recorded and broadcast during the official awards last night. They were easily spotted as the winners were not shown walking to the stage, but rather just magically appeared there. The speeches, even in the case of large technical teams, were cut down to 60-second edits that were played during the live broadcast.