From Will Smith’s slap to not televising eight categories, this year’s Oscars was a tasteless mess

Will Smith accepting his Oscar for Best Actor, shortly after hitting Chris Rock for a joke about his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith (Getty)
Will Smith accepting his Oscar for Best Actor, shortly after hitting Chris Rock for a joke about his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith (Getty)

Let’s not dance around the point here. We’re going to remember this year’s Oscars for one thing and one thing only: the moment Will Smith rose up, out of his seat, and slapped Chris Rock across the face with an open hand. The words were “keep my wife’s name out your f***ing mouth”. The trigger was a joke made about Jada Pinkett Smith’s shaved head, made apparently without any awareness that she has talked openly about her hair loss from alopecia for some time. I’ve seen the memes. The salacious headlines. The Twitter-thread lectures. People will talk about this for days. They won’t talk about Ariana DeBose’s beautiful speech, after winning Best Supporting Actress, where she talked about her pride in being an openly queer woman of colour. They won’t talk about Troy Kotsur, the first deaf male actor to win an Academy Award, leaving half the room in tears merely through the force of his gratitude. They won’t talk about Jane Campion becoming the third woman in history to win an Oscar for Best Director.

People will just want to speculate. Was Will Smith’s slap connected to Rock’s previous hosting history, where he made a joke about Pinkett Smith’s decision to boycott the Academy Awards (to quote: “Jada boycotting the Oscars is like me boycotting Rihanna’s panties. I wasn’t invited! Oh, that’s not an invitation I would turn down!”)? Did Smith’s apology to the Academy, after his win for Best Actor, fix anything? Which actions are defensible and which are not? I don’t feel comfortable with any of it.

The truth is: we don’t know Will Smith. The Smith we see in our movies and on our red carpets, who accepted a Screen Actors Guild award earlier this month with such graceful, humble tears, is a construction. He is a product created to feed a fantasy. And what we saw at the Oscars was something else – another Smith whose life, pain, and personal faults have been all but completely hidden from us.

Whatever we choose to say about what happened, we say it about a stranger. And all I can really tell from last night – and from the raw, and somewhat impenetrable, speech Smith gave after – is that we were watching a person in a lot of pain. That does not excuse or condone what happened. It’s merely to state that we only have, in our possession, one small scrap of the entire picture. Rock has declined to file any kind of police charge. This is is a matter that will be, and probably should be, dealt with first in private. The baying public can wait for more concrete answers.

In the meantime? Maybe the Academy Awards can reflect on whether this was really the “viral moment” it always dreamt of. What happened was completely unplanned and unprecedented, but there’s a sort of sickly irony to such a shocking event happening in the middle of what was already the most tasteless ceremony in living memory. It started with the decision to cut eight categories, all either technical or short film awards, from the live broadcast, only to air awkward and truncated versions of the winning speeches throughout the rest of the night. Jessica Chastain, Nicole Kidman, and a number of other celebrities cut their red carpet appearances short in order to, quite rightly, be there for the behind-the-scenes teams who helped their performances come to life.

It was a telling move from an Academy that seems to have lost all basic respect for the films it claims to honour. It became somewhat of a running theme, in ways both ultimately insignificant and deeply hurtful. The idea of running Twitter polls to decide the “fan favourite” film of the year and the “top cheer-worthy moment” of all time felt like the night’s true punchline, after the whole enterprise was taken over by the relentless and insatiable crusading of Zack Snyder fans. “The Flash Enters the Speed Force” from Snyder’s Justice League cut, whatever that is, won the former, while his Netflix film The Army of the Dead won the latter. The night’s hosts – Amy Schumer, Wanda Sykes, and Regina Hall – had their moments and certainly tried their best to keep the night together. But what’s fun about watching them chastise The Power of the Dog for being too long and difficult to understand, or treating Kirsten Dunst, a long-overdue first-time nominee, as nothing but a seat filler? What’s the worth in directing snark at the underappreciated, underseen films that the Oscars should be out here platforming?

The organisers were so keen to rush through a night filled with useless excess – why stage a performance of Encanto’s “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” that doesn’t actually feature the earworm lyrics responsible for its success? – that they let so many of their own winners down. Most egregious of all, the orchestra tried almost immediately to play Drive My Car director Ryusuke Hamaguchi off the stage, after the film won Best International Feature Film. When Chastain, winning her Best Actress award, talked about the night centring around the word “love”, I wish more people had paid attention. I’ll share my favourite Oscars moment, one we’re likely to never hear about again: when presenting Best Picture, Lady Gaga appeared alongside Liza Minnelli to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Cabaret. Minnelli is 76, and rarely makes public appearances anymore. She struggled a little with her cue cards, only for Gaga to gently put her arm around her and say: “I gotcha”. “I know,” was Minnelli’s reply. That was love. And if only that was the kind of thing that made headlines, maybe the Oscars wouldn’t now be such a mess.

Find the full list of 2022 Oscar winners here. See the latest updates and reactions from the dramatic ceremony here, and read about the biggest talking points here