The Night the Oscars Lost Control

The most stunning moment at the Academy Awards was an incident the show refused to examine.

Getty; The Atlantic

The damage control began not long after Will Smith slapped Chris Rock across the face. After the two exchanged a few words, Rock glanced offscreen and appeared momentarily bewildered. Then he awkwardly tried to lighten the mood before pressing on to present the Best Documentary nominees.

The altercation was the most shocking moment in Oscars history—at least for people watching at home. But inside the Dolby Theatre, the show proceeded as if nothing of consequence had happened. Behind the scenes, a moderator in the press room asked journalists to avoid questions “referring to anything else in the show other than the winners onstage.” One of the emcees, Amy Schumer, lightly joked about the incident before introducing another presenter. Smith remained in his seat, apparently comforted by his publicist and fellow A-listers—including Denzel Washington, Tyler Perry, and Bradley Cooper—before accepting an Oscar for his performance in King Richard. Not until the ceremony ended did the Academy release a statement referring obliquely to the slap. “The Academy does not condone violence of any form,” it read.

Outside the Dolby Theatre, the irony—and surreality—was becoming clear: The most stunning moment at the Oscars was a moment the Oscars refused to examine. The smackdown was sad, casting a pall over everyone involved: Rock’s joke was tasteless, and Smith’s reaction inexcusable. Worse, the show seemed stuck, unable to reconcile an outburst of unfiltered emotion with its traditional pageantry. The Academy had tried hard to attract more viewers to this year’s show, but after the slap, it shuffled toward closure, smoothing out the wrinkles until the night felt like a disorienting display of inhumanity.

Roughly 15 minutes after his outburst, Smith was back onstage to receive his Oscar, and his acceptance speech provided a rare glimpse into the spin that goes into maintaining a movie-star persona. His words strained to fine-tune his image as an overdue winner devoted to his family, reframing the slap as a “crazy” thing done for “love.” He apologized to the Academy, then to his fellow nominees, while notably excluding Rock. And he nodded toward the difficulty of stardom—“You gotta smile and you gotta pretend like that’s okay”—while making self-deprecating quips and shouting out his mother, watching the show with her “knitting friends” back home. The crowd responded appreciatively, applauding him often and giving him standing ovations. In its reactions, Hollywood closed ranks around one of its biggest stars, turning a complicated moment into something—to borrow a phrase from the fan poll incorporated into this year’s show—“cheer-worthy.” Smith didn’t mention Rock or the precise reason he’d hit his peer; he spent his speech cryptically defending his actions and affirming his position in Hollywood. No wonder it ended with a plea to the powers that be: “I hope,” he said, “the Academy invites me back.”

The Oscars attempted to repair the night by pretending that its most distressing moment was just the kind of mistake that can be explained away amid thank-yous. So even as the slap was talked about by everyone watching, the Academy couldn’t bring itself to call out Smith by name until the next day, away from the cameras. This year’s Oscars had already seemed desperate to dazzle with gimmicks rather than allow all the winners airtime to honor their craft. But when a viral moment actually came along, the show struggled to acknowledge it meaningfully. The Academy and the apparatus around the Oscars cared more to continue the show than to deal with the complex consequences—as did Smith himself, who was later seen dancing at an after-party and posing for photos. (He posted an apology to Rock the next day.)

Then again, that’s the Oscars’ typical approach to conflict: minimize it, rework the narrative, and, ultimately, make people look away. If the Academy truly wants to honor films, perhaps it can exercise the kind of transporting empathy that cinema provides—starting with talking honestly about what everyone just witnessed. Instead, last night, it just edited the story and rolled the credits.