For all of those newsworthy breakthroughs, however, and despite the fact that people were happy to be back in the Dolby Theater after a two-year hiatus due to covid, the most memorable moment was Will Smith’s bizarre physical and verbal assault on presenter Chris Rock after Rock told a joke at the expense of Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. The onstage ambush, which initially felt staged as a gag, left the live and home audiences in stunned, what-just-happened disbelief. Moments later, when a simultaneously defiant and contrite Smith won an Oscar for his leading role in “King Richard,” he tearfully noted how life was imitating art, referring to his real-life character Richard Williams, father of tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams , whom Smith described as “a fierce defender of his family.”
What will inevitably be remembered as “the slap” instantly gave the Oscars the kind of viral moment that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been chasing for years, as ratings have plummeted, especially among younger viewers. The disconnect between Hollywood movies and the audience has only widened over the past two years, when the coronavirus pandemic halted many releases, shuttered theaters and sent people to their couches, remotes in hand.
Were they watching movies? Or TV? The distinction became increasingly fuzzy, as feature films were absorbed into the great wash of visual storytelling that has been flowing onto our home screens with dizzying speed and increasingly unmanageable volume. In an effort to engage young viewers, the academy took to social media to poll fans on their most “cheer-worthy” movie moments of 2021, as well as their favorite films. The results were underwhelming, with two forgettable Zack Snyder productions — “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” and “Army of the Dead” — taking top honors in what looked suspiciously like a massive trolling operation.
“CODA,” which over the past several weeks quietly overtook Campion’s Netflix movie “The Power of the Dog” as the best picture front-runner, was undeniably popular with the people who saw it; but according to a recent report in Deadline, fewer than a million people have watched it on Apple TV Plus since it premiered on the streaming service in August. “Power of the Dog” was considered a success for Netflix, but only about 3 million people have seen it on that service. (“Don’t Look Up,” the climate change satire that was also nominated for best picture, was seen by more than 10 million Netflix subscribers.)
Meanwhile, the movies that succeeded in getting people into theaters in 2021 — films like “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and the James Bond installation “No Time to Die,” went home virtually empty-handed on Sunday, although Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell won for their Bond theme song. In a nod toward old-fashioned big-screen entertainment, “Dune,” Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel, won six Oscars, mostly in such craft categories as sound, editing, production design and musical score.
This year, the academy announced that those awards would be presented before the telecast. The taped speeches wound up being plopped into the live show in what amounted to awkwardly edited afterthoughts. The result was a painfully obvious mixed message: The academy’s stated reason for the slap it delivered to technical categories was to shorten the program, which was still bloated. Yet throughout the show, they kept trotting out actors and filmmakers to pay tribute to classic movies of yore, resulting in such odd bedfellows as “White Men Can’t Jump” and “Juno.”
Ovations for “Pulp Fiction” and “The Godfather,” which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, arguably made more sense. But as the Hollywood elite rose to honor “Godfather” director Francis Ford Coppola and his stars, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, the sound did n’t resemble applause as much as whistling past a graveyard. If Coppola pitched “The Godfather” today, it would no doubt be a series on Hulu, with the requisite number of spinoffs and prequels written into the contract as deliverables.
Then there was the inescapable connection between the violence and tribal male aggression celebrated in those films and the bizarre moment between Smith and Rock — a moment that, considering American cinema’s long love affair with violence and rituals of honor and vengeance, might have been shocking but shouldn’t have been surprising. (“The Academy does not condone violence of any form,” the organization said in a statement after the ceremony. Well, except when it’s in movies.) The Oscars have a long history of accidents and unscripted stunts — the notorious streaker incident of 1974 ; Marlon Brando’s refusal to accept his award in person; the mix-up with “La La Land” being announced when “Moonlight” won in 2017. But Smith’s outburst was on another order of magnitude, both in the fury of its execution and the fraught emotions and history that propelled it.
Smith, who seemed to have most of the room on his side, came back to deliver a five-minute acceptance speech, in which he apologized to the academy and his fellow nominees and explained his actions in a way that made them understandable, if deeply regrettable. He had made the Oscars relevant when the movies themselves couldn’t, in a way that will haunt this year’s ceremony forever, and no doubt bring viewers back next year to catch the second act.