MIKE FLEMING: Joe, I thought it a good idea to go back and compare our feelings, days after we live-blogged the Academy Awards for Deadline on Sunday. I must say right up front, I am ashamed of the position I took, in respecting Will Smith for standing up for his wife when she was insulted by Chris Rock, because Jada Pinkett Smith has alopecia and that is why she keeps her hair close-cropped. The person I should have lauded was Rock, who clearly didn’t know about the alopecia and therefore in his mind delivered a silly benign joke, had the discipline to keep his cool after being shockingly assaulted onstage. Smith blew what should have been the pinnacle of his inspiring career, and I blew it in not recognizing the incalculable damage he did to his legacy, and the Academy Awards.
I think by not swiftly removing Smith from the premises, and denying him the crowning moment of an acceptance speech for the Best Actor trophy everyone knew he’d win, Academy leaders Dawn Hudson and David Rubin completely dropped the ball. They can hold as many emergency meetings as they like, and everybody can talk about healing and singing Kumbaya, but I don’t know how they possibly fix this. Make Smith give back a trophy he deserved? Force him to host next year’s Oscars as penance? Bounce him from being a voting member of the Academy? It would have been a hard move for dumbfounded organizers to respond and remove Smith during the commercial break, but it was what was required. Their issuance of a weak statement that the Academy doesn’t condone such behavior was ridiculous. They did condone it by not escorting Smith out, and those who gave Smith a standing ovation when he won his Oscar after his disgraceful moment were as complicit as I was in describing it in the way I described the moment.
It has worn heavily on me the past few days. If the rumors I heard were true – that they went through about 40 people before finally securing the hosts Wanda Sykes, Regina Hall and Amy Schumer – I imagine it will be next to impossible to get someone good to take on such a thankless task next Oscars. Rock was one of the best hosts they’ve had in recent years, and he got cold-cocked on live TV for his attempt to enliven an Oscarcast that dragged.
JOE UTICHI: The entire affair was indecorous, and I mean the 94th Academy Awards as much as I mean this particular, much-discussed moment. By physically assaulting Chris Rock, Will Smith took attention away from the many worthy winners of awards on Sunday night, not least of all Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson, whose documentary Summer of Soul won the award Rock was presenting, and who delivered a most poignant speech many will have missed as they struggled to work out what had just happened. I didn’t even appreciate the full impact of it until I watched it back later, and that was a win I’d seriously rooted for (no pun intended), especially after meeting Ahmir and his producers at several events in the weeks leading up to the big night. In fact, I was with them the day before the event, at a brunch for Onyx Collective, and their spirits were so high. It’s hard to remember that feeling now and I hope they were able to hold onto it in the aftermath of their win.
It’s incumbent upon us, Mike, to do what Smith and the Academy made very difficult, which is to return the spotlight to moments like that, but I know you want to parse this particular incident first, so let me get into it by saying this: had Will Smith done everything he did on Sunday night except physically assault Rock, I think this conversation would be a lot different. If he’d got up from his chair, got right in Rock’s face, and said what he had to say without slapping the guy, I think we’d be putting the focus on whether Rock’s joke even orbited the planet of acceptableness (it didn’t), and it would be part of a wider conversation about the night, not the sole focus of it. What that means, ultimately, is that by hitting Rock he actually diminished the potential power a chivalrous, vocal shut-down might have had.
FLEMING: I wrote quite a bit about CODA including your last Awardsline cover, but I couldn’t focus on the significance of the accomplishment of the Best Picture win, and the validation of the resolve by writer/director Sian Heder and Marlee Matlin to step away unless the film was made with deaf actors playing three of the four major roles. As for me, I let Smith’s own autobiography admission about his father get in the way of my better judgment. His father was a formidable self-made man in the commercial refrigeration business — I recall Smith telling me he watched his father get down under a faulty freezer, with a dead rat right in the place he needed to be to fix it. Smith said his father simply moved the rat and put his head there. But Smith’s father had a drinking issue and he hit Smith’s mother. Me and a lot of sons of alcoholic men have those memories, including the hot shame of not being able to put a stop to it. It’s clear that Smith was terribly troubled by the memory of being unable to stand up to his father, starting at age nine, and forever thinking of himself as a coward, even as for a time he became the biggest action star in the world and convincingly portraying heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali. In the moment after the slap, I recalled how not standing up to his father at a tender age haunted Smith’s every step. When he defended his wife from being publicly shamed by Rock’s tasteless G.I. Jane joke, it struck me that he’d come full circle. Rock should have been told she has alopecia, if he rehearsed the job. In hindsight, nothing Smith did was chivalrous. It would have been, had Smith remained in his seat, and yelled at Rock. Jada Pinkett Smith was in no physical danger. There was no place for an act of violence. Joe, you saw that immediately, and to my regret, I did not.
UTICHI: You very quickly responded to what Smith was trying to do and gave him a pass for it in the moment. I would caution you against being too hard on yourself, because I don’t think you were alone in feeling that initial gut reaction, and I think there are plenty of people out there who still feel strongly that Smith even did the right thing by attacking Rock. Certainly, I don’t feel Rock deserves to be ‘lauded’, as you said up top, for not escalating it further, and given these guys’ history, there’s a part of me that still wonders whether Rock knew about the alopecia and made the joke anyway. Until he comes out and explains himself, we can’t make any assumptions, and if he learned about that after the fact, surely he owes an apology to Jada Pinkett Smith.
But the simple fact, as I tried to point out to you at the time, and as many commenters on our live blog also asserted, is that physical violence must never, ever be the answer. There are millions out there without Smith’s power and privilege who would not have gotten away with behaving like that in the way he has (thus far at least), and just as many more who do get away with it, creating unspeakably oppressive lives for the people around them. With the Oscar stage as his platform, Smith risked giving that latter group permission to behave the way it did.
As for the Academy’s role in all this, I am sympathetic to the reports that governors and producers were so blindsided by what happened that they scrambled to figure out what to do and couldn’t come up with any answers before Smith’s category was announced. They simply did not have any precedent for a major A-List movie star—and pending Best Actor Oscar nominee—being the one responsible for a disturbingly disruptive event like this. But The Oscars have also always been at the epicenter of the broader criticism against Hollywood celebrities—that they are given obscene wealth, golden plaudits, and permission to behave however they might like. And this was a missed opportunity for the Academy to demonstrate that everybody on this planet should be held to the same standard, regardless of how many box office receipts they are responsible for. Smith should have been ejected from the ceremony. His Oscar should have been mailed to him, and I don’t agree it should be taken away—there are plenty of far more egregious recipients who have kept theirs in the wake of criminality and scandal. But he should have faced immediate consequences for what he did, even if Rock declines to file a police report.
FLEMING: The Academy’s announcement that it will investigate is like a shamed #MeToo exec saying they are going to spend time looking deep inside themselves for their behavior. Nothing good will happen., The moment that called for decisive action has passed. Smith’s speech, correlating how he protected his family and took a page in how Richard Williams stood up for his family, is in hindsight foolish and becomes as shameful as all-time Oscar lowlight moments as the time a distracted Tweet-happy Price Waterhouse Cooper accountant handed the wrong envelope to Warren Beatty, ruining that Oscarcast when La La Land was temporarily named Best Picture over rightful winner Moonlight. Or that Rob Lowe-Snow White musical duet debacle under producer Alan Carr.
UTICHI: As I said on Twitter after the event, Mike, it was nights like Sunday that actually make you miss Rob Lowe and Snow White. I think this is a much worse moment in Oscar history than any you cite. Actually, I think this is the darkest chapter in the Academy’s history since 1940, when Best Supporting Actress winner Hattie McDaniel was made to sit at a segregated table away from her white co-stars and director. That was an unforgivable injustice, and will always reign as the Academy’s greatest shame. But there is injustice, too, in allowing Smith to claim his Oscar and head out to the parties without the Academy addressing what he had done earlier in the evening.
FLEMING: In his book, Smith writes poignantly about his grandmother, Gigi, and how she saw a disheveled homeless woman pass by, smelling of urine. To Smith’s disbelief, his grandmother asked this woman her name, brought her in, washed her clothes while the woman bathed, fed her and sent her on her way. I imagine that if it hasn’t happened already, Smith will wake up in a cold sweat and realize how much he let her down. If Richard Williams took the beatings from Compton toughs as shown in the film because it was most important to him that daughters Venus and Serena got their court time, then Smith let him down also. Also Venus and Serena, who became champs only when they learned to control their emotions on the court, he let them down. It doesn’t come along often that a Black actress or actor wins the Oscar. Past winners, from Sidney Poitier to Halle Berry to Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker, elevated the moment with tearful speeches. By comparison’s Smith last hour of the Oscars was an epic fail, and I regret not recognizing it at the time. He mentioned that Washington had just told him that in your highest moment, that’s when the devil comes for you. Smith took that as though somehow he met the devil and bested him. Upon reflection, we can all agree that the devil won.
UTICHI: That is the greatest tragedy of the whole affair, Mike, because Smith deserved to claim that Oscar. His performance as Richard Williams was far and away my favorite when I saw it some six months ago, and it remained so throughout the season. It’s a performance that comes off the back of a career full of brilliant work for every audience imaginable. I remember how I felt when I’d come home from school to watch episodes of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. What the atmosphere was like in the theatre when I saw him become a blockbuster lead in Independence Day and Men in Black. Will Smith has meant the world to me as a role model for most of my life. His journey has meant so much to so very many people, and I consider him to be an actor whose public image set an enviable example for the world. This isn’t a Hollywood hellraiser up to his usual tricks, this is Will Smith. It’s taken me a good day and a half to process the heartbreak of feeling like I can’t align with or endorse his actions. I feel very let down by him, and I am sure I’m not alone.
FLEMING: Because the Academy and producer Will Packer reacted indecisively (Packer was later contrite for an early social media boast about making good on his promise for a lively Oscars), this mess will drag on despite Smith’s days late apology. And what happens to the Oscar future of Smith? Not only is it tradition for Best Actor winners to present next year’s Best Actress award, but Smith has completed production on what has to be a surefire potential awards contender, Emancipation.
Deadline wrote early and often about the film, which CODA Best Picture winning studio Apple won in the largest film festival pre-buy ever at $120 million. Apple, Smith and director Antoine Fuqua then incurred extra costs by moving the film out of Georgia when Governor Brian Kemp signed into law restrictive voting statutes that seemed designed to make it as hard as possible for minorities to vote. They have done everything right to position that film for great things. Said Smith and Fuqua at the time: “The Nation is coming to terms with its history and is attempting to eliminate vestiges of institutional racism to achieve true racial justice. We cannot in good conscience provide economic support to a government that enacts regressive voting laws that are designed to restrict voter access. The new Georgia voting laws are reminiscent of voting impediments that were passed at the end of Reconstruction to prevent many Americans from voting. Regrettably, we feel compelled to move our film production work from Georgia to another state.”
Smith plays Peter, the former slave. Whipped within an inch of his life, Peter’s story was indelibly seared into history in a way similar to the video depicting the murder of George Floyd. After he showed his bare back during an Army medical examination, photos of the scars from a whipping delivered by an overseer on the plantation got published and seen around the world in 1863. The picture gave the abolitionist cause indisputable proof of the cruelty of slavery in America, and when the photo reached around the world, legend has it that it made countries like France refuse to buy cotton from the South. The photo, commonly called The Scourged Back, solidified the cause of abolitionists and the rest of the world against slavery and prompted many free blacks to join the Union Army. When Deadline broke the story of this project, Fuqua noted that the photograph was “the first viral image of the brutality of slavery that the world saw, which is interesting, when you put it into perspective with today and social media and what the world is seeing, again. You can’t fix the past, but you can remind people of the past and I think we have to, in an accurate, real way. We all have to look for a brighter future for us all, for everyone. That’s one of the most important reasons to do things right now, is show our history. We have to face our truth before we can move forward.”
The film is an action thriller with a powerful emotional core that involves Peter’s death-defying journey to escape his captors. Using onions to mask his scent from pursuing bloodhounds, and his strength and smarts to survive running barefoot 10 days through the swamps and all the creatures in it, on his way toward being a free man. This will be an important film. It will be a shame if it gets marginalized at next year’s Oscars.
So Joe, thanks for letting me get that off my chest. It has been bothering me for days, just the way that the La La Land Best Picture debacle did. I imagine every journalist who covers the Oscars over the season cares deeply and we hope the Academy and the Oscarcast producers will do their best to live up to a great tradition. I have always though Smith was a good person and one of my favorite to interview, and I hope he feels the full weight of all this. All we can do, myself included, is be better going forward.
Joe, other than that historic debacle, how did Mrs. Lincoln enjoy the play? How does the Oscars play back in your mind a couple days later?
UTICHI: How long do we have, Mike? This was an Oscar show that seemed embarrassed to be handing out Oscars. There is no excuse for it. Will Packer and the Academy made all sorts of bold pronouncements about feeling the need to insert into the Oscar show an acknowledgement of blockbuster cinema, because those foolish industry professionals who form the Academy voters list never recognize. How did they do this? They moved eight categories out of the live show entirely, presenting them before the telecast started and then cutting in brief, blink-and-you-miss-them shots of the winners’ speeches. Well, Dune, which is perhaps one of the best, most unique blockbuster movies of the past 20 years, won six of those prizes, so great job guys. And then they had the fans vote on their favorite movie, and a cringe-inducing “cheer moment”. What happened there? Zack Snyder’s army of overhyped fanboys came out en masse to get both Army of the Dead and Justice League to the top of those polls, while Johnny Depp’s obsessive defenders ensured Minimata got slotted in. The year’s truly most popular blockbuster, Spider-Man: No Way Home, the film Oscar producers must have hoped would dominate here, became a footnote.
FLEMING: The Zack Snyder stuff was preposterous and they should not even have aired it. They got three extreme sports athletes to introduce a James Bond montage; what was that about? Daniel Craig is on Broadway, but if they couldn’t get another 007, who not Halle Berry, so memorable in her Bond turn and the sole Black Best Actress winner? And finally, why highlight the passing of Betty White, a beloved figure but as much of a non movie star as was Bob Saget, whose death was ignored? And while they tipped the hat to anniversaries of films like Cabaret, The Godfather and White Men Can’t Jump, why not show clips of those films? I understand they planned to run a nice clip package on Cabaret, but scrapped it for time. Instead, we got star Liza Minnelli, not looking her best. Gotta say that the pre-recorded categories did save time, but they should have used that time more effectively. It still dragged until Rock took the stage and a hockey game broke out.
UTICHI: The bottom line is that this was amateur hour at the Academy Awards. Yes, the ratings were up over last year’s pandemic-stifled snorefest. But I genuinely believe viewers are tuning out s because the show keeps trying to crowbar in these poorly planned attempts at entertainment. If the Academy doesn’t even have any faith in the competitive spirit of speculating about what’s going to win, why should anybody else? In the live blog, I became very conscious that the winners were whizzing past while we were still processing the latest comedy skit or bizarre reunion, none of which were particularly entertaining. I’ve found myself having to re-watch multiple winning moments just to process them, and there were some real doozies to celebrate.
In addition to Questlove’s speech, I was delighted that CODA won Best Picture—and look at that, we’re only just mentioning the film that won BEST PICTURE—and that Jessica Chastain prevailed for Best Actress in The Eyes of Tammy Faye. Troy Kotsur’s win for Supporting Actor in CODA brought me to tears even in the moment, and he delivered a warm, hilarious acceptance that deserves its place in Oscar history. And the words of Ariana DeBose, who won Supporting Actress for West Side Story, meant a lot to me personally, especially since they were broadcast on ABC, a Disney-owned network, as its parent company deals with the fallout of its poor response on Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law.
There was so much meaning behind so many of these winners. Drive My Car for International Film, Belfast for Original Screenplay, Jane Campion for Best Director. And in the hinterland categories excluded from the broadcast, I was especially delighted for Aniel Karia and Riz Ahmed who won Live Action Short for The Long Goodbye. “This is for everyone who feels like they don’t belong,” Ahmed said. “Anyone who feels like they’re stuck in a no man’s land. You’re not alone.” Those words are ringing in my ears because they seem so very applicable to so very many injustices, including ones as comparatively trivial as the handing out of the Academy Awards. How much more powerful would it have been to hear those words live? And how ironic those words were delivered by a very well-known actor who has appeared in a Star Wars movie, who was himself nominated for Best Actor last year, given all the Oscar show’s guff about mainstream cinema. It’s people like Ahmed who belong in the mainstream more than many. More, perhaps, than Will Smith.
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