Two years into a global pandemic, the 2022 Oscars initially appeared intent on becoming the Grammys tonight.
Kicking off with an introduction by the legendary Venus and Serena Williams and leaping immediately into a lime-drenched performance of the Oscar-nominated King Richard theme song by Beyoncé from the tennis courts of Compton, the 94th Academy Awards on ABC looked like a ceremony in search of an identity.
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Of course, amidst all the winners and performers, there is one shocking and disturbing moment that will define this year’s show and permanently stain the already struggling Academy Awards. That moment was a very unscripted, very real, and only-on-live-television moment when Will Smith went up onstage and hit Chris Rock hard for going off script and mocking Jada Pinkett Smith as he got ready to hand out the Documentary Feature Award.
“Will Smith just smacked the sh*t out of me,” exclaimed the shocked Rock, a past Oscar host, as the Internet exploded with lip-readers for the longest bleep in Academy Awards history. “Keep my wife’s name out of your f*cking mouth,” a censored Smith proclaimed twice after he returned to his front-row seat. No one attempted to remove Smith from the Dolby Theatre for what was clearly an assault regardless of the reasoning behind it.
Although he was interrupted by odd on-air cuts to an Oscar slate and shots of the Williams sisters in the crowd, the tears rolling down Smith’s face less than half an hour later when he won the Best Actor prize was of a man naked with his deepest emotions in front of the entire world. “Art imitates life, I look like the crazy father just like they said about Mr. Williams,” the actor who portrayed Venus and Serena’s father in King Richard said. “Love makes you do crazy things,” Smith added in a speech that no one ever thought once about playing lead-off music over. Smith apologized to the Academy and many others for his role in the fight, but pointedly said nothing about or to Rock on the stage.
It was a dismal scene, without any apparent consequence for what had just gone down.
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If producers Will Packer and Shayla Cowan wanted to make an Oscars for the ages, this is not what they intended.
From the awkward and seemingly unrehearsed opening by co-hosts Wanda Sykes, Amy Schumer and Regina Hall, and a run-on by the kitschy DJ Khaled, this “night for lovers,” as the Trainwreck star joked, will not do much to resurrect the nearly century-old and troubled Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences event. Packer and Cowan may have promised a sleeker and more modern show, but what they ended up with was a scratchy mixtape of the 1990s MTV Movie Awards, the Grammys and the currently defrocked Golden Globes that at times screamed out for a Rob Lowe and Snow White cameo.
The Smith and Rock brawl aside, there were a lot of stars, a lot of music and not much substance at the dizzying Oscars tonight. The result simply wasn’t very satisfying.
Taking lead in the first hour, Schumer set the tone doing her best Ricky Gervais impersonation. That was soon followed by a clothed Chippendale onstage lineup of Tyler Perry, Bradley Cooper, a shirtless Timothée Chalamet and Simu Liu playing into a juvenile meld of Tinder and Covid protocol requirements, which only became more cringe-inducing when Hall gave Josh Brolin a beeped out pat-down. On a night of non sequiturs, there was also the WTF moment of Toto’s lumbering “Africa” from 1982 being played as Judas and the Black Messiah alums and 2021 Oscar winners Daniel Kaluuya and H.E.R. walked out to present Best Supporting Actress.
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Everyone agrees that there have been too many didactic political speeches at awards shows the past 20 years, but to go so far to the other extreme and essentially banish the Abbie Hoffmaneseque open-mic-night statements and sentiments from the show bleaches out some of the Hollywood community’s heart. Blowing off the opportunity for Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to address a global audience, it basically took over an hour and a half before the Oscarcast put the spotlight on Vladimir Putin’s invasion with a series of cable-access-quality slates advocating relief and refugees donations.
None of which should diminish that history was made with Ariana DeBose winning Best Supporting Actress for her role of Anita in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story and CODA’s Troy Kotsur the Best Supporting Actor. The first queer woman of color to win an acting Oscar, DeBose’s triumph is also the second time an actress took home the Oscar for playing the character, following Rita Moreno‘s win in 1962. Kotsur became the first male actor to win for a performance in American Sign Language.
Besides Will Smith, other big wins in tonight’s show went to the Amhir “Questlove” Thompson-directed documentary Summer of Soul, Jessica Chastain for Best Actress, a Best Director win for Jane Campion, and CODA snagging Best Picture. That victory for the Siân Heder-directed film made some more history, with Apple TV+ now the first streamer to win the Best Picture prize – a fact that can’t make Netflix’s Ted Sarantos and Reed Hastings or those scrimping cinema owners very happy.
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Of course, now essentially a vassal state of the Disney-owned ABC, the Academy actually put on a close to five-hour show. In fear of viewers tuning out again, the first hour was controversially not shown live on ABC as eight so-called below-the-line categories were handed out in a short ceremony hosted by Jason Momoa and Brolin. Those awards were revealed later throughout the live telecast with short and fast segments that did little to honor the winners but certainly showed the importance of editors.
Kicking production design, editing and more to the curb for less grunts and more glamor on the ceremony, the 2022 Oscars filled the newly gained time with blockbuster-heavy fan favorite segments that hoped to throw meat and bread to the audience Roman Coliseum style.
Campaigning hard the past month, the fact that Zack Snyder’s Netflix zombie shoot-’em-up Army of the Dead topped the first ever Top 5 #OscarFanFavorite vote, with the live-action Cinderella and plodding and barely released Johnny Depp-starrer Minamata also in the running, displayed the power of a hardcore fan base and not much more.
The irony that the likes of Snyder’s Justice League, Spider-Man: Far From Home, Avengers: Endgame and 1999’s The Matrix were voted online to be among the Top 5 Most Cheer Worthy Movie Moments when non-animated tentpoles have been invisible at the Oscars for most the past decade was as painful as the segment was pandering.
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The state of affairs sunk deeper and pandered harder as Sykes took viewers on a pre-recorded tour of the now opened and long delayed $482 million Academy Museum of Motion Pictures with Grace & Frankie star Tim Bagley.
The reality is AMPAS and ABC have seen the writing on the Berlin Wall. Watching over a decade of decline and coming off record-low ratings and viewership last year, they know the Oscars is a rapidly crumbling brand.
The fact is a three-hour Oscars has always been just fine with the network overlords, as it provides ample advertising inventory to sell. The festering wound on Hollywood’s biggest nightmare is how the audience has gotten smaller and smaller in almost successive years over the past decade. Those result in actively squashing ABC’s bottom line as all those car and other big-ticket spots are left doing donuts to fewer potential consumers.
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Yet, even with the skills of Packer and fellow Girls Trip producer Cowan, the riddle remains how the most talented and adroit storytellers in the world can’t seem to pull off 180-minutes of compelling entertainment with some of the most famous people on the planet in the room. Then, constantly proclaimed, there is the lack of blockbusters like The Godfather, Titanic, Forrest Gump, The Lord Of The Rings: The Return of the King and Avatar among the contenders in recent years.
However, what if that premise is wrong?
What if the decline of the prestige and viewership pull of the Oscars isn’t the show, or even the movies that are nominated? What if the dramatic shift is pivoting on the proliferation of social media, constant and often explicit digital access to the once-cloistered stars and the world of make-believe they inhabit?
Add to that, in a world of TikTok influencers, TED Talk derivatives and Jake Paul, and you have to ask if it really is, all apologies to Norma Desmond, the movie stars that have shrunk and dimmed in the constellations of fame? Really, why linger looking for a glimpse of such-and-such a star on Oscar night, when you can watch their workout routine on Instagram and get the best bits on Twitter or YouTube in almost real time?
All of which means something until Will Smith smacked Chris Rock and everything stopped as everyone held their breath in an instance and then all the illusions came crashing down. A moment when a man, as Smith implied strongly in his acceptance speech, defended his family and what he thought was his honor.
That was no show.
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