Monday, March 28, 2022

The Slap Heard Round the World

I must admit, before the beginning of last night’s Oscars, I was seriously thinking about watching something else. (I know, that could cost me my gay card!) Unfortunately, even HBO’s Sunday night lineup sucks right now. So, I reluctantly tuned in, taking care to avoid most of the ass-kissing red carpet arrivals. (Case in point: Kristen Stewart: a beautiful woman with an awful hairdo. Why didn’t anyone tell her?!)

I thought the big story of last night’s Oscars was going to be boobs. Big boobs and lots of them. Boobs falling out of dresses as far as the eye could see. You know things are bad when a gay man (i.e., me) can be accused (as I was on Facebook) of being obsessed with boobs. But, hey, you couldn’t get away from them.

There were a number of noteworthy moments, but unfortunately, one of them is hogging all the attention, so let me get the elephant in the room out of the way right now.

I’ve never had strong feelings about Will Smith one way or the other, but his slapping Chris Rock in response to a joke Rock made about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith’s close-cropped hair, is still bothering me a day later. Let me just state up front that violence is never an acceptable response to free speech that you don’t agree with. As a stand-up comedian myself, the idea of somebody in the audience walking up onstage and assaulting me because they didn’t like one of my jokes is terrifying, and when someone of Will Smith’s stature does it before a worldwide audience on the Academy Awards, it’s extremely dangerous.

Now, I should also say that it’s generally considered to be in bad taste to make fun of someone’s medical condition. I didn’t know until after the altercation happened that Pinkett Smith has alopecia (a condition that causes one to lose one’s hair) and I don’t know if Chris Rock was aware of it either. If he did, then he was wrong, too. But at the moment it happened, it seemed like a harmless joke (and, for the record, I think Jada looks great with a shaved head). That’s why I, along with probably a lot of other people, thought it was a staged routine at first, until I saw Smith’s angry verbal response to Rock being silenced by ABC (even though I could clearly see him saying the “f” word)

That makes Smith’s subsequent acceptance speech for Best Actor (in which he talked about being “called on” “to love people”) all the more galling. (To be fair, Jessica Chastain’s acceptance speech for Best Actress was also kind of cringeworthy.)

As someone on PBS News Hour pointed out, if there were to be any repercussions for Smith’s behavior, they should have happened immediately. As it was, he got to deliver his acceptance speech as if nothing had happened. I think this illustrates the power imbalance between a movie star like Will Smith and a stand-up comedian like Chris Rock who, even though he’s made movies and is widely considered to be one of the best comedians working today, is still that red-headed stepchild of show business: a comedian. (It also demonstrates the power of ratings: ABC isn’t going to cut away during one of the only moments of real drama in the three-hour ceremony.)

I think the reason we watch the Oscars is because it allows us a peek at a rare moment of spontaneity within the carefully constructed public persona of Hollywood celebrities. No one (except perhaps people in the film industry) cares about the actual awards.

These celebrities sometimes have an exaggerated sense of their own importance (shocking, I know), and it’s not surprising, living in the bubble of Hollywood, surrounded by sycophants.

It’s a shame that Smith’s altercation with Rock eclipsed an evening of notable firsts: first acting Oscar for a deaf male actor, first acting Oscar for an openly gay Latina actress, first Best Picture win for a streaming service.

But, hey, at least it was real.