Women made Oscar history Sunday night, but it was a man who managed to hijack the headlines.
Well, I guess you could say Will Smith made history, too. I certainly cannot remember another Oscar telecast that was interrupted by a lead actor nominee jumping out of his seat to slap a presenter for making a joke about his wife and then dropping so many F-bombs ABC just leaned on the bleep button for a minute or two.
See, now I’m doing it. Talking about the bad behavior at the expense of the good.
Going into the telecast, all eyes were on Jane Campion in the hopes that she would become the third woman ever to win a directing Oscar (for “The Power of the Dog”), and the first woman to do so the year after another woman, Chloé Zhao for “Nomadland,” had won. Which she did!
Jane Campion won the directing Oscar for ‘The Power of the Dog’ 28 years after her first nomination for 1993’s ‘The Piano.’
And as sad as it may be that we can now celebrate the fact that 3.1% of all directing Oscars have gone to women, it’s even sadder that we aren’t, not really, because everyone is so busy talking about how the academy handed Will Smith an Oscar minutes after he clocked Chris Rock. On live television.
As I wrote last week, this is the first Oscars in which the two front-runners for best picture were directed by women — “The Power of the Dog” and “CODA.” “CODA’s” director, Sian Heder, was not nominated in the directing category, but she won for adapted screenplay (beating, among others, Campion). And when “CODA” took best picture, it was only the third time in 93 years that a female-directed film had won.
Again, and with feeling: the third time in 93 years.
The Will Smith moment stole the Oscars, while ‘CODA,’ Ariana DeBose and Troy Kotsur all made history.
After decades of all men, all the time, three women directors have been honored in the space of two years. Slow, incremental progress to be sure, but progress just the same.
You know what’s not progress? Having a man excuse any sort of violence by saying “love will make you do crazy things.” Rock’s joke about Jada’s shaved head was crass (she suffers from a condition that causes hair loss, which Rock may not have known), but too many women have heard variations of “love makes me crazy” far too often.
Yet that is the excuse Smith offered in his emotional and apparently sincerely remorseful speech after he won for his performance in “King Richard.” At the time it was quite effective; he was crying and groping for words and he did apologize to the academy, his fellow nominees and the Williams family (though not to Rock, who has not pressed charges nonetheless). He talked about the pressure of fame and his position, of his need to protect those he loves.
It was striking television. But even if it wasn’t an actor trying to perform his way out of trouble, as many thought it was, it didn’t matter because Smith’s slap had left the room — the world — in shock, and it overshadowed the rest of the achievements honored.
Will Smith’s shocking slap of Chris Rock overshadowed a show that strained to make movies relevant by leaning on TV, music, sports and stand-up.
Every category that followed, beginning with the award for documentary that Rock, amazingly, managed to present to Questlove for “Summer of Soul,” occurred in a stomach-clenching, anxiety-riddled, dumbstruck vacuum. It was hard to focus on Questlove’s remarks — at times, it appeared, even for Questlove. Billie Eilish and Finneas’ win for song felt like a side note, and the excited anticipation that Smith would win his first Oscar, for the titular role in “King Richard,” turned to something like dread. What would he say, or not say?
As the show marched on, it was hard to focus on the clips and speeches as uncensored video of the moment circulated, social media lit up with questions about whether the slap was scripted (it wasn’t), and whether Smith would be escorted from the premise (he wasn’t). Many of the big awards were given out in that last half hour, and despite heroic professionalism on the part of the subsequent presenters, the audience and the winners, Smith’s actions hung over every win like a pall.
Including those for Campion, “CODA” and Jessica Chastain, who, after two previous nominations, finally won for “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.” Including the lead actor win for Smith, which was the only Oscar “King Richard” took home.
The film had already come under some fire for focusing on the father of the miraculous Venus and Serena Williams rather than the women themselves. Though Smith’s actions cast no aspersion on the sisters, his win for playing their father was stained with apology rather than triumph, and that’s too bad. The tennis GOATs had opened the show, introducing an absolutely stunning performance of the film’s nominated song, “Be Alive,” by Beyonce. Filmed in Compton, on the tennis courts where the sisters first played, it was astonishing in its beauty and power, and certainly historic in its setting and symbolism.
But after the show, which trended on Twitter as “Will Smith’s Oscars,” no one was talking about the Williams sisters, Smith’s performance in the film or even Beyonce, which frankly is a crime against culture.
This was also the first year that the Oscars was hosted by three women — Amy Schumer, Regina Hall and Wanda Sykes — who, with a few missteps, injected humor, biting and otherwise, at just the right moments.
But unlike most every other year, the hosts were barely mentioned; everyone was too busy debating whether Smith was justified in any way or whether the academy would make a statement condemning his actions. (They tweeted that they don’t “condone violence,” so that’s settled.)
All told, women had the largest presence they’ve ever had at any Academy Awards, and a diverse array of winners testified to the power of art (including Ariana DeBose, whose moving speech should have set the tone for the night). But because Smith decided he had to defend his wife against a regrettable joke, virtually every headline revolved around the one man who decided to throw a fit.
Maybe on Monday we can talk about all the triumphant women for a change.
Mary McNamara is a culture columnist and critic for the Los Angeles Times. Previously she was assistant managing editor for arts and entertainment following a 12-year stint as television critic and senior culture editor. A Pulitzer Prize winner in 2015 and finalist for criticism in 2013 and 2014, she has won various awards for criticism and feature writing. She is the author of the Hollywood mysteries “Oscar Season” and “The Starlet.” She lives in La Crescenta with her husband, three children and two dogs.
Myung J. Chun has been a photographer with the Los Angeles Times since 1999. He started as a still photographer and then moved to videography from 2007 to 2018. Chun won an Emmy in 2011 for his work on a multimedia project about innocent victims of gang violence. He previously worked for the Los Angeles Daily News, a position he started in 1988 while attending Cal State Northridge.
Robert Gauthier has been with the Los Angeles Times since 1994. He was the photographer for a project detailing the failings of an L.A. public hospital that won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for public service. Before The Times, Gauthier worked at the San Diego Union-Tribune, the Escondido Times-Advocate and the Bernardo News in San Diego County, his hometown.