' ' Cinema Romantico: The Moment the Oscars Stood Still

Monday, March 28, 2022

The Moment the Oscars Stood Still

At their best, movies are not a recreation of life but a reflection of it, even when they are surreal, perhaps especially when they are surreal, when everything plaguing your subconscious suddenly floats to the top. That’s movies, though, not the Oscars, which are theoretically about honoring the year’s best in movies but are as much about the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences trying to frame itself in a certain light. In 2020, “Parasite” winning Best Picture emblemized the Academy’s shifting demographics; in 2021, “Nomadland” earning the top prize was the Beautiful People letting you know they Feel Your Pain; in 2022, “Coda” became the first streaming release to win Best Picture, gobbled up from Sundance by Apple TV+ who then mounted a reported $10 million ad campaign mirroring the $10 million for which “The Spitfire Grill” (1996) was famously bought for all those years ago at Sundance, and which is what “Coda” most reminded me of, “The Spitfire Grill” (they’re both fine). “Coda’s” statue provided streaming platforms a gameplan for next year’s Oscars and a feel-good story for this year’s. Except.

These Academy Awards were tuned to a calamitous key even before they began. Producer Will Packer announced that eight of the crafts categories would be awarded during a pre-show show, one taking place while the biggest stars were still walking the red carpet, not aired live and to be edited into the broadcast later. If it caused outrage, Packer implored to reserve judgement. I did and now judgement will be rendered. These pre-taped winning speeches were ungracefully mixed in, mimicking NBC’s old plausibly live Olympics flim-flam, not telling anyone they were recorded earlier and then seeming to mix reactions from the pre-show show and the show-show while condensing the winning speeches for length, unintentionally suggesting the industry has an A team and a B team. What’s more, if the intention was to shorten the broadcast, it went well over its allotted three hours anyway, so insistent on beer and skittles, to borrow a phrase, that the show’s rhythm was not so much disrupted as without rhythm in the first place, rushed but paradoxically dragging on. Regina Hall’s COVID positive list bit, when no awards had even been announced yet, really lagged, and her joke about the open status of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith’s marriage was, in retrospect, a red sky at morning.

Even if it happened before The Event, Nicole Kidman’s reaction shot, as Nicole Kidman reaction shots always do, sums it all up.

As the host of the 1996 MTV Video Music Awards, Chris Rock noticed the Death Row music executive Suge Knight in the audience, currently incarcerated for voluntary manslaughter, and said “Hi Suge, don’t shoot me.” He told Rolling Stone in an interview several years later that 2Pac approached him afterwards with a menacing smile, feeling as if the Death Row rapper was a few seconds away from punching him. Well, 26 years later, the cows, to paraphrase Frank Drebin, came home to roost. Because Rock’s dumb joke about Jada Pinkett Smith starring in “G.I. Jane 2” was a mean-spirited, if not outright cruel, joke too, given Pinkett Smith’s alopecia, an autoimmune condition resulting in hair loss. The camera caught Pinkett Smith rolling her eyes and maybe that’s how it should have ended, with Pinkett Smith allowed to deal with it how she saw fit. But that’s not how it ended.

Just five seconds before time briefly stopped, Will Smith was visibly laughing at one of Rock’s jokes, though maybe that was the performer playing the part of a Movie Star on Camera at the Oscars, consciously evincing his One of Hollywood’s Nice Guys image. Indeed, Candice Frederick wrote a piece for HuffPost about Smith reluctantly opening up in a kind of calculated effort often necessary to win an Oscar, and maybe having played the game for months on end had caused too many bricks in that finely calibrated persona to jostle loose. One of Hollywood’s Nicest Guys strode on stage, right toward Rock, as the camera stuck with a long angle, like it didn’t want to see what was about to happen. Some would later say they thought it was a bit, but I felt my stomach drop, and sure enough, Smith smacked Rock across the face on live television and returned to his seat. The two exchanged some terse, profane words and then Rock decreed in a halting voice that let you know this was no put-on, “That was the greatest night in the history of television.” That was how he said it, in the past tense, as if he already sensed this episode, like it or not, would be in the obit. 

Even if Rock managed to right the ship, the smack cast a pall over the proceedings in both directions, retroactively clouding the moving Supporting Actress and Actor acceptance speeches of Ariana DeBose and Troy Kotsur, diminishing Jane Campion’s win for Best Director. Smith even stepped on the toes of his fellow Philadelphian, Questlove, whose “Summer of Soul” won Best Documentary, the award Rock presented a few moments later. As for the smack, multiple things can be true at once, it shouldn’t need saying but always does, and here, multiple things are true at once, none of which I feel inclined to address, more inclined to agree with Alyssa Rosenberg’s take that “sometimes it’s worth letting a disaster just be a disaster in all its wretched clarity.” And what ultimately fascinated me most about the reaction to this terrible episode was the pointed lack of one in the room. The ensuing oddly upbeat in memoriam montage that I think was trying to emit the vibe of a New Orleans Funeral instead became the perfect ironic counterpoint to the suddenly grim boondoggle. Everybody just sat there, Smith just sat there, and the show just, like, went on?

Smith had broken the contract, to quote William Hurt in “Changing Lanes”, the social agreement not to go batshit. But then, that’s just sort of the national mood now, going batshit, countless stories of unruly airline passengers and enraged grocery store shoppers, “a collective trauma”, as The Washington Post put it in a piece by Marisa Iati, induced by the Pandemic. Everything feels frayed, everything feels broken, and yet this dogged insistence on everything going back to the way it was – the dreaded New Normal – persists; there are beans to be counted! Incredibly, improbably, the big, dumb Oscars managed to reflect our present-day reality more than any of its nominated movies.

Will Smith went batshit, sat back down, and then won an Oscar. Everything was not normal, but nobody said a word.

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