Is it too soon to make jokes about the Oscars?
(One thing I’ve learned from being in media: it’s never too soon to make jokes.)
Sure, the “Slap Heard ‘Round the World” hasn’t done anybody’s Twitter feed any favors — not Will Smith, not Chris Rock, and not Jada Pinkett-Smith. And it may well spell consequences for Smith, possibly removal from the Academy.
But on the bright side, it was a massive boost for Oscars viewership, which has suffered a 60 percent decline since COVID came along. People will likely be lining up for the sequel next year, just to see who might be slapping around Chris Rock onstage. (What’s next? Oscar presenter bodyguards?)
But the Oscars broadcast has never been a placid, seamless experience. There are always gaffes. And there have been shockers. None so visceral or, well, as stinging as the Will Smith smackdown of presenter Chris Rock. But let’s look back at some of Oscars’ greatest, er, hits…
Adrien Brody tongue-dives Halle Berry
This was one of those moments that went from being “Awww…” to “Ewww!” in no seconds flat. For Brody, winning the Best Actor trophy for The Pianist in 2003, it was apparently a dream-come-true moment — capped by an unscheduled lunge and unwelcome facial plant upon previous year’s Best Actress winner Halle Berry’s unsuspecting tonsils.
Brody went full Brody on her, and it didn’t take long for people to cite this as the first live sexual assault in Oscar history. Um, she didn’t ask for that, okay?
Marlon Brando disses the Oscars
It was 1973, and Brando was up for the Best Actor trophy for his comeback role as Vito Corleone in The Godfather. But the Don of Method Acting decided he wouldn’t actually come back. Instead, he sent a Native American civil rights activist named Sacheen Littlefeather up to the stage to reject his trophy as a protest.
Littlefeather read a statement from the famously mercurial actor saying that he was a no-show and no-Oscar-accepter because of “the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry.” Many audience members rather unkindly booed her. (For the record, it wasn’t the first time an actor had declined the award: George C. Scott had turned down his Best Actor trophy for Patton three years before, saying he didn’t believe in “pitting actors against each other” in competitions. Using the Oscar podium for political speeches soon became a regular thing.)
A Streaker steals the stage
Ah, yes, the ‘70s: long gasoline lines, funky fashion, and a fad known as “streaking” that caught the public imagination. So it was on a March night in 1974 that Oscar host David Niven’s spiel was interrupted when a nude gay rights activist named Robert Opel passed in the back of his podium sans clothing on live television.
Considering all the truly face-melting stuff that’s now thrown up online each and every day, it’s rather quaint that this incident could raise… well, not exactly outrage, but a few bemused, cocked eyebrows. Nobody expected it. But host Niven was witty enough to improvise: “Isn’t it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?”
The ‘Moonlight’/’La La Land’ Kerfuffle
Life’s like an Oscar winner envelope sometimes: you never know what you’re gonna get, and you never know who’s gonna read the results. Sometimes — say, if it’s John Travolta reading the card — you get mangled nominee names such as Frozen actress Idina Menzel coming out as “Adele Dazeem.” (Adele Dazeem could not be reached for comment that night.)
And then, sometimes, you have actors Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway reaching for the results and reading the wrong envelope — announcing the top Best Picture nominee on the list, La La Land, instead of the actual winner, Moonlight, back on Oscars night in 2017.
The mistake was an honest one (we’re told), but there was definitely a bit of live TV confusion that felt like the world had suddenly opened up into a gaping Hellmouth, gripped in a collective existential panic for the few minutes it took host Jimmy Kimmel to try to sort things out (“Personally, I blame Steve Harvey,” he quipped).
With much embarrassment, he told the audience — and the world — that the wrong name had been read out, and that the trophy was actually awarded to Moonlight, and that the sun would come out tomorrow, and that the Earth wasn’t a giant simulated reality experiment by future AI cutups, and not even a bunch of elephants resting on the back of a huge turtle, as was previously suspected.
And that was about as crazy as the Oscars would ever get.
Until 2022, that is, when the first live ceremony took place at Dolby Theatre after several years of COVID lockdown, and celebrities returned for that wonderful communion of spirits and conviviality that is the Academy Awards experience.
And on that note, ladies and gentlemen, the Lifetime Oscar Shocker Award goes to…
Will Smith smacks down Chris Rock
Nobody saw it coming. Everybody thought (hoped?) it was a staged routine. But the ugly just kept on coming.
Smith clearly had a history of not enjoying jokes being thrown at his wife, Pinkett-Smith, from the Oscars stage by comedian Rock (one from 2016 — about her decision to “boycott the Oscars” being as ineffectual as the comedian “boycotting Rihanna’s panties… Neither of us are invited!” — apparently rankled Smith). So when Rock made cracks about Jada’s alopecia, it was suddenly Ali time.
But let’s be real. Rock tells jokes for a living. Those jokes tend to sting at times. Nominees are expected to be adults and suck it up. Perhaps we don’t need NATO to weigh in on this one: Smith was the Putin in this situation. He invaded Rock’s sovereign territory, which was the stage.
It was instantly, unfortunately, the most memorable Oscar moment we’d all like to forget, but probably never will.
Smith later mounted the same stage to cry while accepting his Best Actor trophy, apologizing to the Academy and audience (but pointedly, not to Chris Rock) and generally defending his actions.
In her Oscar acceptance speech, Jessica Chastain lamented how the world was “coming out of a period of trauma” and that “we all want to live a life without the fear of violence or terror.” She might just as easily have been talking about what went on inside the Dolby Theatre.
And the real loser? Sean Penn, who had threatened to “smelt” his Best Actor trophy (for Dead Man Walking) if Ukraine and its beleaguered President Zelensky weren’t given sufficient attention at the Oscars that night. Talk about being upstaged.