Will Smith Forgot to Thank His Many Enablers

David Rubin and Dawn Hudson
Photo by David Livingston/FilmMagic
Matthew Belloni
April 1, 2022

In conversation after conversation with Academy members this week, everything keeps coming back to one word. Well, one word besides grotesque and embarrassing. It’s enablement.

Remember the #MeToo movement? It wasn’t just the rapists and harassers, we all proclaimed, it was the enablers—everyone around them, who saw objectively wrong behavior and did nothing. That all changed in 2017, we declared. No more rewarding bad actors or turning a blind eye. Except it wasn’t true, of course. The obvious abusers were purged, but enablement thrives in this town, and enablement just bit the motion picture Academy in the ass. 

So let’s not start at Sunday’s Oscars debasement, where a movie star who has been coddled for more than 30 years decided he could hijack the show and attack a fellow performer, then pretend nothing happened, and receive hugs from his peers, and make it all better with a speech that invoked his co-stars and family to justify the behavior—and generate a standing ovation from many of the enablers (er, attendees) in the audience.

No, let’s cut right to yesterday’s emergency board of governors meeting. It was wild, according to two people I spoke to who were on the call. Emotional. Adversarial, at times. The 54-member group that oversees a non-profit worth $1.4 billion, and its Oscars ceremony, was ostensibly gathered to rubber-stamp a “review” of Will Smith’s on-stage assault of Chris Rock. But the board also wanted to know how the hell this happened. There was open rage directed at Smith, who several governors decried as having “ruined” the Oscars. There was criticism of telecast producer Will Packer, on whose watch it all went down. And there were tough questions about how the Academy’s own leaders handled The Slap, the ugliest incident in the show’s 94-year history.

Ava Duvernay, one of three director members, was among many who pressed for specifics regarding the chain of events that led to Rock’s joke about Jada Pinkett Smith, and those 30 or so incredibly awkward minutes between The Slap and The Speech. Rita Wilson, representing the actors branch, was emotional—saying in one of her long comments that she had trouble sleeping over the past three nights. The VFX governors were predictably meticulous and logical in their queries. Why, many wondered, wasn’t Smith immediately removed from the event after striking Rock?

That’s the question, right? During her presentation, Dawn Hudson, the Academy C.E.O., dropped a bombshell: Actually, she said, she and president David Rubin had asked Smith to leave, but he refused to go. Really?, one board member responded. If that’s accurate, why wasn’t that information made public? (I’m paraphrasing here based on conversations with those two sources in the meeting.)

It’s a good point. If true, that nugget of information, which Hudson had actually mentioned to the leadership in a previous meeting, was a big deal. It meant that the Academy may have been unnecessarily taking it on the chin from many constituents—the press, the membership, and even two of the show’s co-hosts, Wanda Sykes and Amy Schumer—for seemingly condoning Smith’s behavior by leaving him out there. It also served to cover Hudson and Rubin’s own asses, a fact that didn’t go unnoticed by several governors. It wasn’t our fault, they seemed to be saying, we tried our very best to get him out and we couldn’t. One could argue that Smith should have been forcibly removed if he refused to leave. But, as I discussed on Monday, there’s logic in avoiding a potential brawl between security guards and one of the biggest movie stars in the world on live television. Hudson and Rubin’s hands were tied, they suggested.

But were they? Many governors were skeptical of the claim in the meeting, I’m told, while others wanted to go public with the detail, and within an hour, the line “Mr. Smith was asked to leave the ceremony and refused” was part of a press release announcing the investigation. Instantly, the headlines began flying, launching another news cycle and taking the focus away from the disciplinary proceeding and what Smith actually did to Rock. If the goal was to vindicate the Academy, quiet the media storm, and put the focus back on Smith, it seems to have backfired. 

To me, the claim seemed overstated from the outset. Those of us who were in the Dolby Theatre on Sunday knew that neither Hudson nor Rubin—the duo with ultimate responsibility for the show—were seen communicating directly with Smith. Only Packer was spotted conversing with Smith. Though Packer, in an ABC News interview set to run tomorrow on GMA, is denying that he talked to Smith. (Packer, by the way, booked that interview with the Academy’s own TV partner without telling anyone at the Academy. Classy move.)

Predictably, Smith’s team began to push back, leading to a battle of semantics and a TMZ headline with “Academy Lied” in it. According to four sources involved in the show, however, both sides are kinda right and kinda wrong. Backstage, Hudson and Rubin did tell Smith’s publicist, Meredith O’Sullivan Wasson, as well as Packer and ABC executives, that they wanted Smith to leave. Wasson then went to Smith at his seat next to Jada and communicated the wishes. When she returned, Wasson informed the group that Smith didn’t want to exit and would think about the request. 

Is that the same as “asking” Smith to leave and him “refusing”? Hudson and Rubin believe it is; Team Smith says the request wasn’t a mandate. What do you think? Regardless, it’s not exactly leadership on the part of the Academy. No disrespect, but if you are in charge, you just gotta have that conversation with Smith yourself. First of all, Wasson is a fantastic publicist and a savvy communicator, but she works for Smith. She’s his chief enabler, and she’s had that job for years. She can be expected to serve only the wishes of her client, not the Academy.

I know it’s common for executives to use publicists and other reps as conduits for tough-to-swallow information, and Wasson is said to have volunteered to deliver the message to her client. But this wasn’t like asking Smith to re-shoot his Bad Boys 3 international one-sheet. This was serious. She shouldn’t have been charged with carrying out a task that required the gravitas and authority of the persons in charge. That’s the Academy’s job, and Hudson made nearly $1 million in compensation in 2020 to have those tough conversations. 

Complicating matters further, according to two sources, Packer was telling the group that Rock had actually told him that he wanted Smith to stay in his seat and accept his Oscar as planned. That, in addition to Rock’s insistence that he not file a police report, was evidence, Packer is said to have argued, that Smith should remain. Problem is, I’ve got it on good authority that Rock never said that, and he only told the LAPD backstage that he didn’t want this to become a criminal matter. Packer declined to talk to me, so I’m hoping GMA producers ask him whether he invoked Rock’s wishes to enable Smith to stay in the room—and if so, why?

There’s that word again: Enable. All that confusion and conflict backstage served to enable Smith to ride out the clock and give that Best Actor speech that he’s been waiting all of awards season—and his entire career—to give. He was further enabled by Denzel Washington, Bradley Cooper, Nicole Kidman and all those typically virtuous stars who embraced him within view of the TV cameras; and by the section of the crowd (it wasn’t everyone, not even close) that gave him that ovation. Think about it: If you’re Smith, you probably saw the standing O and believed your speech had won everyone over. I’m told Wasson advised him not to go to the Vanity Fair party, but he went anyway. (She declined to comment.) And no wonder—Smith has been insulated and enabled for so long that he likely thought the problem was solved.

The partying after the show is what seems to bug Academy members most, because it suggests Smith had no remorse, and wanted to do zero soul-searching after such a violent act. Smith posted a great apology statement the next day, presumably written by Wasson, but I gotta think that if Smith really wanted to apologize, he would have done it in a video posted to his channels, on which he is usually very active. Or donated publicly to an anti-violence charity. Or made it known that he reached out to Rock personally. He still hasn’t called Chris, I’m told. Instead, he Zoomed privately with Hudson and Rubin for a few minutes on Tuesday to apologize—and, perhaps, to implicitly try to smooth things over in advance of the board meeting on his accountability.     

The enablers weren’t just in the building, either. Think of the statement that could have been made by Vanity Fair, whose new incarnation constantly touts its progressive worldview, by denying entrance to a star whose behavior that night wasn’t worthy of the event. Instead, there was Smith, dancing for celebrity onlookers to his own music, as the journalists and luxury brand C.M.O.s that now populate that party cheered and took videos for their personal Instagrams. Notably, I have noticed that some people who posted those pics and videos have since taken them down. They probably feel dirty, as they should. 

So, what should the punishment be? That’s not for me to decide, of course. I know that some very prominent Academy members want Smith expelled, which could very well happen. I’m guessing he will get a one-year suspension, making him ineligible to present at next year’s Oscars, as per the tradition. He might also be banned from consideration for Emancipation, the slave drama that Apple was set to release later this year—not that anyone would vote for him now, anyway. Smith will still work; I’m sure CAA’s Richard Lovett, his longtime agent, is already strategizing a path back. (By the way, where was Lovett on Sunday night? CAA didn’t respond to that question.) But this episode will forever be part of the Will Smith Persona, and it may limit his roles and box office.

After all, post-Oprah’s couch, Tom Cruise still had the Mission: Impossible franchise to guide him back to stardom. After his anti-Semitic meltdown, Mel Gibson did behind-the-scenes work with groups like the ADL to rehab himself. Gibson was a talented director and still works as an actor, but he never recaptured the star power of his pre-meltdown career. Smith wasn’t particularly great to people on the way up, and those people tend to fall faster on the way down. But I don’t think this is fatal.

Is it fatal for the Oscars? The show’s many problems are well-documented, by me and others. Now add National Laughingstock and Bad Role Model to the list. It’s easy to crap all over Hudson and Rubin, as many are doing. But as usual, the Academy is bearing the brunt of an industry wide problem: decades of enablement that led Smith to think he was justified in acting this way, and everyone else to be afraid of angering him. 

The Academy is an unwieldy group governed by a ridiculously oversized board of creative professionals, and funded almost entirely by a throwback awards show that feels increasingly like a relic of a bygone era. Somebody got slapped? You’ve got to be kidding. The whole episode—and the enablement that caused it to happen—has an end-of-days feel.