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Will Smith’s Slap Heard Round the Academy

Chris Rock and Will Smith
Myung Chun /LAT via Getty
Matthew Belloni
March 28, 2022

From my vantage point—in Row F, seat 58, on the left side of the Mezzanine, in the Dolby Theater, at what would soon become the most infamous Oscars of all time—there was no question. The slap was loud. Will Smith’s face was seething. Chris Rock, one of our most polished comedians, seemed genuinely frazzled. This was no bit.

Then the F-bombs flew. One of the most heavily managed, media-savvy movie stars of all time, was suddenly rage-screaming, off-mic but 100 percent clear, even up in my cheap seat: “Keep my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth.” Twice, with even more fury the second time. Total silence in the crowd. No one could believe what was happening. In my row, at least, there were a couple mouths agape. In the packed Green Room backstage, I’m told by an eyewitness, Serena Williams laughed nervously at the spectacle, while Venus Williams immediately grasped the severity of the situation. Others, like Jake Gyllenhaal and Kevin Costner, just appeared shocked. 

At this point, I don’t need to further rehash what happened, and my Puck colleague Baratunde Thurston published a good analysis of Smith’s behavior, especially as it relates to his upbringing and his relationship with Jada Pinkett Smith. I wasn’t aware of Jada’s medical condition, and I’m told neither was Rock. Suffice it to say, Smith first laughed and then didn’t laugh at the joke, he took a swing, and the Academy and Oscars producer Will Packer…actually, they did nothing. Smith just sat there, attended to by longtime publicist Meredith O’Sullivan Wasson and friends Denzel Washington and Tyler Perry, while the show chugged along and no one in the room paid much attention. Anyone even slightly less famous—say, Javier Bardem or Jesse Plemons, both of whom were seated with their celebrity wives—would have been hauled out of there at the first commercial break, right? So why wasn’t Smith?

Backstage, according to three insiders I talked to today, a serious debate ensued over whether to remove him. It’s such a complex issue, and there were many voices. Academy leaders, for instance, were sensitive about the optics of attempting to escort out perhaps its most prominent Black member. Wasson had a voice, so did ABC. (Disney C.E.O. Bob Chapek was in the audience but not involved.) Some reps were there backstage, some weren’t, complicating matters. I gotta believe they all also knew his speech would be a classic Oscars moment, and they were all so desperate. Ultimately, nobody did anything (the finger-pointing today between the Academy people and Packer has been epic, and reminiscent of the Moonlight/La La Land aftermath). Then the inevitable moment arrived when, as we all knew would happen, Smith won. It was riveting TV, I’ll admit, but it also felt pretty gross, especially when he got a standing ovation from many, but by no means all, of the crowd. (The Academy declined to comment.) 

Smith’s long speech leveraged—and yes, that’s what he was doing, leveraging—his family, the media, Richard Williams, the Williams sisters, his co-stars, and the themes explored in King Richard, to justify his attack, and he apologized only to the Academy and his fellow nominees, not to the guy he clocked. It took about 18 hours for a real apology to arrive via a publicist-approved Instagram post—after, it should be noted, Smith partied at Vanity Fair, posed for fan photos, and danced the night away to his own songs. Even the notoriously slow Academy had time to put out two statements—the first bad, the second better—but still not fully accountable for what happened. 

Smith admitted his behavior was “unacceptable” and “inexcusable” and promised to do better. Why he initially attempted to justify the slap, rather than articulating a version of that statement from center stage, especially when he was being coached by a P.R. pro like Wasson, will remain a mystery. Everything is easier in hindsight, of course, but I do believe the delay has hurt his public persona permanently. We’ll all remember that Smith first elected to exuse his behavior, not acknowledge he was wrong to hit a dude in front of the world over a dumb joke. That’s a choice

So now what? With Rock declining to file a police report (his manager, Jason Weinberg, ended up acting as a liaison with the LAPD, I’m told, definitely not his core competency), criminal charges are unlikely. It will be up to Academy C.E.O Dawn Hudson, president David Rubin, and the board of governors to figure out how to hold Smith accountable. Many members I’ve spoken to are appalled not only that this behavior took place at the Oscars, but also that when it happened, the show’s stewards seemed frozen in place. After the 2017 show mix-up, a crisis plan was supposedly put in place for future telecasts. What happened? 

I do feel a bit bad for the Academy. These are on-the-fly decisions that require buy-in from many people and carry huge consequences. Shortly after the show ended, Packer took off for the parties, I’m told, leaving the leadership to figure out how to manage the crisis. That’s what happens when you hire a film producer to make a one-time live TV show, which, for some reason, is still the Oscars tradition. This was not an easy telecast to produce, I’ve heard from several sources, and there were many heated arguments between Packer, his handpicked producer Shayla Cowan, and both the Academy and co-host Amy Schumer. I’m not blaming them for Smith’s behavior, of course, but after last night, who would ever host or perform comedy on the Oscars when the Academy can’t even guarantee they will be protected on stage? 

After an emergency meeting today, the board pledged to investigate, and my guess is they will suspend Smith. They kinda have to. A year? Six months? Double-secret probation? Who knows? Smith’s next movie, Emancipation, in which he plays a slave on the run, will likely be an Oscar contender next year from Apple. Could Smith be banned from consideration? 

After all, it was pointed out to me by a veteran producer, typical film and television shoots require ejection and discipline for violent behavior. Hell, a basic reality show producer knows to boot anyone who takes a swing at someone. Yet Smith is allowed to just sit there, enjoying the Godfather tribute and whatever Costner was talking about. 

It’s interesting: I polled a few live TV veterans today for their thoughts on how they would have handled this situation. The consensus: there’s no way to prepare for something like this. But there are things the Oscars brain trust probably should have done in the aftermath. Like cut to commercial break before the documentary award, so that Questlove’s moment could be preserved. (No Smith apology for him, by the way.) And bring security out to make sure nothing else happens. And send a host to the stage far sooner than Schumer appeared, with a joke that cuts the tension and allows the audience to pay attention to the awards again. And make clear to viewers that Smith’s outburst was not part of rehearsal or planned in any way. And perhaps even give Rock the chance to close the show and address the incident. Still, one told me, “Even now, I don’t know what I would have done.” 

Exactly. This is such a complicated issue because of the confluence of celebrity, family, optics, and the pressures of live television. Removing Smith, especially against his will, could have backfired.    

“A producer isn’t the police, they aren’t the Academy spokesperson, they also are not the moral adjudicator of life,” another producer told me. “They are filming an event. You also saw how the room rallied around him. Standing ovation, hugging with Tyler, Denzel, Bradley Cooper. So you potentially start a riot in a room on live TV when you are the only person who doesn’t have a mic. It’s very complicated.” 

True, and the situation could have escalated and become even worse. What if Rock fought back? Or what if Rock happened to be a white comic, turning the whole thing into a race issue? What if they tried to remove Smith and he refused? Or other stars joined him in solidarity? 

All terrifying hypotheticals. What’s clear, though, is that there is one person who bears responsibility for his actions. Now it’s time for the Academy to hold him accountable for the ugliest Oscars ever.