Will Smith’s Oscars slap condemned by ABC, Academy, SAG

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One day after Will Smith struck Chris Rock across the face during Sunday night’s 94th Academy Awards, the shockwaves from what some were calling “the slap heard around the world” continued to reverberate throughout Hollywood.

In the wake of the altercation, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences faced calls from some of its own members to punish Smith, who went on later to win the lead actor prize for his performance in the feel-good film “King Richard.” On Monday, academy leaders held an emergency meeting to discuss the unprecedented outburst of violence during what was intended to be a morale-boosting celebration of movies for a beleaguered film industry.

“The Academy condemns the actions of Mr. Smith at last night’s show,” the organization said in a statement. “We have officially started a formal review around the incident and will explore further action and consequences in accordance with our Bylaws, Standards of Conduct and California law.”

In 2017, the academy enacted a code of conduct for its members in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal. “There is no place in the Academy for people who abuse their status, power or influence in a manner that violates recognized standards of decency,” the code reads, in part. “If any member is found by the Board of Governors to have violated these standards or to have compromised the integrity of the Academy by their actions, the Board of Governors may take any disciplinary action permitted by the Academy’s bylaws, including suspension or expulsion.”

While the academy’s 54-member board routinely holds a postmortem meeting in the weeks after the Oscars, sources say the board will convene this Wednesday to address the Smith situation.

Late Monday afternoon, Smith issued an apology to Rock, the academy, the producers and “everyone watching around the world.”

“Violence in all of its forms is poisonous and destructive,” Smith said in the post on his Instagram feed. “My behavior at last night’s Academy Awards was unacceptable and inexcusable. Jokes at my expense are part of the job, but a joke about Jada’s medical condition was too much for me to bear and I reacted emotionally,” Smith wrote. “I would like to publicly apologize to you, Chris. I was out of line and I was wrong. I am embarrassed and my actions were not indicative of the man I want to be. There is no place for violence in a world of love and kindness.”

Representatives for the academy and Rock did not respond to requests for further comment by press time.

The shocking altercation was sparked when Rock, while presenting the award for documentary feature, delivered a joke at the expense of Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. Rock said he was excited to see Pinkett Smith — who has spoken publicly of her struggles with hair loss due to alopecia — star in “G.I. Jane 2,” referring to a 1997 film in which Demi Moore played a soldier with a shaved head. Furious, Smith stormed the stage and slapped Rock with an open hand, shouting, “Keep my wife’s name out your f— mouth!”

Less than an hour later, Smith received the lead actor prize — his first Oscar win after two previous nominations — for his turn as the father of Venus and Serena Williams. (Academy members had finished casting their ballots in the week before the ceremony). In an emotional speech running nearly six minutes, the actor apologized to the academy and to his fellow nominees and expressed his hope that the academy would “invite me back.” Many in the Dolby stood and cheered, while others seemed uncertain how to react.

Shortly after the show concluded Sunday, the show’s first-time producer, Will Packer, who had vowed to inject more entertainment pizazz into the telecast, tweeted, “Welp, I said it wouldn’t be boring. #Oscars”

On Monday, in response to a Twitter user who criticized that initial response as glib, Packer shared more of his feelings. “Black people have a defiant spirit of laughter when it comes to dealing with pain because there has been so much of it,” he wrote. “I don’t feel the need to elucidate that for you. But I also don’t mind being transparent and say that this was a very painful moment for me. On many levels.”

As many across Hollywood expressed sadness and dismay at the derailing of one of Hollywood’s most cherished rituals, executives at ABC, which aired the telecast, also wrestled with mixed emotions. Until the slapping incident, network executives felt the show had been proceeding exceptionally well. They praised the show’s musical performances from stars including Beyoncé and Billie Eilish as well as the trio of female hosts: Regina Hall, Amy Schumer and Wanda Sykes.

Network executives were relieved there wasn’t an Oscars sweep for any one film, which tends to make a long evening predictable, prompting viewers to turn off their TVs well before the final categories are announced. Show producers also found ways to honor Oscar winners whose categories were announced before the primetime telecast, tamping down the film industry controversy that flared in the run-up to the show.

Will Packer with Chris Rock backstage during the 94th Academy Awards.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

In the end, the heartwarming “CODA,” released by Apple, won best picture, marking the first time that a streaming company and a film that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival have ever claimed the academy’s top prize.

Still, people close to the production said the incident involving Smith and Rock was deeply troubling for all of those involved with the show, even as it provided the sort of electrifying jolt that live awards shows like the Oscars need to hook viewers.

While some viewers immediately wondered whether it was a staged sketch, those in the Dolby could see that it wasn’t. “It was visceral — you could hear Will’s hand strike Chris, and then you could see Chris’ reaction,” said one network executive who was not authorized to speak publicly.

“It was really a bizarre moment, and I wish the moment didn’t happen for both of those men, but it’s the kind of moment that you will only get on live TV,” the network executive said.

A second person close to Sunday night’s production said, “Everyone was really just blindsided. The joke wasn’t on the teleprompter, and what Will did was not OK. It was just a slap in the face to everyone, no pun intended. Really, everyone was disappointed that it happened because it took away from the spirit of the night.”

As tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams exited the Dolby Theater immediately after the telecast, they avoided interactions with members of the audience, including a reporter for The Times.

Family patriarch Richard Williams (whom Smith portrayed in “King Richard”) separately expressed his disapproval. According to NBC News, Williams’ son Chavoita LeSane released a statement from Williams that said: “We don’t know all the details of what happened. But we don’t condone anyone hitting anyone else unless it’s in self-defense.” Williams suffers from the effects of strokes, and did not attend the show.

Hollywood union SAG-AFTRA, which represents performers, said in a statement Monday the slapping incident “was unacceptable.”

“SAG-AFTRA is focused on ensuring our members always work in a safe environment. Violence or physical abuse in the workplace is never appropriate and the union condemns any such conduct … We have been in contact with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and ABC about this incident, and will work to ensure this behavior is appropriately addressed.”

Sunday’s telecast drew an average of 15.4 million viewers, up 56% from last year’s pandemic-dampened show. Still, while the bump in viewership was a relief to the academy and ABC, the show still ranks as the second-lowest-rated Oscars ever. Just eight years ago, the Oscars brought in more than 40 million viewers.

Critiquing the Oscars has become a kind of national bloodsport in recent years, as the academy has grappled with the #OscarsSoWhite firestorm and a best picture snafu in 2017 in which the wrong winner was initially announced on stage. The troubling episode between Smith and Rock provided more grist for some on social media who lambasted the show and Hollywood.

Looking ahead, the cacophony of criticism is sure to put additional pressure on ABC, the academy and producers who stage the annual event.

“These types of headlines make it very hard for us to attract producers and a host,” the ABC executive said. “There seems to be a fascination among some to try to kill the show. All these haters are out there, trying to pull it down.”

Times staff writers Stephen Battaglio, Amy Kaufman and Anousha Sakoui contributed to this report.

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