Onstage slap rattles Oscars, before ‘CODA’ triumphs
By Brooks Barnes and Nicole Sperling
In an Academy Awards ceremony where an onstage altercation between Will Smith and Chris Rock overshadowed the honors, “CODA” from Apple TV+ won the Oscar for best picture, becoming the first film from a streaming service to be welcomed into that rarefied Hollywood club.
The 94th Academy Awards on Sunday had a freewheeling, irreverent tone from their start, with ABC and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences laboring to prove that the Oscars could be lively and culturally relevant. By the ceremony’s end, it was certainly a night for the Hollywood ages.
An emotional Smith won the best actor Oscar for his performance in “King Richard” as the fiery, flawed coach and father of tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams. Moments earlier, the ceremony had been derailed when Smith strode onstage from his seat and — in what at first seemed like it could be a preplanned bit — slapped Chris Rock, who had just cracked a joke about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith.
“Jada, I love you. G.I. Jane 2, can’t wait.” Rock said, a reference to her shaved head. She revealed her alopecia diagnosis in 2018. Demi Moore famously shaved her head to star in the 1997 film “G.I. Jane.”
After the altercation, Smith returned to his seat and angrily shouted twice at Rock to “keep my wife’s name out of your” mouth, using an expletive that was bleeped by ABC. Rock tried to regain his composure, and a stunned audience, both in the theater and at home, tried to figure out what had happened. Rock recovered enough to present the best documentary award to “Summer of Soul.” But even an emotional acceptance speech by the film’s director, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, could not hide the fact that many in attendance were rattled.
“Right now, we’re moving on with love,” Sean Combs said, arriving onstage soon afterward to introduce a celebratory montage from “The Godfather.”
It was Smith’s first Oscar. He was previously nominated for best actor in 2007 for “The Pursuit of Happyness” and in 2002 for “Ali.”
“Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family,” Smith said in accepting the award, a clear reference to what had just taken place. “Art imitates life.”
With tears running down his face, he also apologized to the academy and his fellow nominees. But not to Rock. “I hope the academy invites me back,” Smith said.
“To do what we do, you have to be able to take abuse, people talk crazy about you,” Smith said. “In this business, you’ve got people disrespecting you. Have to smile and pretend it’s OK.”
“CODA,” a dramedy about the only hearing child of a deaf family, beat a rival streaming-service film, “The Power of the Dog” from Netflix, for the top prize. For an industry in turmoil, with tech giants like Apple and Amazon upending entertainment-industry business practices and threatening Hollywood power hierarchies, the win by Apple TV+ was a seismic moment. Television and film have been merging for years, but lines of demarcation remain, with the Oscars as one.
Patrick Wachsberger, a “CODA” producer, thanked Apple from the stage for backing the low-budget film, noting that the company was “able to basically put this everywhere in the world.”
The best actress Oscar was awarded to Jessica Chastain for “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.” It was her first Oscar, having previously been nominated in 2013 for “Zero Dark Thirty” and in 2012 for “The Help.” During her speech, Chastain spoke about suicide, “bigoted legislation” being enacted across the country and hate crimes around the world. “In these moments, I think about Tammy Faye and her radical acts of love,” Chastain said. “I see it as a guiding principle that leads us forward. Anyone who feels hopeless and alone, know that you are unconditionally loved for the uniqueness that is you.”
It was a humiliating night for Netflix, which has poured wheelbarrows of cash into Oscar campaigns over the past few years. Netflix had a leading 27 nominations going into the ceremony. It left with one win, for Jane Campion’s direction of “The Power of the Dog.” Campion became only the third woman to win in the directing category. (Kathryn Bigelow won in 2010 for “The Hurt Locker,” and Chloé Zhao, was named best director for “Nomadland” last year.) Campion was the first woman to be nominated in the category more than once, having been given a nod in 1994 for “The Piano.”
“It’s a lifetime honor,” Campion said, after beginning her speech in Maori, the language of the Indigenous people of New Zealand, where she is from.
Although streaming services like Apple TV+ and Netflix drew the most nominations, old-fashioned theatrical movies dominated much of the ceremony. The big-budget, science-fiction blockbuster “Dune” won six Oscars, including one for Greig Fraser’s cinematography. “Encanto,” released exclusively in theaters before moving to Disney+, was named best animated film. “Dune,” a remake from Warner Bros. and Legendary Entertainment, pushed aside the Netflix western “The Power of the Dog,” which had been favored to win the cinematography prize. And Ariana DeBose took home the best supporting Oscar for her role as Anita in Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story.”
She was the only the second Latina to receive an acting Oscar. The first was Rita Moreno, who won in 1962 for the same role in the original film. “When Anita says, ‘I want to be in America,’ it’s because — even in this weary world we live in — dreams do come true,” DeBose said in her acceptance speech. She went on to thank Moreno, who was looking on from the audience in a feathered hat, for paving “the way for tons of Anitas like me.”
DeBose concluded by saying, “Imagine this little girl in the back seat of a white Ford Focus, an openly queer woman of color who found her strength through art. Anyone who questioned your identity, found yourself living in the gray spaces, I promise you, there is a place for us.”
In an important step for representation in Hollywood, Troy Kotsur became the first deaf man in academy history to win an Oscar for acting. Voters honored his heart-tugging supporting performance in “CODA” as a fisherman struggling to relate to his hearing daughter. Until Sunday night, Kotsur’s “CODA” co-star Marlee Matlin was the only deaf person to win an acting Oscar. She received her gold-plated best actress statuette in 1987 for “Children of a Lesser God.”
“I cannot believe I’m here,” Kotsur said, speaking energetically via a sign-language interpreter. He dedicated his win to the deaf and disabled communities. “This is our moment.”
As expected, the Oscar for best song went to Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell for “No Time To Die,” while “Drive My Car” received the prize for international feature. Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, who directed “Drive My Car,” was unceremoniously cut off by the “play off” music while giving his speech. Kenneth Branagh won his first Oscar for his “Belfast” original screenplay, which revisits a moment from his childhood in Northern Ireland; Sian Heder won for her adapted “CODA” screenplay.
The dire need to attract more viewers to the live telecast was palpable from its entertainment-focused opening sequence, which featured an elaborate performance by Beyoncé and dozens of backup performers from the Compton, California, tennis courts where the Williams sisters got their start. She performed her nominated “King Richard” song, “Be Alive.” Then came a trio of hosts — Amy Schumer, Wanda Sykes and Regina Hall — and a joint monologue that hit on Timothée Chalamet’s sex appeal and the culture wars. (The last three ceremonies did not have hosts.)
“For you people in Florida, we’re gonna have a gay night,” Sykes said, to cheers, referring to the anti-LGBTQ legislation opponents have called “Don’t Say Gay” and that has engulfed Disney in recent weeks. “Gay! Gay!” the trio chanted.
Notably, the Russian invasion of Ukraine was not mentioned during the opening to the lighthearted show, which featured a DJ, a second standup routine from Schumer, and a sketch from Hall that found a shirtless Chalamet and other male stars onstage. Three sports stars — Tony Hawk, Kelly Slater and Shaun White — arrived to introduce a montage celebrating 60 years of the James Bond franchise. (The academy finally acknowledged the war in Ukraine with a moment of silence after Reba McEntire’s performance of a nominated song, “Somehow You Do,” and by flashing the hashtag #StandWithUkraine on the screen.)
In a startling break from academy custom, the telecast was used as an overt promo for some coming movies. Chris Evans introduced a commercial for “Lightyear,” a coming “Toy Story” prequel from Pixar that will arrive exclusively in theaters in June. A lengthy pretaped promotion for the academy’s new museum in Los Angeles featured Sykes taking a tour.
Last year, the television audience for the Academy Awards dropped so precipitously (down 60% from 2020, already a record low) that organizers decided to rework the live broadcast. The presentation of Oscars in eight categories — the less-starry ones — were moved to a nontelevised portion, with the academy saying it would record the acceptance speeches and integrate edited bits into the main show. Cue howls of dismay, both from movie fans and from the sidelined artists.
But the academy stood firm. “Dune,” which was nominated in 10 categories in total, won the Oscars for best sound, score, production design and editing during what the academy had branded “the Golden Hour” in attempt to assuage bruised egos. Hans Zimmer, who wrote the “Dune” score, was not on hand to accept the Oscar, the second of his career after “The Lion King” (1989), with a presenter explaining that he was away on tour.
The team behind Chastain’s transformation into a televangelist with tarantula eyelashes in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” won the Oscar for makeup and hairstyling. Chastain embraced the group from her seat in the front row. (The celebrity quotient during the nontelevised portion of the ceremony grew as the hour went on, with seat fillers on heavy rotation.)
The short-film winners were “The Windshield Wiper,” the animated story of a man contemplating love in a cafe while smoking a pack of cigarettes; “The Long Goodbye,” a violent live-action short starring and co-written by Riz Ahmed that takes place in the lead-up to a wedding; and “Queen of Basketball,” a 22-minute New York Times documentary about Lusia Harris, the only woman ever officially drafted into the NBA.
“This is for everyone who feels like they’re stuck in No Man’s Land,” Ahmed said in his full speech. “You’re not alone. We’ll meet you there.”
The Sturm und Drang around the revamped ceremony reflected the broader discomfort that has been gripping Hollywood and its artisans: Do we still matter? In a year when Hollywood largely failed to jump-start theatrical moviegoing, streaming services solidified their hold on viewers.
Even so, the most-nominated film, “The Power of the Dog,” was little-seen, according to a poll conducted by Screen Engine/ASI of 4,500 people in early March. Only 6% had seen the Netflix movie. Another set of streaming data from the third-party monitor Samba TV reported that less than 4 million people had watched “The Power of the Dog” since it arrived on Netflix in December.
Here is a full list of Sunday’s Oscar winners:
Jane Campion, “The Power of the Dog”
Will Smith, “King Richard”
Jessica Chastain, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye”
Best Supporting Actor
Troy Kotsur, “CODA”
Best Supporting Actress
Ariana DeBose, “West Side Story”
Makeup and Hairstyling
“The Eyes of Tammy Faye”
“No Time to Die” (“No Time to Die”)
“Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)”
“Drive My Car,” Japan
“The Windshield Wiper”
“The Queen of Basketball”
“The Long Goodbye”