Oscars Recap: ‘CODA’ Wins Big and Smith’s Slap Overshadows Everything

For years, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been working to punch up the Oscars broadcast in an attempt to appeal to a wider audience. Who knew that Will Smith would take that mission literally? We just thought announcing the wrong Best Picture winner at the 2017 ceremony was a low point in Oscar history, but Will Smith slapping comedian Chris Rock across the face on stage after a joke directed as Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, has again lowered the bar for the Oscars.

If most of us displayed a similar violent reaction to say, a fellow shopper in Kroger, we would at least spend the night in jail. And our assault would not have been broadcast across the globe! But of course, most of us aren’t Will Smith. We aren’t absurdly wealthy and famous and beloved, and we likely wouldn’t be minutes away from winning our first Oscar. So, Mr. Smith was not arrested. He was not even escorted out of the theater. In fact, he returned to his seat, yelling a profanity at Mr. Rock, who handled this with exceptional grace. Smith remained seated front row center until his name was announced as an award winner. Well, there was a commercial break where he huddled with his publicist (What? You don’t have a publicist?), which allowed him to gather his thoughts before delivering his acceptance speech.

And what happened when he was announced as the winner of the Best Actor award? Well, obviously the room gave him a standing ovation. Yep, the folks who frequently use their celebrity status to influence our political beliefs, stood there cheering the man who had just assaulted another man during the most prestigious event in their industry. Smith proceeded to tear up and give a speech that invoked God, his calling, love, and protection. He apologized to some, but not to the man he assaulted.

Instead, he seemed to justify his violent outburst as if it was some acceptable form of protection of his wife. Although the band had ‘played off’ other winners who were deemed to have taken too much time, Smith’s speech rambled on with no music…the second time that evening he should have been escorted away. And when he was finally done, the room again gave him another standing ovation. We certainly won’t be surprised if we soon hear it explained that Will Smith is yet another celebrity struggling with “mental health” issues. What better way to gather sympathy after a violent act? But then, I don’t have a publicist, so perhaps a better way does exist.

As a lifelong lover of movies, I’ve enjoyed watching the Oscars ceremony for what it once was, and should still be…a celebration of the industry and the art of making movies. Being that many fans of movies are mostly interested in the “big” categories, the decision was made this year to shift many categories to a pre-show event, and then air the replay of the winners from those categories during the main show. This promised a brisker pace and shorter run time. The result gave us a show that dragged on with a run time 20 minutes longer than last year, and a show that disrespected many of the technicians and craftsmen who work behind the cameras, and the short films that are often the proving ground for rising visionary writers and directors. I believe the term for that is failure.

As for the actual awards, the surprises were few, but the history was inspiring. CODA’s Troy Kutsur became the first deaf man to win an acting award (Marlee Matlin had won Best Actress for Children of a Lesser God, 1986). Ariana DeBose became the first openly gay woman of color to win an acting award, and she did so in the same West Side Story role that won the award for Rita Moreno in the 1961 version…and 90-year-old Ms. Moreno was on hand to see this happen. Jessica Chastain won her first Best Actress Oscar (The Eyes of Tammy Faye), and in doing so, became the 7th person from the cast of The Help (2011) to win an Oscar. Mr. Kutcher, Ms. DeBose, and Ms. Chastain all gave gracious and appreciative speeches.

Should we call CODA’s Best Picture win a surprise? Probably not. It had picked up significant momentum over the past few weeks. The film’s win, along with Kotsur’s win and Sian Heder’s Adapted Screenplay Oscar was an inspiring triumph for the Deaf community. It’s also a counterargument to all those who claim only artsy stuff ever wins – CODA is a heart-warming and entertaining movie with a terrific family story. It was also a rare Best Picture win for a film whose director (Ms. Heder) was not nominated.

Perhaps the real surprise of the evening was The Power of the Dog. Despite leading the pack with 12 nominations, the only victory on the evening was for its director Jane Campion. She became the first woman to win the award twice, and this also meant that The Power of the Dog was the first film to win Best Director and no other awards since The Graduate (1968). West Side Story and Belfast were two other heavily nominated films that managed but one win, although this was Kenneth Branagh’s first Oscar, likely long overdue. And speaking of overdue, songwriter Diane Warren’s 13th nomination again left her with no Oscar. History was missed as Lin-Manuel Miranda remained an Oscar short of EGOT when his Encanto song didn’t win, and Ari Wegner missed out on becoming the first woman to win Best Cinematographer. Dune was the big winner of the night with 6 Oscars, but only cinematographer Greig Fraser’s award was presented live on the main show.

A scene from ‘The Power of the Dog’. (Netflix)

In an attempt to honor the history of cinema, some “Tributes” were included, and yet they all came off a bit awkward. In celebration of 60 years of James Bond, the presenters were…snowboarder Shaun White, skateboarder Tony Hawk, and surfer Kelly Slater. Huh? Their uncomfortable banter was followed by a poorly edited montage of the many Bond films. For the 50th anniversary of The Godfather, director Francis Ford Coppola, Al Pacino, and Robert DeNiro marched out on stage; however, only Coppola spoke. And if that’s not strange enough, Mr. DeNiro did not appear in the first film, though he won an Oscar for The Godfather: Part II. Finally, there was the 28th anniversary of Pulp Fiction. Who celebrates year 28? Uma Thurman and John Travolta danced a bit, while Samuel L. Jackson carried out a gag with the mystery briefcase. Happy 28th everyone!

One new feature this year involved the Academy’s attempt to tie-in with a social media contest where ‘real fans’ could vote for the “Fan Favorite” and the “Best Moment”. To no one’s surprise – except maybe the Academy’s – Zack Snyder’s fandom flooded the voting to the point where the Fan Favorite was his zombie movie, Army of the Dead, while the Best Moment was Flash Speed Force in Justice League. Another segment that deserves mentioning (or forgetting) was “In Memoriam” where the stage performers were the focus rather than the recently deceased legends who actually helped build the industry.

Four of the five nominated songs were performed (no Van Morrison). Beyonce performing “Be Alive” from the streets of Compton was quite something, as was the NOT-nominated “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” from Encanto – which featured Megan Thee Stallion shifting it from kids’ song to adult-themed. You might ask why a song not nominated was performed, and the answer is as simple as Disney owns ABC, the network broadcasting the ceremony.

After a few shows with no host, this year’s show featured three talented women: Amy Schumer, Wanda Sykes, and Regina Hall. Each landed a good line or two, while each had a gag that fell flat (or worse). Schumer’s Spider-Man bit was awkward, but nowhere nearly as cringe-worthy as Ms. Hall’s horny bit as she dragged handsome men onstage for some poorly constructed backstage COVID testing. Somehow the industry’s reaction to Harvey Weinstein and years of inappropriate behavior from men was to have a woman publicly harass men. The fallout would be unfathomable if the script were flipped and a man did that to the women. A dear friend made an excellent point when he noted how different the reaction to Will Smith’s stunt might have been if Ricky Gervais had been hosting. Fashion discussion is typically off-limits for me since I’m a jeans and t-shirt guy, but Timothy Chalamet going shirtless under his sparkly jacket seemed inappropriate…well, until Will Smith redefined that word.

On the bright side for the Academy (and they are probably still in shock), the early ratings show 15.4 million viewers, which is a 56% percent jump over last year. It’s quite impressive considering the vast majority of movie watching occurred via streaming the last two years, as movie theaters are just now starting to see an uptick in attendance. Questlove (for his documentary Summer of Soul) gave the evening’s most emotional speech, while Billie Eilish (songwriter for No Time to Die) flashed unbridled joy. Those two and the sight of a roomful of people in formal attire standing and waving their hands as applause for Troy and CODA made for the kind of heartwarming moments we’ve seen from the Oscars over the years, and would have made the night a success if those same people had not stood and applauded for Will Smith…twice.

Sir Anthony Hopkins, showing the wisdom of age, said it best: “Let’s have peace and love and quiet.”