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The 2022 Academy Awards Were About Everything but the Awards

‘CODA’ won Best Picture, but after Will Smith slapped Chris Rock in a historically wild moment, there’s only one Oscar winner being talked about

AP Images/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The 94th Academy Awards was responsible for several important milestones, which feels appropriate for a ceremony whose tagline was “Movie Lovers Unite.” Jane Campion won her first Best Director Oscar, and after Chloé Zhao’s win last year for Nomadland, it’s the first time that female directors have won Best Director in back-to-back years. Meanwhile, Coda became not just the first film since 1932’s Grand Hotel to win Best Picture without being nominated for Best Film Editing or Best Director, but the first winner in the category to come from a streaming service, Apple TV+. CODA is also just the third Best Picture winner from a female director, and one of its stars, Troy Kotsur, is now the first deaf man to win an Oscar for acting. And yet, all everyone will be talking about on Monday morning is the slap that entered the Speed Force.

For the blissfully unaware, ABC and the Academy got the viral moment they wanted—at a price. None of the cringe-worthy attempts at manufacturing buzzy moments in the face of dwindling ratings, including cohost Amy Schumer hanging from the ceiling in a Spider-Man costume, landed. But the ceremony did feature the most bizarre, genuinely wild Oscars moment in history, one even wilder than the Moonlight Best Picture fiasco: Will Smith slapping Chris Rock for making a G.I. Jane joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s shaved head in the middle of presenting the nominees for Best Documentary Feature. (Pinkett Smith has been open about having alopecia in recent years.) The post-slap exchange between Rock and Smith was censored on ABC, but as international viewers and in-person attendees revealed, what might’ve seemed like a tonally jarring bit was an unscripted act of retaliation for a joke made in poor taste. (“Keep my wife’s name out your fucking mouth” is just going to play on a loop in my head until the end of time.)

The slap was so transcendently shocking and random that Oscars producers, presumably as dumbfounded and confused as the rest of us, simply tried to push forward like we hadn’t just watched a guy with an estimated net worth of $350 million slap one of the most famous comedians on the planet. And to think, we Oscars viewers naively assumed that the most memeable takeaway from the ceremony was when the fans at home determined that the Flash going super fast—sorry, “entering the Speed Force”—in the Snyder Cut was the greatest moment in the history of cinema.

Of course, it’s telling that a blog reacting to the Oscars, in which a tech company that makes laptops and smartphones won a Best Picture winner before Netflix, has barely mentioned the actual awards. To be fair, there is no universe where the top awards of the evening wouldn’t be overshadowed by a public physical incident involving two A-listers, but even before Smith introduced Rock to his five fingers, the Oscars seemed to be sidelining some of the year’s most acclaimed films and artists by design. Whether it was jokes about not being able to sit through The Power of the Dog, two fan-voted awards that were hijacked by Zack Snyder acolytes, or Ryusuke Hamaguchi nearly being played off stage not long after accepting Best International Feature Film for Drive My Car, the Academy gave us an Oscars that leaned so far toward capitulating to the masses that it bordered on self-loathing.

The push-pull between celebrating movies that will appeal to a larger audience and the actual best films of the year is hardly a new concern for the Academy; the show’s ratings have been sliding for a while. But it’s becoming more and more evident that the Academy doesn’t seem to know what to do with its ceremony. The fact that Apple is now winning Hollywood’s biggest award just underlines the existential crisis the industry seems to be in while navigating a post-pandemic landscape. And though Sunday’s Oscars may have produced a moment that people will talk about for years, it’s not a moment that highlights the world of film. It’s also not exactly replicable—Bradley Cooper isn’t slapping James Corden next year. (Probably.)

Whether CODA is actually worthy of winning Best Picture is a conversation for another time, but with the exception of an epic crowd-pleaser like Dune, none of the other nominees would’ve reversed the general public’s waning interest in the Oscars. (That most of Dune’s wins in the technical categories were scrapped from the live telecast doesn’t help matters, either.) Having a spontaneous and instantly viral moment like The Slap might seem like a blessing in disguise on Sunday night. But how will the Academy feel next week?

It’s way too early to know whether Smith’s rush of blood will result in more viewers next year. The Oscars might not be able to unite all kinds of movie lovers, but as Sunday night proved, it always has the potential to unite us for unforgettable moments of unscripted chaos. But considering how much attention the 94th Academy Awards have received for everything but the awards, this year’s headaches will likely still be next year’s headaches.