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Will Smith, Chris Rock and the slap that stang Hollywood


Having long been in the search of a ‘viral moment’ that would bring their self-congratulatory ceremony back into the pop-culture limelight, the 94th Academy Awards got their slice of internet popularity on Sunday, March 27th, though not in the form that they hoped for, as the glossy facade of Hollywood glamour fluttered awkwardly to the floor. 

Taking to the stage to present the award for Best Documentary following a ceremony that was surprisingly more wearisome than normal, despite several technical categories being cut from the live broadcast, Chris Rock strutted into the spotlight to ramble off the same old light-hearted jokes and movie-related trivia. With a sharp Ricky Gervais-like tongue, however, Rock spiked his speech with an underhand joke aimed at Jada Pinkett Smith and her hard-fought struggle with alopecia.

“Jada, can’t wait for G.I. Jane 2,” the comedian remarked, making reference to the 1997 film of the same name that starred Demi Moore as a female Senator who enrols in army training, forcing her to shave her head in the process. 

Initially laughing at the joke, it wasn’t until Will Smith saw the reaction of his wife that he marched onto the stage, violently slapped Chris Rock in the face, and triumphantly swaggered off. As the presenter attempted to stumble back to regular business, Smith continued his tirade, shouting twice from his seat, “Keep my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth,” as the world watched in incredulous fascination. 

As if written in a theatrical Hollywood script, it wasn’t long after the incident that Will Smith would march to the stage once more to accept his award for Best Actor for his performance as Richard Williams in King Richard, a character who prides himself on strict morals and mental tranquillity in the face of adversity. “I want to be a vessel for love,” the actor contradictingly stated, after describing the pain of working in the limelight, explaining: “In this business, you gotta be able to have people disrespecting you and you gotta smile and you gotta pretend like that‘s OK”. 

Will Smith says he was “out of line” in apology for slapping Chris Rock

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Concluding his emotional speech, Smith turned his attention to the elephant in the room and addressed the violent altercation with Chris Rock, apologising to The Academy, his fellow nominees, though interestingly not the victim himself. Despite having since come out and apologise to the comedian in the days that followed, there is an inherent arrogance in not seeing the on-stage opportunity as a chance to seek reconciliation; the same arrogance that was applauded by Hollywood in his acceptance speech. 

If time is supposed to sober volatile thoughts, this clearly wasn’t the case for Smith, treating the Vanity Fair Oscar party as if he had indeed won the Academy Award without any violent, potentially career-ruining hiccups, parading the party as if it was his victory lap. Nevertheless, whilst his stardom has shone brightly for decades, in one moment, the bruises of a lifetime in the limelight gleaned, and the damage was substantial. 

Having worked in the industry since the age of 17, Smith has been toughened by a lifetime of industry popularity, fortified by wise PR assistants and mastery over his own public image. Savvy and astute, his scandalous behaviour at the Academy Awards wasn’t the result of a fit mind. 

Long struggling with scarring childhood torment as well as publicised marital issues, whilst it’s easy to criticise Smith’s actions in isolation, they should be appreciated as part of a historic whole, with his on-stage outburst quite clearly the tip of a deep-rooted iceberg of fragile mental health. 

With a bloated industry persona, Smith is, after all, one of the last remaining reminders of the Hollywood star system, alongside the eccentric Tom Cruise, where the talent once ruled the roost and determined which movies would flop and flourish. Considered titans of respect in the movie industry, such names were often linked with the Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, a bullish, arrogant criminal who the industry facilitated the behaviour of for decades. 

For an industry that has long underpinned such behaviour, it should come as little surprise that a star like Will Smith considers it acceptable to go on stage on Hollywood’s biggest night and slap one of his fellow stars, as if Rock was attacking his credibility in his own home. Defending his wife’s honour like John Wayne might have done in a classic western, Smith’s behaviour bared ironic similarities to the toxic masculinity explored in Jane Campion’s revisionist genre film The Power of the Dog — that too bridges the gap between the golden age of Hollywood and its 21st-century identity. 

Such created something of a farcical circus for the Academy Awards that was reminded of the scars of its troubled, toxic past, whilst being prevented from celebrating the multiple strides forward the 94th version of their award show provided. 

Instead, the behaviour of Will Smith represented an ugly echo of a dissipating star system that once celebrated figures of influence as if they were figures of enlightenment. As a result of such ceaseless adoration, Smith, despite going on stage and slapping a fellow actor, was clapped and cheered before dancing his way into the night like his famously frivolous Fresh Prince character. 

One has to question why we continue to cheer such stars, when, if a nameless member of the public took the stage and raised their hand, several actors would apprehend them like marvellous real-life action heroes.

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