Just like clockwork, the 94th Academy Awards were back again on Sunday, reminding us all – in surprising ways this year – that they’re still Hollywood’s kingmaker.
If you didn’t watch the show, fret not. Or maybe better to ask, how did you miss it? Social media’s coverage of a now-ubiquitous moment during proceedings have made reruns of one particular moment impossible to avoid.
I won’t go into the detail save for a crucial point when actor Will Smith slapped comedian Chris Rock on stage for making a joke about his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, and alopecia. The world promptly erupted, Smith won Best Actor and gave a tearful acceptance speech when he made his apology.
But what drama! The event has become an instant viral polemic of our times with a clip of posted by The Guardian on YouTube garnering more than 57 million views in less than 24 hours. Comment sections are raging, with stills, clips and memes being shared like wildfire. Reaction has been mixed; some call Smith’s behaviour an unacceptable display of toxic masculinity and others comment that Chris Rock took it too far by calling out a medical condition.
While the jury is still out on who “won” last night (The Economist takes a dim view on the whole piece), Twitter users were outraged at the privilege on display during the altercation. Several commented that had the same situation occurred in a much less-privileged circumstance, both African American men would have been arrested and charged with assault. Instead, in a statement issued later that night, the Los Angeles Police Department confirmed that it would not be investigating the case because no charges had been brought forwards.
The episode highlights another quandary that we now revisit annually: what is purpose of the Oscars?
From ranking red carpet looks to the slew of articles outlining what celebs eat (spoiler: they end the night with In-N’-Out burgers), the Academy Awards’ purpose has strayed significantly from what was initially intended to be a celebration of the art and craft of filmmaking. Pressure from ABC, the Oscars’ broadcaster, to cut the show’s running time to make space for advertising breaks meant several categories were ditched, including prizes for animated short film, live action short film, original score, makeup and hairstyling, and production design, to name a few. That’s perhaps unsurprising given news that Nielsen TV Ratings revealed Sunday’s show were the second-least watched TV event since it began tracking viewership in the mid-70s, all despite the fury that raged online.
The Oscars like to point out that they are a night of firsts and unexpected wins. But its substance as a quality awards evening can’t rely on notoriety alone – whether for on-stage altercations or chronic misrepresentation of racial diversity. The audiences are tuning out.