When Smith and Rock suffered from a momentary lapse of reason

Will Smith quickly issued a mea culpa the day after he slapped Chris Rock on stage during the Oscars



(COMBO) This combination of pictures created on March 28, 2022 shows US actor Will Smith (R) approaches US actor Chris Rock onstage,and US actor Will Smith (R) slaps US actor Chris Rock onstage, during the 94th Oscars at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California on March 27, 2022.(Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP)
(COMBO) This combination of pictures created on March 28, 2022 shows US actor Will Smith (R) approaches US actor Chris Rock onstage,and US actor Will Smith (R) slaps US actor Chris Rock onstage, during the 94th Oscars at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California on March 27, 2022.(Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP)

By Chidanand Rajghatta

Published: Thu 31 Mar 2022, 12:11 AM

America’s entertainment industry is humongous. A single franchise movie from Hollywood — which contributes $500 billion annually to the US GDP, more than the GDP of many countries — can gross more than a billion dollars. Nearly 50 movies have done so in Hollywood history, with half-a-dozen films topping $2 billion in receipts.

Although the film industry is global in nature, Hollywood sets the trend and the tempo. Its leading stars are adored and feted worldwide. Its annual gala, the Academy Awards ceremony to honour the best with Oscar statuettes, which according to one story, is named after an obscure Broadway theater owner, is a celebratory moment when the world’s eyes are trained on it. Call it the Olympics or World Cup of the movies.

So, when this year’s Oscar ceremony featured more than the usual fare of fears, tears, cheers in an episode now known as the slap that was heard across the world, it brought a brief moment of infamy to an event that prides itself on warm fuzzy feelings and good graces, even if those who don’t win burn up in envy in private. In 1965, when the Awards ceremony was televised in colour for the first time, Bob Hope joked: “Just as well we could see them in colour. For the first time, you can actually see the losers turn green.”

This year it turned out the losers are Black. The fact that the two men involved in the incident — Will Smith and Chris Rock — are African-American made it all the more striking, pun unintended, because there has been a rousing debate in recent years over Hollywood’s lack of diversity. Black anger at racial discrimination and prejudice has long festered in the US but coloured actors are finally winning recognition for their work.

“This moment is so much bigger than me. It’s for every nameless, faceless woman of colour that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened,” actress Halle Berry, who become the first Black woman to win a Best Actress Oscar for Monster’s Ball, said in 2000. In 2022, for just a few fleeting monstrous seconds, Smith and Rock failed the moment for Black men.

The good news is sanity and fine graces were restored quickly, although Smith may have to pay for it with revocation of the Oscar. The famed statuette, made of solid bronze and plated in 24-karat gold, has a face value of just one dollar (although it costs $400 to make), because the Academy has a rule that it cannot be sold by its recipient or his or her heirs without first offering to sell it back to the Academy for $1. But the prestige associated with winning — not to speak of hosting the ceremony — is immense.

Which is why Smith quickly issued a mea culpa the day after he slapped Rock on stage over live television, unable, he said, to bear the joke the comedian made about the hair loss Smith’s wife is suffering from because of a medical condition. On his part, Rock was equally gracious, acknowledging that he may have crossed the line with the joke.

The late great stand-up comic and social commentator George Carlin once argued that “it is the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn and cross it deliberately.” But alas, times and social mores are changing. In what is now described as a woke world, it is increasingly impolitic to make jokes on race, religion, and gender — and certainly not on someone’s disability or health condition.

The surprising thing is beneath the veneer of rough-hewn Black men, the two entertainers are known as thoughtful practitioners of their craft — and life. Smith won rave reviews for The Pursuit of Happyness, in which he plays an indigent father of a five-year old who rescues his own life from rack and ruin. On his part, Rock once made this piercing observation: “You know the world is going crazy when the best rapper is a White guy, the best golfer is a Black guy, the tallest guy in the NBA is Chinese, the Swiss hold the America’s Cup, France is accusing the US of arrogance, Germany doesn’t want to go to war, and the three most powerful men in America are named ‘Bush’, ‘Dick’, and ‘Colon’.” Another time, he joked that “There are only three things women need in life: food, water, and compliments.” He should now be pulling his own hair over the backlash to the joke on Mrs Smith’s hair loss, even if it transpires that he was not aware of her medical condition.

But as the sagely Denzil Washington noted to Smith after the episode, “At your highest moment, be careful because that’s when the devil comes for you.” It applies equally to Chris Rock, who is also at the acme of his career. Both suffered from a momentary lapse of reason under the klieg lights. It happens. “Gee, this isn’t like I imagined it would be in the bathtub,” an Oscar-winning actress once exclaimed as she clutched the statuette. It certainly isn’t. It is a giddy, heady moment when poise and serenity bolt from the best.


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