Two-and-a-half hours into the Oscars broadcast, the energy at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ London viewing party was dipping. With the U.K. eight hours ahead of L.A, the time was coming up to 3:30 a.m. and even the steady stream of champagne, espresso martinis and miniature bangers and mash couldn’t quell the groans inside the Claridges hotel ballroom when, on the screens dotted around us, an ABC voiceover promised we were entering “our final exciting hour” of the ceremony.
“Another hour?” someone moaned and, to be fair, I could see where they were coming from even though I was having a grand old time. (It’s not every day I get to wear a ballgown to watch TV and eat donuts surrounded by giant Oscar statues.)
Little did we know, ABC was legitimately going to deliver on that promise of a “final exciting hour.” Just 15 minutes later, uneasy laughter turned to confusion as we watched Will Smith storm the stage and slap Chris Rock. Unlike in the U.S., where some viewers reported their feed being frozen or blurred before the slap, in London we caught the entire sequence live, although it felt like I was watching in slow motion.
There was Rock, taking to the stage to present the next category; joking about Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruise; then another, more controversial, joke about Jada Pinkett-Smith; Smith laughing, Pinkett-Smith rolling her eyes; and then suddenly, Smith was on the gangway and striding towards Rock. In London, the room suddenly perked up. Rock was laughing but Smith’s purposeful stride suggested he wasn’t in on the joke. Was this scripted or unscripted?
It was only the dull thud of Smith’s blow, which was picked up by Rock’s microphone, that alerted us to the fact this might in fact be real. Around me, U.K.-based Academy members and their guests were stunned, turning to Twitter or messaging friends inside the Dolby Theater in Hollywood to provide some answers. What did we just witness? “It was real,” one woman, a publicist for a streamer, declared in disbelief, having received a reply from someone who’d seen the whole exchange unfold live inside the ceremony. We were stunned. Would Smith be removed from the ceremony? Was anyone on stage going to address what had just happened?
Everyone in the room immediately scrolling Twitter to find out whether that Chris Rock / Will Smith thing was real or a skit… 😳
— K.J. Yossman (@KJYossman) March 28, 2022
The next few categories (production design and original song) passed in a blur until Jane Campion ascended to accept her Oscar for best director from Kevin Costner, pre-written speech in hand. “Thank you Kevin, that was very dramatic,” she ad-libbed, presumably referencing the Smith/Rock altercation. That was also when someone in the audience in London yelled at the screen: “Just read from your notes Jane, read from your notes!” Admittedly good advice given the last time she referenced “King Richard” in an acceptance speech.
Even though we were 5,400 miles away from Hollywood, the atmosphere in Claridges was likely as charged as the one back in the Dolby when Smith eventually took to the podium to receive his best lead actor award. As he tearfully delivered his five-minute long speech, the video feed of him cut completely, alternating between shots of the audience and an Oscars logo. It was only when Smith uttered his final thank-yous and headed backstage the whole ballroom collectively unclenched.
By now it was past 4 a.m. and aside from the diligent Claridges staff (who were working through the night to deliver an apparently endless supply of snacks and drinks), those left watching the broadcast were mostly hanging on for the best picture winner, particularly the Apple reps behind me. Every time “CODA” picked up an award — Troy Kotsur for supporting actor, with a speech that left us all nearly in tears, and director Sian Heder for adapted screenplay — they cheered loudly and the anticipation for the big prize was growing.
Next, the pre-recorded make-up and hairstyling Oscar, which inevitably felt like old news given we had already found out the winners (Linda Dowds, Stephanie Ingram and Justin Raleigh for “The Eyes of Tammy Faye”) four hours earlier, Jessica Chastain collecting her trophy for lead actress and then, finally, it was time to hand out the last prize. As Liza Minelli blurted out “CODA” the table behind me erupted, earning applause from Academy members around the room. For a brief moment, it felt like we were in Hollywood too. At least until the credits started to roll on the screens around us and everyone trundled out to collect their coats before emptying out into the deserted Mayfair streets.