In the room, it felt like a skit at first. Late into the Oscars on Sunday night, Will Smith stormed the stage as Chris Rock was presenting best documentary feature, and slapped Rock in the face. The loud thud echoed through the top mezzanine floors of the Dolby Theatre, almost sounding like a sound effect from an action movie.
Many in the auditorium initially thought that Smith was pretending to be upset that Rock had made a joke at the expense of his wife Jada Pinkett Smith, who was seated by his side. The presenter had improvised a joke on the spot, asking whether Pinkett Smith was going to be in “G.I. Jane 2” because of her shaved head. “Will Smith just smacked the shit out of me,” Rock said, stunned at what had just happened.
But then Smith kept going, and it became clear that this wasn’t a sketch. As the “King Richard” actor returned to his table, just a few feet from the stage, he started yelling at Rock. “Get my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth,” Smith said.
“Wow, dude,” Rock said. “It was a ‘G.I. Jane’ joke.”
Smith yelled back at Rock, repeating the same words — but louder. Rock managed to move on and award the prize, but the exchange — an act of violence from the night’s eventual best actor winner — cast a shadow over the 94th annual Academy Awards. (Smith has so far declined to comment, but he did apologize to the Academy and to his fellow nominees — though notably, not to Rock — in his acceptance speech.)
As the telecast — which had been drawing laughter from hosts Amy Schumer, Wanda Sykes and Regina Hall — continued on, the Oscars turned into two shows. Onstage, the in memoriam segment paid tribute to a list of Hollywood legends who’d died in the last year, including Sidney Poitier and Betty White. But all eyes inside the Dolby were on Smith. At the next commercial break, Denzel Washington came to his table to talk. Smith’s publicist, Meredith O’ Sullivan, also quickly made her way to his side. Although she disappeared when the ceremony resumed, she resurfaced at the next two commercial breaks, speaking to him intensely until the best actor category came along.
Smith held hands with his wife for the rest of the night. When Jane Campion was named best director a few minutes later for “The Power of the Dog,” Smith stood up and applauded, with a wide grin on his face. But he seemed to have taken all the air in the room. Campion’s win — as the third woman to ever triumph in the category — didn’t feel as special as it should have, as attendees were still whispering about Smith.
At the next commercial break, Nicole Kidman came to Smith’s table and gave him a hug. Oscars producer Will Packer also came over to say a few words to him.
When Smith’s name was later announced as the best actor winner, he was showered with a standing ovation. At the end of his speech, some actors stood up again for him, but the applause was more muted.
Unlike the other winners from the night, Smith didn’t take questions in the press room. He returned to his table, where he hugged his co-star Aunjanue Ellis with his statue and watched “CODA” take the best picture prize.
This year’s ceremony was already controversial because of the producers’ decision to award eight below-the-line category off camera, and then splice moments from those speeches into the live telecast. It was also historic, as Apple Studios’ “CODA” became the first streaming movie to win the top prize — a moment that shined a spotlight on the deaf community. But as the night ended, this year’s Oscars will probably be remembered for Smith slapping Rock (who has decided not to press charges, according to the LAPD).
Not surprisingly, Smith was the talk of the after parties. “Twitter went insane,” said “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” star Garcelle Beauvais at the Elton John party. “And yes, that was real.”