It says everything that not even Will Smith slapping Chris Rock in the face could keep the Oscars ceremony from stubbornly chugging along its predetermined track, until Smith’s speech for winning best actor forced it to stop. In that jaw-dropping moment, what had been a self-consciously smooth night — the Academy Awards, as seen through some poreless filter — immediately and irrevocably shattered. No matter how desperately ABC and the Academy wanted the ceremony to be a well-oiled machine, this year’s Oscars proved the power of live TV, for better and for deeply uncomfortable worse.
For weeks, the network and Academy’s governing body had been weathering fierce criticism about their handling of the ceremony, which would pre-tape eight technical category wins in order to make more room for, it seems, ample comedic bits from three hosts, new “Fan Favorite” winners as awarded by Twitter votes, and Chris Evans’ introduction to an extended trailer for “Lightyear,” his “Toy Story” spinoff. Hosts Wanda Sykes, Amy Schumer, and Regina Hall did their best to keep the show moving at a brisk pace with jokes pointed at the nominated films, the Academy, and themselves. The eight categories presented offscreen were edited into the broadcast, yet it still managed to run over half an hour long.
As produced by Will Packer, the night veered between streamlined prepackaged clips to heartfelt live speeches and performances. The “Encanto” mega-hit “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” got a slower, stranger remix (featuring Megan Thee Stallion, but none of the lines that made the song go so viral in the first place). For a while there, the strangest thing about the 2022 Oscars were DJ D Nice’s music cues and the abrupt cuts between pre-taped winners being announced before magically appearing onstage.
The night’s brightest moments belonged to winners like Ariana DeBose (Supporting Actress, “West Side Story”) and Troy Kotsur (Supporting Actor, “CODA”), whose moving speeches highlighted their singular journeys to the screen and clarion calls for Hollywood to open more doors to people existing outside its norms. Despite the show’s constant insistence that it’s “where movie lovers unite,” nothing about its production could sell that sentiment half as powerfully as its weeping honorees, palpably grateful to be there at all.
More than any other televised Oscars ceremony in recent memory, this one was absolutely insistent on efficiency. Occasionally, it even was. In the process, however, the telecast cut corners, seriously pissed off several technical branches of the Academy, and mocked the very films it was honoring.
And then, in its last hour, the ceremony collapsed into chaos.
Rock, who as host in 2016 had cracked a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith boycotting the Oscars to protest its lack of diversity, cracked another at her expense. This time, it was a “G.I. Jane” punchline highlighting Pinkett Smith’s baldness, the result of a recent alopecia diagnosis. Her husband’s sudden, violent reaction to the joke, and his subsequent Best Actor speech that bobbed and weaved over the line between defiant and penitent, swallowed the rest of the night whole.
Despite the very best efforts of people like Denzel Washington, gamely tap-dancing host Schumer, and even the surprise duo of Lady Gaga and Liza Minelli, the 2022 Oscars were well and truly sunk in the confusion of Smith’s slap heard ‘round the world. The ceremony was already running long, but it needed even a brief moment to reset after Smith and Rock’s altercation threw everything into crisis. Instead, the production ignored the continuing uproar and barreled right on to the next thing, ensuring that poignant and historic moments — like Questlove’s emotional speech for his “Summer of Soul” win and Jane Campion winning her first Oscar for directing — practically went unnoticed.
The ramifications of that jarring moment will be felt for far longer than the shelf life of this particular review, so I won’t pretend to know where all this is going or what The Main Takeaway from this bizarre evening will be. But in this immediate wreckage of a prestigious night losing its luster live for all to see, there’s something to be said for this tense production’s complete inability to account for the unaccountable. In a desperate chase for ratings, it tried so hard to be as glamorous and slick as possible that it fell on its face well before the night could’ve been saved. ABC might get the buzz it so craved, but at what cost?