By Steve Gorman
LOSANGELES – The Academy Awards telecast was packed with much of what got left out of last year’s pandemic-hindered show, offering a trio of women hosts, a return to lavish musical productions and a big dose of comedy, much of it edgier than usual for the Oscars.
It was a bit of that testy humor, delivered by comedian Chris Rock and found offensive by actor Will Smith, that led to Sunday night’s biggest moment – a nominated actor slapping a presenter in the face in anger on live national television.
The unprecedented physical altercation upstaged the final half hour of the show and will certainly go down as one of the most memorable moments in Oscar history.
It also is sure to thrust the Oscars, facing steadily sagging TV viewership in recent years, back in the cultural conversation, though probably not in the way organizers imagined.
As it unfolded, many in the room and watching from home were left momentarily wondering whether the spectacle had been staged. It turned out to be entirely unscripted.
The surreal confrontation was sparked when Smith, a best-actor nominee, took umbrage at Rock for making a crack about his wife’s closely shaven hair as the comedian was about to present the award for best documentary.
Smith suddenly strode onto the stage and slapped Rock hard across the face with his open hand. The actor then turned and took his seat again beside his spouse, actress Jada Pinkett Smith, who suffers from a hair loss condition called alopecia.
Smith then repeatedly shouted a vulgarity at Rock in defense of his wife.
Rock, visibly stunned but maintaining his composure, acknowledged he had just been smacked by Smith and jokingly said the incident made for the “greatest night in the history of television.”
It certainly overshadowed the evening.
Seeking to lighten the mood moments later, co-host Amy Schumer, emerged back on stage from a previous gag to feign ignorance of the whole affair: “Did I miss anything? There seems to be a different vibe in here.”
Veteran actor Anthony Hopkins made mention of the episode before presenting the best-actress award, saying, “Well, what an evening,” adding, “Will Smith said it all.”
Smith had more to say as he took the stage again as winner of the best-actor award for portraying Richard Williams, the father and coach of tennis greats Venus and Serena Williams in the biopic “King Richard.”
A tearful Smith apologized to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and fellow nominees during his acceptance speech, in which he started off saying, “Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family.”
He left the stage to a standing ovation, after telling the crowd, “I hope the academy invites me back.”
Strangely, the film “King Richard” ended up as a kind of through-line for the entire show.
The telecast began the Williams sisters introducing the show-opening performance by pop superstar Beyonce of her single “Be Alive,” from the “King Richard” soundtrack, nominated as best original song.
Returning to its home venue at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, the telecast sought to recapture much of the customary glitz and live entertainment that went missing when COVID-19 forced the scaled-down 2021 event into a rail station.
In addition to Beyonce’s appearance, Sunday’s show featured musical by such stars as Billie Eilish, Reba McEntire and the cast of the Oscar-winning best animated feature, “Encanto.”
After going for three years without a master of ceremonies, one notable upgrade to the Oscars was that it boasted three co-hosts – comic performers Schumer, Wanda Sykes and Regina Hall – marking the first Oscar ceremony emceed by a trio of women.
“It’s cheaper than hiring one man,” Schumer dead-panned to big laughs.
Schumer herself tested the bounds of traditional Oscar decorum by roasting a number of luminaries in the room, including “Being the Recardos” writer-director Aaron Sorkin, whom she taunted for making a movie about TV comedy pioneer Lucille Ball “without even a moment that’s funny.”
Casting a wider net of mock derision, Schumer said the year’s films overall “weren’t all great, a lot of them were pretty hard to understand,” adding, “You know who you are.”
In a bid to quicken the show’s pace in an era of tumbling awards show ratings, organizers scaled back presentations to winners in eight categories deemed of less interest to TV viewers.
Those awards, such as for sound and production design, were handed out during a “golden hour” before the live telecast started, with edited snippets of acceptance speeches sprinkled throughout the main show.
The change sparked a backlash among many in Hollywood who called it an affront to craft artists critical to filmmaking. Ultimately, the show still ran longer than planned, over 3 1/2 hours. The co-hosts bid viewers goodnight dressed in pajamas.