Film and TV

The industry - and the academy - are torn on how to handle Will Smith’s Oscars slap

As the dust settles on the slap, nothing is clear.

Since Will Smith walked onstage and smacked Chris Rock after the comedian made a joke at his wife’s expense during the Oscars ceremony on Sunday, the implications of the hit have reverberated across the industry and the internet with immeasurable force. Opinions about who was in the wrong and how both the academy and law enforcement should react vary wildly as the incident continues to dominate conversations about the 94th Academy Awards.

Following Smith’s Instagram apology to Rock on Monday, in which he called his behavior “unacceptable and inexcusable,” several industry insiders said they think Smith won’t be stripped of his Oscar - and many don’t want him to be.

“I genuinely do not understand ‘Take away his Oscar!’ He won. It’s not as if we found out he somehow won by cheating. And what then, give it to whoever came in second? Memory-wipe everyone? It’s silly,” tweeted Mark Harris, a journalist and author of several books on film history.

“I don’t think [the academy] will take away his Oscar,” said Matthew Belloni, the former editor of the Hollywood Reporter and founder-partner of Puck, who was in the audience Sunday. “I think the feeling is that the Oscar is for the work and he earned the Oscar, but the punishment will be for his behavior.”

He also doesn’t think Smith’s academy membership will be revoked, which he described as “Harvey Weinstein territory.” Instead, Belloni said, he thinks the announcement of a “formal review” will result in Smith probably receiving a suspension of six months to a year. “The academy is extremely upset about this,” he said. “I am convinced that there will be significant punishment for him.”

“I think it’s underplayed how embarrassing this is for many academy members. This is their identity. This is their business. This is their craft. And they care a lot about the Oscars. . . . To have something like this completely kneecap the event and take all the wind out of it and the attention away from the craft and the winners is very angering and embarrassing for a lot of these members,” he added. “If the academy does nothing, there will be a small but vocal uprising within the membership that is very upset.”

Marshall Herskovitz, a director, producer and academy member, was originally outraged, tweeting shortly after the incident, “I call upon the Academy, of which I am a member, to take disciplinary action against Will Smith. He disgraced our entire community tonight.”

But his feelings have cooled since Smith’s apology. “I think he acknowledged the significance of the event, and that changes the way I look at it,” he said. “I was quite outraged that evening, but he’s a guy I have a lot of respect for. He’s been an incredible sort of positive force in the industry and incredibly professional his whole life. So, you know, I don’t I don’t feel any need to pile on the guy now that he’s taken responsibility for what he did.”

“I don’t think there’s anything to be gained by punishing at this point,” Herskovitz added. What he’d like to see is “some statement by the academy of how seriously it takes the notion that there cannot be any violence at these events.”

At this point, legal ramifications seem unlikely even though the case could be prosecuted as criminal assault and battery, said Devin McRae, partner at Early Sullivan Wright Gizer & McRae - particularly since Rock declined to press charges with the Los Angeles Police Department.

“The LAPD or the sheriff’s office doesn’t really need a complaining witness in a case like that if the evidence of the act is on film,” he said. “A lot of criminal agencies are so overburdened with work that, for this type of thing, if the victim doesn’t want to press charges, it might be routine for them to just not prosecute it and not have to devote the resources.”

However, McRae added, “public outcry might affect that decision as well.” Still, he doesn’t expect criminal charges to be filed.

Celebrities’ feelings about the situation seem as equally divided. Immediately after the show, comedian Tiffany Haddish said that the slap “was the most beautiful thing I ever seen because it made me believe that there are still men out there that love and care about their women, their wives.” Other defenders include One Direction member Liam Payne, rapper Nicki Minaj and actor Jameela Jamil.

In an appearance on “CBS Mornings” Tuesday, comedian Jim Carrey said that if he were Rock, he would have “announced this morning that I was suing Will for 200 million dollars because that video is going to be there forever, it’s going to be ubiquitous.” He also added that he was “sickened by the standing ovation,” calling Hollywood “spineless.” David Letterman, meanwhile, took to Facebook to joke that during his disastrous 1995 Oscars hosting gig, “No one got hit. No one was hit that night that I hosted. That’s all I have to say.”

SAG-AFTRA, the actors’ guild, condemned Smith’s behavior, calling it “unacceptable” in a statement. “Violence or physical abuse in the workplace is never appropriate and the union condemns any such conduct,” it continued. “We have been in contact with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and ABC about this incident, and will work to ensure this behavior is appropriately addressed.”

The shock of the situation even extended to Smith’s mother, Carolyn, who told a local Philadelphia TV station: “He is a very even, people person. That’s the first time I’ve ever seen him go off. First time in his lifetime . . . I’ve never seen him do that.”

“There are clearly mixed feelings on this,” Belloni said. “Not everyone was giving him a standing ovation. And I somewhat think the applause was somewhat muted considering this is a guy who has been a movie star for 30 years, and this was coronation of that career, his first Oscar. And the ovation in the room was not in my opinion what you would expect for someone who is receiving that coronation.”

The cleaving of reactions was apparent online in the aftermath, as viewers quickly divided into two camps: Smith defenders and Rock defenders.

Some dubbed the slap the “lowest point in Oscar history,” while others were quick to point to arguably lower moments, including Hattie McDaniel becoming the first Black woman to win an Oscar in 1940 while forced to sit at a segregated table, and Sacheen Littlefeather being booed by the crowd and mocked by Clint Eastwood for rejecting an Oscar on behalf of best actor winner Marlon Brando in 1973 while calling for better treatment of Native Americans.

There is not a precedent for what happens to Smith, who has spent the last decade transforming himself from the untouchable rapper turned film superstar into the radically vulnerable and sometimes uncomfortably open celebrity he is today, as likely to talk about passion projects like “King Richard” as the trials of his marriage.

Mark Harvey, the author of “Celebrity Influence: Politics, Persuasion, and Issue-Based Advocacy” and the director of graduate programs at the University of Saint Mary, pointed out that the incident “has the potential to undermine this carefully curated image that he has built for himself in the social media era.”

“I’m just thinking it might be a blip on the radar in the long run,” Harvey said, suggesting that given time and the release of a movie like “Emancipation,” Smith’s upcoming slavery film, the public might move on.

One aspect lost in the ensuing conversation is how Pinkett Smith feels about everything, given that “the joke was quite painful for her,” said Elaine Lui, senior correspondent on Canada’s Etalk and the woman behind LaineyGossip.com. She added that “it must be such a punch in the gut” for Pinkett Smith to have her hairstyle become “a thing at the Oscars.” For her part, Pinkett Smith posted her own missive Tuesday on Instagram with an image of all-caps text that read: “This is a season for healing and I’m here for it.”

As for Smith himself, Lui thinks he’ll be fine. If he wanted to, he could hop on Pinkett Smith’s Facebook Watch show, “Red Table Talk,” and hash things out, which “wouldn’t be off-brand.”

For now, though, Lui says Smith should lay low - an “underrated strategy” - and he’ll be fine.

Plus, she added, “As mad as everyone is at Will Smith is, do we honestly think no one is taking his calls?”

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