Critic’s Notebook: Drama at the 2022 Oscars (Though Not in the Awards)

94th Academy Awards - Governors Ball
Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times

It’s always a shock when actual drama breaks out during the glossy but typically inert 2022 Oscars broadcast. And that’s just what happened when presenter (of the documentary award, of all things) Chris Rock got fresh with a throwaway joke about Jada Pinkett Smith, and former Fresh Prince (and soon-to-be Best Actor winner) Will Smith threw what looked to the TV audience like a roundabout slap at the comedian.

It was a startling wake-up moment well into the third hour of the show, causing the sort of what-just-happened Oscar buzz we haven’t seen since the wrong Best Picture winner was announced back in 2017. This outburst by the famously genial Smith was even more surreal, as he sat back in his seat and shouted obscenities at Rock, whose G.I. Jane joke about Jada’s shaved head (a condition of her alopecia) obviously struck a raw nerve.

Will Smith Hits Chris Rock at Oscars 2022

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Smith was just as raw and tearfully emotional, apologizing to the Academy and his fellow nominees (if not to Rock) when he later accepted his Best Actor Oscar for King Richard, in which he plays Richard Williams (father of Venus and Serena), whom Smith described as “a fierce protector of his family.” He later joked, “Art imitates life. I look like the crazy father … but love will make you do crazy things.” He also noted that fellow nominee Denzel Washington had counseled him during the break: “At your highest moment, be careful. That’s when the devil comes for you.” Official score: Devil 1, Oscar dignity 0.

“What an evening,” was the reaction from last year’s Best Actor winner, Anthony Hopkins, who followed this spectacle to present the award for Best Actress: “Will Smith said it all. What more can be said? Let’s have peace and love and quiet.”

A bit late for that, even though the show did stage a moment of silence for war-torn Ukraine. And love was definitely in the air as The Eyes of Tammy Faye Best Actress winner Jessica Chastain used her time in the winner’s circle to speak out on behalf of the LGBTQ community facing “discriminatory and bigoted legislation.” Inspired by what she called the late Tammy Faye Messner’s “radical acts of love” and compassion, she beckoned to anyone listening, “You are unconditionally loved for the uniqueness that is you.”

What else did we learn on Oscar night 2022? That while zero hosts is too few, three is too many, even when used sparingly.

After an awkward bit introducing Amy Schumer, Wanda Sykes, and Regina Hall in tandem, they split up afterward with varying degrees of success. Schumer’s solo set was the sharpest, delivering jabs with wry sarcasm that thankfully didn’t prompt any violent attacks. Nicole Kidman (nominated for Being the Ricardos) seemed to especially enjoy the joke about how writer-director Aaron Sorkin (“truly a genius”) somehow managed to make a movie about comedy legend Lucille Ball “without even a moment that’s funny. … It’s like making a biopic about Michael Jordan and just showing the bus trips between games.”

Hall fared less well with shtick in which she played the horny single woman, bringing movie hunks on stage and promising to give them “emergency” Covid testing off-camera: “I’m gonna swab the back of your mouth with my tongue.” Before exiting, she patted down presenters Josh Brolin and Jason Momoa. Not a laugh riot. Sykes wasted more time with a corny taped piece at the Academy’s pricey new L.A. museum.

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Later in the show, the hosts attempted to redeem themselves by returning in costume, with Schumer again scoring the biggest laughs as she was suspended in midair as Spider-Man, squirting Silly String into the theater. (Sykes was King Richard in tight shorts, and Hall channeled Chastain’s Tammy Faye: “I always wanted to play a crazy white lady.”) Finally, some comedy, however fleeting and anticlimactic.

Showmanship was more evident in most of the musical numbers showcasing the Best Song nominees, starting with Beyoncé on a Compton tennis court, bedecked in tennis-ball yellow with a full chorus and orchestra as she delivered a Super Bowl-worthy performance of King Richard’s “Be Alive.” Best Animated Film winner Encanto got two numbers: the nominated “Dos Oruguitas” and a full production number of “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” that filled the Dolby Theatre with vibrant energy, making you wonder why that earworm phenom wasn’t nominated. Billie Eilish and FINNEAS delivered a strong version of the title track of No Time to Die, the latest James Bond theme to win an Oscar.

One musical sequence that backfired was a gospel accompaniment to the In Memoriam segment, which focused too much on the chorus moving, dancing and swaying and not enough on Hollywood’s dearly departed. (A better idea: Having celebrities including Tyler Perry, Bill Murray and Jamie Lee Curtis give brief personal testimonials to luminaries Sidney Poitier, Ivan Reitman and Betty White.)

Even with the controversial attempt to streamline the show by handing out eight of the craft and short-subject awards before the broadcast and editing them into the proceedings, the Oscars still managed to drone on past the three-and-a-half-hour mark. There were few surprises among the winners, though history was made when CODA, from streamer Apple TV+, took the Best Picture prize.

Myung Chun / Los Angeles Times

But in years to come, few will remember who won or lost at the 2022 Oscars. What they’ll remember was the smack that was seen around the world.