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Film Critic Harlan Jacobson reviews The Oscars: Guess Who's Not Coming to Dinner.

King Richard.jpg
King Richard/Harlan Jacobson
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Will Smith won for best actor for playing Richard Williams in the movie "King Richard"

The 94th Academy Awards, which concluded last Sunday night, confounded just about everyone who watched it—whether they were in the elite crowd inside the Academy’s return to the Dolby Theatre or like the rest of us, flopped out on the couch.

Dolby Theater.jpg
Harlan Jacobson
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The 94th Academy Awards took place in the Dolby Theatre

Whatever else it was, Oscar night this year will be known forevermore as Not the Triumph of the Will.
It’s a sad truth that something unscripted on live TV captivated us more than the hard work and millions of hours that went into the entire field of nominated film art, however middle brow the nominees of 2021 ended up being, however much I thought there were un-nominated films I liked better than the nominees. But there It is: Will Smith acted impulsively and flipped the script. We watched him realize he’d damaged the person he loved most: himself. Whatever is going on inside that head, that home, he opened up a hole and fell into it. It was clear to everyone inside the room, and the 16 million people watching ABC up from 9 million last year, the lowest ever, that Smith ain’t in control of his instrument.

Like most of you who saw The Slap, it was hard to process: Whoa, what was that? That 30 seconds of television free-fall rarely happens on film. The DNA of film is illusion; The Slap looked like just another trick in the long history of bits to breathe air into the Oscar corpse. It was only when the audio time delay bleeped out Chris Rock, and then Smith, and the camera had time to catch the faces inside the Dolby Theater that it sank in: we were watching live TV, and whatever that was it wasn’t in the script.

Smith didn’t physically break Rock. Had Smith done anything else—frozen smile and dead eyes usually work -- Rock might have taken some lumps for tastelessness and been forgotten about. Rock salvaged his reputation from a hard place with a display of what Hemingway said about courage: grace under pressure.

Certainly, Smith harmed the Academy, which badly needed a win. Like Major League Baseball, the Academy is tasked with propping up an underlying enterprise with gimmicks to salvage what the franchise owners have milked to the point of dehydration. Reeling from charges of White-ism, the Academy threw open the doors and doubled the membership. Abandoning character stories for superheroes, the major companies that underwrite the Academy went all Spiderman, Batman and Dune, at best, and kneecapped their films from consideration for anything but technical awards. So they doubled the nominations for Best Picture in the hopes of getting the odd blockbuster a major nomination.

It was galling to the business that on his way up, before he became a pariah, the spiritual heir of the founding immigrant filmmakers, Harvey Weinstein, hijacked the business with reasonably well-made character stories. It’s a little more nuanced than that – you can make the case that the late Miramax regrew the A-Pictures, the ones made for prestige more than money, that the studios used to make themselves. That’s not for the Academy to fix, but to reward and to exploit, and so it built a museum (by definition a monument to the past) that instead also opened in 2021 to scandal.

The Academy spent itself into near insolvency with cost overruns on the Museum and then opened with no mention of the Jews who built the industry. Whatever god of social currency the Academy was in thrall to, it missed the one lesson in the history of the movies that was worth learning: a social outcast class excluded because of their noses, hair, the way they looked, their flavored English from banks, finance, insurance, transportation, energy, aviation, government, all corporate life – the central institutions of 20th Century America -- persevered to harness ingenuity, make money and rise to power. With the movies. That’s what the film industry is a monument to. That’s why their logos were searchlights and drums, a woman with a torch, a lion that roared. If nothing else, the damaged Academy’s recovery was on the line when Will Smith walked up and slapped Chris Rock. 

In what amounted to an insert shot, Smith blew a hole through a career that at its inception still didn’t think Blacks could “carry a picture,” meaning make money based on Black star power. After Sidney Poitier in the 60s, and then later Denzel, Sam Jackson, Morgan Freeman and Spike Lee on the male side and most notably Hallie Berry, Alfre Woodard, Cicely Tyson, Whoopi, Oprah, Pam Grier and Jada Pinkett Smith herself on the female, the new black stars of the 90’s transformed the race cinema of the 30s and 40s into mainstream moviemaking by doing the right thing. As recently as the mid-80s that seemed impossible.

Now, in the age of calling out male rage he’s Will the Wildman. His road back, if there is one, comes down to risk analysis. He has to convince producers the audience will still come see him. Even before that producers will calculate not just whether he’s killed his bankability and their investment but whether he might go off on set: Keep my – fill in the blank – out your bleepin’ mouth! Keep my – fill in the blank – out your bleepin’ mouth!! Will Will scream it at a co-star? A cameraman? The Producer herself? A production assistant? In one stroke, Will Smith at 53 is no longer the Fresh Prince of Bel Air full of Just Like You. Now, he’s just like a man.

At the least, he also damaged the Academy. You’d think they know that, but after the Museum debacle and the fundamental mishandling of what Best means, I have no idea what they know. Before the Academy decided what to do, Smith resigned. The sad legacy of Will Smith now is he's the first Oscar winner who climbed the mountain and jumped off, all on the same night.

I hope the Academy knows not to strip Will Smith of his Oscar. He earned it by a vote of his peers, though the entire Oscar process has been tainted by campaign spending like there’s no tomorrow — because it increasingly looks like there may not be. He could end up like Pete Rose or Louis CK or Woody Allen, as Guess Who’s Not Coming to Dinner. And here’s the thing: In the run up to the Oscars, Smith did what I felt like doing all week long, watching Pygmy Senators on my kitchen TV tarring Federal Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson for being a child pornographer with a transgender agenda. Only Will did it in front of 16 million people watching Hollywood embalm itself and holding their collective breath that what they saw was just another stupid Oscar prank. It wasn’t. No such luck.

Think of the bullet that got dodged. Had Chris Rock insulted Maggie Gyllenhall, who snagged a writing nomination for The Lost Daughter, for upholding the long New York film family tradition of being a lousy mother just like her mother (screenwriter Naomi Foner) and turning it into a great dress to wear to the Oscars. It could have been Jake Gyllenhaal, who slapped Rock. Think about what that After Party might have looked like then.

Harlan Jacobson became WBGO's film critic in 2010, covering the international film scene for the "WBGO Journal," with reports from film festivals around the world about films arriving on the scene in the greater New York-New Jersey metroplex.