This is not about Will Smith slapping Chris Rock. For commentary on that historic moment, I’d be glad to direct you to this little place I know called “the rest of the Internet.”
At my apartment, I was ready for the Oscars. I was able for the first time since the pandemic began to have a small party with punny dishes (the “Endive My Car” salad was a hit, though my guests who brought dishes themed for West Side Story and Encanto did tastier work). We had watched some red carpet footage, chuckled at Timothee Chalamet, and oohed and aahed for Kristen Stewart. I run an Oscar pool for friends and family every year, just for bragging rights. At 8:00 p.m. Eastern, I had already done all the math for the eight categories kicked off the telecast and was prepared to give people credit for Ariana DeBose’s certain victory. I was apprehensive about this whole business, dreading everything I’d heard about the presenters, the performances, even the winners. The Power of the Dog didn’t compel me, particularly, but knowing from my Twitter and Spotify feeds that CODA had become the frontrunner in the past couple weeks, I was not thrilled. When I watched the film back in February, I gave the movie two and a half stars on Letterboxd and said that if it had come out in the ’80s it would have won seven to nine Oscars. I look back on that review and think, “Oh, you sweet summer child.”
Anyway, no sooner had Regina Hall, Amy Schumer, and Wanda Sykes taken the stage than DJ Khaled popped out stage left and started shouting into a microphone. At one point he suggested Bad Boys 4 to Will Smith, which meant our first ill-omened cut to Smith of the night. He gestured to the three hosts of the ceremony and said presumably things that I assume were complimentary. This lasted less than a minute. It was a total disaster, like if they got someone’s uncle to be the birthday clown but if said uncle cooled his nerves with a fifth of Stoli before he started the act.
DJ Khaled is not really a figure in the movies, as far as I can tell. I don’t pretend to be someone who’s up to date on all the segments of pop culture, but his IMDb page is populated almost exclusively with credits where he is cast as himself, and primarily in music videos. The Oscars are a ceremony with a gazillion famous people, an extended red carpet, and nearly a century of celebrity history. Did these three hosts need a hype man? Did they need a hype man who has no connection to movies? Are there people who needed the presence of DJ Khaled to be excited about the Oscars as they were beginning? I’ll grant feeling the length of the ceremony after a couple hours and some montages and several speeches and so on, but as the curtain is literally rising?
Why DJ Khaled, why at this moment, why this bit. It was a question that took on an algebraic quality over the course of the night: why [this person], why [at this point in the ceremony], why [this stunt]. Will Packer produced this ceremony, and even before Will Smith took matters into his own hands and Chris Rock’s face, it was a bungling transcending previous Oscar bungles, a dismal affair bereft of rhythm, logic, or joy. Packer should send Smith a gaudy flower arrangement, because Smith’s physical blow made for the most shocking moment of live, unscripted television since Janet Jackson’s breast was exposed during the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show. By putting the spotlight on himself, those sweaty beams are immolating Smith rather than Packer.
The conversation about the Oscars today and for the rest of the week is about Will Smith and Chris Rock, about Jada Pinkett Smith, and perhaps in some ancillary fashion about Regina Hall or Denzel Washington. It’s about the takes on that moment which everyone is dreading like they dread the presence of DJ Khaled in the first thirty seconds of the telecast. But for those of us who prefer the costumed, painted, and coiffed drama of the Academy Awards—trust me, I know the cons of caring about the Oscars—this has to be about Will Packer. Other people will give Packer cover because their preferred drama is in watching two men in their mid-fifties reenacting the spectacle of a high school cafeteria. But the story going into the Academy Awards was the story of a ceremony in crisis, and the story of the Academy Awards the morning after should raise the question of why they didn’t shoot this horse after it broke its leg. If being in charge means accepting the lion’s share of responsibility, then we can, and should, blame Will Packer for the most dismal Oscars telecast ever.
I seriously doubt that Packer could have done anything about the show’s primary issue, which was that eight awards were cut from the live telecast: Editing, Makeup and Hairstyling, Production Design, Score, Sound, and the three shorts. (ABC kept Costume Design in the lineup, the only one of those categories where a Disney film, in this case Cruella, was a clear favorite to win; Visual Effects, which boasted two Marvel movies and 20th Century’s Free Guy, also evaded that fate.) An awards show hesitant to display its awards has an existential issue not unlike a vulture with acrophobia. That the awards show in question is also embarrassed by the films that its membership likes makes it like an acrophobic vulture which faints at the sight of blood. ABC and the Oscars are at cross-purposes right now, and barring some unforeseen wisdom on the part of one or both parties, we’re going to keep seeing this contest between them. ABC wants more stuff to put on YouTube or see memed on TikTok; the Oscars, presumably, will want to keep giving out awards.
What Packer did have some kind of control over, presumably, was what went into the show once the eight awards were surgically removed from it. He must have known—because I knew, and I’m a guy with a blog and not an esteemed Hollywood professional—that every single moment of that show was going to be under a microscope. Every joke, every presenter, every montage, every second was going to be judged against what we might have seen if people actually got to walk up to the stage and make their speeches live. Was a presentation of “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” with a verse from Megan Thee Stallion, more meaningful than the chance to watch Hans Zimmer or Jonny Greenwood or Germaine Franco pick up an Oscar for their scores? Was the ad for the Academy museum more meaningful than the chance to watch any of the Dune crew romp through the technical awards? Was it that important to have extreme sports guys on stage who peaked, at latest, during George W. Bush’s second term? (When there are so many people who could have led a James Bond presentation/retrospective in the Dolby Theater, let alone those who were just a phone call away, this is malpractice.) Is White Men Can’t Jump secretly an iconic movie? Was I supposed to have orchids delivered to the cast of Pulp Fiction for the all-important 28th Anniversary?
I can’t think of a single choice made for the benefit of some imaginary would-be audience just a Shaun White or a “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” or a DJ Khaled stampede or a Twitter poll away which wouldn’t have been improved by just giving out awards. And even if some of those moments had worked out, which they didn’t, there would still be the nagging voice in all of our heads: “Someone worked really hard and achieved at a high level and that person was less important than the presentation of ‘The Flash Enters the Speed Force.'” The sick-sweet irony of all this silliness is that one of the primary reasons ABC gave to cut out those eight categories was to smooth out the show. In carrying the water that he’s elected to carry, AMPAS president David Rubin claimed that the show would be “tighter and more electric.” That it ran for something near four hours and eclipsed last year’s length despite dropping those meddlin’ craft awards is empirically funny.
Not every winner makes a good speech. Most of them make totally forgettable ones, and a lot of the people who won awards off the main telecast last night made mediocre speeches. But every person you scrub from the telecast makes it that much harder to stumble into a moment as gorgeous as this.
Again, I can’t say I thought much of CODA, but I thought Kotsur was a lot of fun in his role, and I was looking forward to seeing him win. The sequence beginning with Youn Yuh-jung signing Kotsur’s victory, holding his Oscar so he could give his speech, and going through Kotsur’s honest-to-God beautiful acceptance was what the Oscars are at their best. Ariana DeBose and Jessica Chastain both gave perfectly good speeches, even if the political taglines were stapled on gracelessly and Chastain in particular was way too sympathetic to Tammy Faye Bakker. The night is much more about who gets awarded than it is about how many people watch at home or how many people saw the movies. There’s a real chance that fewer people outside Hollywood saw CODA than any of the other Best Picture nominees. It doesn’t matter if this speech reached 13 million people in the moment (which is what’s being reported) or 50 million. What matters is that a group of Kotsur’s professional peers thought so highly of him, and that he so eloquently expressed what the award meant to him. There are a lot of idiots like me who want to see that happen twenty to twenty-five times in an evening, and my guess is that those idiots like me are a heck of a lot more reliable than the people who might have shown up to find out what DJ Khaled was going to do.
Weirdly enough, one of the moments that felt most like the Oscars to me came late in the show, and it was honestly pretty dull. I speak of Kevin Costner, whose star power has been baffling to me for most of my life, and his address preceding the award for Jane Campion for Best Director. There’s not a good quality video of it on YouTube, which is not necessarily surprising—he didn’t exactly sell the speech!—but he did speak to a number of things which I thought evinced an actual passion for film. He mentioned the film that set it off (How the West Was Won, which explains a lot), as well as the need for a director to be collaborative and work with many other people. For whatever faults Kevin Costner might have, he seems to really care about movies, and the more I listened to him the more I felt a connection to the Oscars that I wished I’d felt starting at 8:00 that night. When Anthony Hopkins got onstage to present Best Actress, he said, “Let’s have peace, and love,” and then the slightest pause, “and quiet.” What the executives at ABC and David Rubin and Will Packer seem not to have any conception of is the power that a little quiet can do to emphasize those other two virtues.