“Will Smith just smacked the s—out of me!”
Standing at the front of the stage, an unopened red envelope with the winner of the documentary feature Oscar in his hand, Chris Rock looked stunned. The gasping crowd gathered in the Dolby Theater — and the global audience of millions watching the 94th Academy Awards at home — shared his utter disbelief Sunday night.
Had one of the biggest stars in Hollywood — a man famous around the world for his effortless cool and megawatt smile, an actor who was favored to win the lead actor award this very same night for his performance in the feel-good “King Richard” — just clocked an Oscar presenter on live TV over a joke?
No one knew how to react. The sudden burst of violence had happened so quickly. And certainly nothing like this had been in the rehearsals for the show the day before.
Moments earlier, Rock had made a crack aimed at Smith’s wife, actor Jada Pinkett Smith, who was seated beside him near the stage. He was excited to see her in “GI Jane 2,” he joked, referencing the 1997 film in which Demi Moore played a soldier with a shaved head.
Rock had aimed a few jabs at Smith and Pinkett Smith while hosting the awards in 2016. As a seasoned comedian known for delivering razor-sharp barbs, he felt he knew where the line was.
But it was clear almost immediately that this joke — poking fun at a woman who, apparently unbeknownst to Rock, has spoken publicly about her struggles with hair loss due to alopecia — had landed horribly wrong.
The camera broke to Pinkett Smith, who shook her head with an expression of dismay. Then Smith leaped from his seat, rushed the stage and slapped Rock hard with an open hand.
“Keep my wife’s name out your f—mouth!” Smith shouted at Rock after returning to the audience, a remark censored in the US broadcast.
“Wow, dude,” Rock said. “It was a ‘GI Jane’ joke.”
“Keep my wife’s name out your f—mouth,” Smith repeated.
The crowd, which just moments earlier had been boisterous, fell silent. Scrambling to figure out how to handle an unprecedented outburst of violence on Hollywood’s biggest night, the show’s behind-the-scenes team, under the leadership of first-time Oscars producer Will Packer and veteran telecast director Glenn Weiss, bleeped out the profanities and held the camera on Rock as he struggled to compose himself.
“That was the greatest night in the history of television,” Rock ad-libbed, fumbling for words.
Heading into the night, Packer had promised a night full of surprises that would shake up the stuffy Oscars formula. Many had expected some amount of controversy around the academy’s decision to hand out eight below-the-line and short-film awards off-air. But no one had imagined anything like this.
And yet, the show had to go on. Rock announced that the winner was “Summer of Soul.” Smith, still sawthing, greeted the film’s director, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, as he walked to the stage to accept the Oscar for his work on the uplifting archival concert film that he has called a celebration of “Black joy.”
But almost no one watching in the Dolby Theater was feeling uplifted at that moment. The mood in the audience at the Oscars — always more tense in person than it seems on TV — had turned impossibly fraught.
In an instant, social media exploded, with some speculating that the incident was a planned stunt and others saying a possible crime had just been committed on live TV. As the audience in the Dolby tried to catch his breath, actor Denzel Washington huddled with Smith, offering him comfort.
Backstage shortly after the incident, a Los Angeles Times photographer heard Rock joke, “I just got punched in the face by Muhammad Ali and didn’t get a scratch.” (Smith played Ali in a 2001 biopic in a performance that landed him an Oscar nomination.)
In the press room backstage, a reporter asked Questlove for his reaction to the incident. He said he didn’t want to address it, then a moderator intervened, cautioning the press not to ask about “anything else in the show.”
If there was any thought of escorting Smith out of the Dolby, it was quickly brushed aside. There were still awards to give out, including Smith’s own category for lead actor.
As the show went on, members of the audience continually craned their heads toward Smith’s table, where, for the sake of the cameras, the star was attempting to act as if nothing unusual had happened. Meanwhile, publicists for Smith, Rock and the academy frantically tried to figure out how to contain the damage.
An hour later, the lead-actor race finally arrived. When Smith’s name was read, a mix of cheers and boos could be heard in the Dolby. In the lobby, those watching on screens shushed one another so they could hear what happened.
When Smith was announced as the winner, some stood and applauded, but others looked uncertain how to react.
For the next nearly six minutes, Smith stood before his peers and, with tears streaming down his face, delivered a speech that was certainly unlike any Oscar acceptance speech he may have planned — or any Oscar speech ever given in the show’s history, for that matter.
Though the event was already running long, spoiling the academy’s promise to deliver a telecast under three hours, there was no way anyone was going to play Smith off.
”Denzel [Washington] said, ‘At your highest moment, be careful because that’s when the devil comes for you,’” said Smith, revealing the conversation he’d had earlier with his fellow nominee. “I want to be a vessel for love. … I want to apologize to the academy. I want to apologize to all my fellow nominees.
“Art imitates life. I looked like the crazy father, just like they said about Richard Williams. But love will make you do crazy things,” he added, concluding, with a note of sadness, “Thank you. I hope the academy invites me back.”
Some in the Dolby stood again and clapped. Others remained silent, perhaps troubled by Smith’s apparent equation of his own outburst to the impulse of his character in “King Richard.” Smith played Richard Williams, who protected his tennis-prodigy children Venus and Serena as they were growing up.
Back in his seat, Smith and his wife received hugs and congratulations from well-wishers.
After the show reached its conclusion, with “CODA” claiming best picture, stars filed out of the venue to the after-parties, the mood still unsettled. Smith and Pinkett Smith hurried past reporters, not answering any questions. (Smith was later spotted living it up at the Vanity Fair party, dancing and rapping along to his own hits.)
At the entrance to the Governors Ball, actor Maya Rudolph asked co-host Wanda Sykes if she had spoken to Rock. Sykes made a face as if tears were streaming down her cheeks. Rudolph and fellow actor Josh Brolin said they had each initially thought the incident was some kind of comedy bit. “I just feel sad about it,” Rudolph said.
Oscars co-host Regina Hall told The Times she had been in her trailer for a wardrobe change when the incident occurred. “I missed the whole concussion,” Hall said. “Hopefully people still had a great time.”
Also speaking to The Times after the show, comedian and actor Tiffany Haddish defended Smith.
“Chris was messy for it,” she said. “And as a woman who had a husband before, I wish my husband would have stood up for me the way that he stood up for her. That’s what every woman wants, right? She was hurt. And he protected his wife. And that’s what a man is supposed to do.”
Some on social media argued that Smith had turned the Oscars into the world’s most glamorous crime scene and needed to be held accountable rather than celebrated. But the Los Angeles Police Department said it was not investigating the incident because Rock had declined to file a report.
Half an hour after the show ended, the academy issued a statement on Twitter.
“The Academy does not condone violence of any form. Tonight we are delighted to celebrate our 94th Academy Awards winners, who deserve this moment of recognition from their peers and movie lovers around the world.”
For weeks leading up to the show, Packer had vowed to inject more entertainment and populist pizzazz into the Oscars. “The worst thing that can happen from my perspective is for the show to be boring,” he had told The Times earlier this month. “This show can be anything, but it can’t be boring.”
On Twitter, Packer now offered his own post-show assessment.
”Welp,” he wrote, “I said it wouldn’t be boring.”
Times staff writers Jessica Gelt, Amy Kaufman, Sonaiya Kelley, Michael Ordoña and Christi Carras contributed to this report.