SINGAPORE - In a shocking moment, A-list actor Will Smith looks to have physically assaulted presenter Chris Rock at the annual Academy Awards ceremony.
Comedian Rock, 57, was presenting the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, which went to musician Questlove's Summer Of Soul (2021), when he made a joke about Smith’s wife - Jada Pinkett Smith - starring in G.I. Jane 2.
G.I. Jane is a 1997 action film starring Demi Moore with a shaved head.
Pinkett Smith, 50, has shaved her head due to alopecia, an autoimmune disease that causes hair loss. She revealed her diagnosis in 2018 and has spoken publicly about her struggles with the condition on social media. She rolled her eyes at Rock’s comment but her husband looked angry.
After Rock’s joke, Smith walked up to the stage and gave him what seemed to be a slap. Rock looked stunned by the confrontation.
He said: “Will Smith just smacked the s*** out of me.”
This prompted Smith to swear on live television. He yelled twice: “Keep my wife’s name out of your f****** mouth.”
The 53-year-old actor went on to win the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in King Richard (2021), where he plays the father of tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams.
In a tearful five-minute long speech, he referenced the on-air clash: “I’m being called on in my life to love people and to protect people and to be a river to my people. I know to do what we do, you gotta be able to take abuse, you gotta be able to have people talk crazy about you, you gotta be able to have people disrespecting you. You gotta smile, you gotta pretend like that’s okay.”
He added that actor Denzel Washington came up to him after the incident. “Denzel said to me a few minutes ago: ‘At your highest moment, be careful, that’s when the devil comes for you.’”
Smith continued: “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 ended the speech by apologising to the Academy and his fellow nominees and said: “I hope the Academy invites me back.”
Celebrities and audiences in attendance were visibly shocked, with the camera catching presenter Lupita Nyong’o’s jaw dropping as she sat behind the Smith couple.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which hosts the awards, posted a few hours after the ceremony ended on its official Twitter account: “The Academy does not condone violence of any form.”
The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) said in a statement to the US media that Rock has “declined to file a police report” and the LAPD is not investigating the incident.
People in the entertainment industry such as comedians Kathy Griffin and Judd Apatow have also condemned Smith for his actions.
Griffin wrote: “Let me tell you something, it’s a very bad practice to walk up on stage and physically assault a comedian. Now we all have to worry about who wants to be the next Will Smith in comedy clubs and theatres.”
Apatow, who directed series like Knocked Up (2007) and Trainwreck (2015), wrote in a tweet later deleted: “(Smith) could have killed (Rock). That’s pure out-of-control rage and violence. (The Smiths have) heard a million jokes about them in the last three decades. They are not freshman in the world of Hollywood and comedy. He lost his mind.”
Journalist and author E. Jean Carroll suggested that Smith’s acceptance speech mirrored the language of domestic abusers. She wrote: “‘Love will make you do crazy things.’ Every woman who’s ever been hit has heard that one.”
But some were sympathetic towards Smith and his wife, in particular, calling out Rock for making an inappropriate joke.
“Violence isn’t ok. Assault is never the answer. Also? This is the second time that Chris has made fun of Jada on the Oscars stage and tonight he went after her alopecia. Punching down at someone’s auto-immune disease is wrong. Doing so on purpose is cruel,” actress and activist Sophia Bush tweeted following the incident.
Rock previously made fun of Pinkett Smith when he hosted the ceremony in 2016.
That was the year that Pinkett Smith announced her boycott of the Oscars for its lack of racial diversity in its nominations. Rock said of Pinkett Smith then: “Jada got mad, said she’s not coming. Jada boycotting the Oscars is like me boycotting Rihanna’s panties. I wasn’t invited.”
Viewers have complicated feelings about the incident as well. Ms Sherry Chen, a 27-year-old Singapore permanent resident based in Los Angeles, says she was shocked by the dust-up.
The graduate student says: “I suppose there’s something to be said about making someone’s medical condition the butt of a joke and how it’s not okay and the fact that public figures have to put up with so much verbal abuse and sometimes in person too. I feel bad for the Smiths but at the same time, I can’t condone violence.”
Meanwhile, communications manager Sam Yang, 33, says he is “definitely” on Rock’s side. “I don’t buy Will Smith’s excuse that he was ‘protecting’ his family like Richard Williams. There are so many better ways to express your disapproval and your love for your family than hitting someone on television.”
He adds: “Chris Rock handled the situation like a pro. Imagine getting slapped on television and having to laugh it off like it was okay. If Will was protecting Jada, who was protecting Chris?”
Aside from heated discussion over Smith’s response, memes and pictures related to the moment also made its way around the Internet.
Photos of starlet Zendaya looking at her phone prompted jokes that suggested she texted her boyfriend - Marvel star Tom Holland - to inform him of the altercation.
Another photo of Nicole Kidman wide-eyed with her mouth hanging open after witnessing the incident also went viral.