When Will Smith picked up his Oscar on Sunday, he felt as if he was at the pinnacle of his career, despite his on-stage assault of the comedian Chris Rock an hour earlier.
Amid a standing ovation, Smith tearfully explained his actions as those of a man seeking to protect his family from abuse – Rock had referred to his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith’s baldness, even though she had recently made public a diagnosis of alopecia.
Backstage, Rock declared himself “fine” and declined to pursue the matter. The Academy apparently asked Smith to leave the auditorium, but seemed satisfied by his refusal.
Shortly after his speech, Smith was on the dancefloor at the Vanity Fair party, surrounded by well-wishers, statuette clutched to his bosom. All seemed – if not forgotten – then well on the way to being forgiven.
Yet a week is a long time in showbusiness and six days on, Smith’s standing seems substantially more shaky. As soon as the slap aired on TV, celebrity viewers were swift to castigate the actor. Mark Hamill and Rob Reiner were disgusted; Jim Carrey and Judd Apatow were among those who suggested Smith should have been arrested. Politicians including Keir Starmer echoed the sense of outrage.
Two days later, the verdicts of those in the room at the time of the incident began to filter through and were yet more stinging. Joseph Patel, a producer on the Oscar-winning documentary Summer of Soul, said Smith was “selfish” and had “robbed” him and his film-makers of their moment of glory. Pedro Almodóvar, sitting close to the stage, said the scene “produced a feeling of absolute rejection in me”.
The Academy, under fire for inaction, swung into gear. A previously announced investigation was upgraded to disciplinary proceedings. Two of the evening’s three hosts declared themselves “traumatized”. “I’m still triggered,” said Amy Schumer, while Wanda Sykes declared that the scene “absolutely sickening … I physically felt ill.”
On Friday, the Oscars telecast producer Will Packer sought to deflect criticism further by telling Good Morning America the Los Angeles police had immediately described the attack as “battery” and offered to arrest Smith.
It was only the decision of the victim, said Packer, that meant this didn’t happen. “Chris was being very dismissive of those options,” he said. “He was like: ‘No, I’m fine.’ He was like, ‘No, no, no.’”
Rock’s conciliatory mood was also credited by Packer as the reason Smith wasn’t ejected from the auditorium by the Academy’s leadership. “I said, Chris Rock doesn’t want that. I said, Rock has made it clear that he does not want to make a bad situation worse.”
However, some sources suggest that Rock was not asked by Packer his opinion on Smith being ejected from the auditorium, only on the possibility of Smith being arrested by the police.
Ticket prices for dates on Rock’s current comedy tour have soared but some punters at shows earlier in the week declared themselves disappointed by Rock’s failure to discuss the slap in his routine.
Since making a public apology for “reacting emotionally” on Monday, Smith has also remained silent on the incident as his team recalibrates its response.
A number of options seem possible. Smith could appear on a chatshow to discuss the incident, as Sykes and Packer have done – though this risks his appearing to diminish the seriousness of the incident. It is more likely that the actor will agree to a longer-form interview conducted by someone such as Oprah Winfrey.
As his acceptance speech demonstrated, much of Smith’s defense rests on his claim of high emotional stakes and personal history. The narrative he has built is of a flawed man, well used to the unforgiving spotlight, who finally cracks under pressure when someone insults his family.
This is bolstered by sections in his highly personal memoir, Will, published last autumn, which detailed the domestic violence he witnessed his father inflict on his mother, and his own feelings of guilt at not intervening.
“What you have come to understand as ‘Will Smith’, the alien-annihilating MC, the bigger-than-life movie star, is largely a construction,” he wrote, “a carefully crafted and honed character designed to protect myself. To hide myself from the world. To hide the coward.”
As well as being higher-profile and more lucrative, an hour-long TV special in the vein of Winfrey’s audience with Prince Harry and Meghan would allow space to further explain this background.
Another route would be for Smith to self-produce such a show. His memoir was published in tandem with a YouTube series, The Best Shape of My Life, charting his 20lb weight loss in tandem with a program of psychological growth.
The actor and his family are no strangers to confessional broadcasting. Pinkett Smith’s popular Facebook show, Red Table Talk, hosted alongside her mother, “Gammy”, and daughter, Willow, has addressed issues including bereavement, sexual intimacy and digestive health.
Will Smith guest starred on one episode in July 2020 concerning infidelity to discuss rumors around the couple’s own extramarital relationships and their brief separation, four years before.
All the Smiths, including Jada and Will’s son Jaden, and Trey, Will’s son from a previous relationship, have appeared as themselves on TV shows only a step removed from the reality shows popularized by families such as the Kardashians.
The regard with which Smith is held by the public could prove hard to shake. A YouGov poll of 1,319 US adults conducted earlier in the week found only a narrow majority thought he was wrong to have slapped Rock.
It also remains in Hollywood’s best interests for Smith to regain the favor that has characterized his 30 years as a leading man. Films in which he played lead have accounted for almost $6.5bn (£5bn) in takings at the global box office, and his appeal has been of unusual breadth and reach, spanning genders, demographics, nationalities and ethnicities.
One sector relatively vocal in its support for the actor over the past week has been the Christian press in the US, which was struck by the references in his speech to being “a vessel” guided by a “higher power”.
Smith’s recounting of the advice offered to him by Denzel Washington to “be careful at your highest moment – that’s when the devil comes for you” was commended by Christian Broadcast News (CBN) as “scripturally sound”.
Washington’s faith journey is one warmly followed by such outlets in the US; CBN has praised his “encouraging comments and focus on the devil’s attempts to take people down”.
The results of the Academy’s investigation will be announced in about three weeks, but it appears unlikely that Smith will have his award withdrawn. Whoopi Goldberg, a member of the Academy’s board of governors, said on Monday: “We’re not going to take that Oscar from him,” and even Oscars won by expelled members have not been reminded.
Only a handful of Academy members have been expelled, mostly as a result of convictions for sexual assault, including Harvey Weinstein, Roman Polanski and Bill Cosby (whose conviction for sexual assault was overturned last year).
A further complicating factor is that Smith’s next movie, Emancipation, had been tipped to be a major player at the 2023 Academy Awards. Based on a real-life story, Smith stars as an escaped slave in 1863, photographs of whose lashed back much aided the abolitionists’ cause.
The film was bought by Apple TV for $120m in 2020 at a virtual marketplace in Cannes, marking a record for a film festival acquisition. Apple scored its first best picture victory on Sunday, with Coda.
The distributor will be counting on Smith being welcomed back to the fold in good time for promotional duties for that film, either through his own efforts or through public fatigue with slap-gate.
On Thursday, the actor Daniel Radcliffe appeared to speak for many when asked his opinion of the incident on Good Morning Britain. “I saw it,” he told Susanna Reid. “I’m just so already dramatically bored of hearing people’s opinions about it, that I just don’t want to be another opinion added to it.”