Will Smith, Chris Rock Confrontation Shocks Oscar Audience

(AP) — Troy Kotsur and Ariana DeBose made history and the big-screen craft of Denis Villeneuve’s science-fiction epic “Dune” was awarded with a leading six Oscars at Sunday’s 94th Academy Awards that kept a buoyant spirit until Will Smith took great offence to a joke made by Chris Rock about his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith.

After Rock joked to Smith that he was looking forward to a sequel to “G.I. Jane,” Smith stood up from his seat near the stage, strode up to Rock and slapped him. After sitting back down, Smith shouted at Rock to “keep my wife’s name out of your (expletive) mouth.”

The moment shocked the Dolby Theatre audience and viewers at home.

Before that, the show had been running fairly smoothly.

After record-low ratings and a pandemic-marred 2021 show, producers this year turned to one of the biggest stars around — Beyoncé — to kick off an Oscars intended to revive the awards’ place in pop culture. After an introduction from Venus and Serena Williams, Beyoncé performed her “King Richard” nominated song, “Be Alive,” in an elaborately choreographed performance from a lime-coloured, open-air stage in Compton, where the Williams sisters grew up.

Hosts Wanda Sykes, Amy Schumer and Regina Hall then began the telecast from the Dolby Theatre.

“All right, we are here at the Oscars,” began Hall. Sykes finished: “Where movie lovers unite and watch TV.”

Sykes, Schumer and Hall breezily joked through prominent Hollywood issues like pay equity — they said three female hosts were “cheaper than one man” — the Lady Gaga drama that Sykes called “House of Random Accents,” the state of the Golden Globes (now relegated to the memoriam package, said Sykes) and Leonardo DiCaprio’s girlfriends. Their most pointed political point came at the end of their routine, in which they promised a great night and then alluded to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

“And for you people in Florida, we’re going to have a gay night,” said Sykes.

The first broadcast award went, fittingly, to Ariana DeBose, who became the first openly LGBTQ actor and first Latina to win best supporting actress. Her win came 60 years after Rita Moreno won for the same role in the 1961 original “West Side Story.” DeBose thanked Moreno for leading the way for “tons of Anitas like me.”

“You see an openly queer woman of colour, an Afro-Latina, who found her strength and life through art. And that is, I think, what we’re here to celebrate,” said DeBose. “So if anyone has ever questioned your identity or you find yourself living in the grey spaces, I promise you this — there is indeed a place for us.”

Later, Kotsur became the first male deaf actor to ever win an acting Oscar, and joined his “CODA” costar Marlee Matlin at the only deaf actors to win an Academy Award. He received a standing ovation while many in the Dolby gave the Deaf clap, waving both hands in the air.

“This is for the Deaf community, the CODA community and the disabled community,” said Kotsur, signing from the stage. “This is our moment.”

“Encanto,” the Disney hit propelled by its chart-topping soundtrack, won best animated film. Lin-Manuel Miranda, who penned the film’s hit songs, missed the ceremony after his wife tested positive for COVID-19. Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s three-hour Japanese drama “Drive My Car,” one of the year’s most acclaimed films, won for best international film.

After two years of pandemic, and beneath a warm California sun Sunday, the Hollywood rite of glamour again got into swing, with a jammed red carpet and a COVID-tested audience.

To help regain the cultural spotlight, the Oscars leaned heavily on musical performances (Billie Eilish, Reba McEntire), film anniversaries (“The Godfather,” James Bond) and as many mentions of the “Encanto” breakout song, “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” as possible. That made for an often buoyant ceremony that put less focus on the pandemic. The Ukrainian-born Mila Kunis led a 30-second moment of silence for Ukraine. Some stars, like Sean Penn, had lobbied the academy to have Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speak at the ceremony

Aside from a few blue ribbons spotted on the red carpet, politics were seldom centre stage. The Oscars instead doubled down on razzle dazzle, and the movies as an escape. Producers brought in the likes of BTS and Tony Hawk to rope in more viewers. Some things worked better than others. Fan favourite rankings, as voted on by Twitter users — in a moment unlikely to be remember as an Oscar highpoint — honoured Zack Snyder’s version of “Justice League.”

Feel-good movies also fared well. Sian Heder’s family drama “CODA,” a coming-of-age film about the hearing daughter of a deaf family, won for best adapted screenplay. Kenneth Branagh’s autobiographical “Belfast,” an affectionate family drama bathed in nostalgia and shot in black-and-white, took best original screenplay.

The Academy Awards got underway Sunday off-camera, with the first eight awards on the night being handed out at the Dolby Theatre before the start of the ABC telecast. The Dolby was largely full in time for the 7:00 pm EDT pre-show, dubbed the “golden hour” by the academy. Speeches were later edited into the broadcast.

It was a strange and controversial beginning to the first fully in-person Oscars in two years. Earlier this month, more than 70 Oscar winners, including James Cameron, Kathleen Kennedy and Guillermo del Toro, warned that the shift would turn some nominees into “second-class citizens”.

“Dune” got out to an early lead in those early awards, and it kept it through the night. The biggest blockbusters of this year’s 10 best-picture nominees, “Dune” won for production design, cinematography, editing, visual effects, sound and Hans Zimmer’s score. Though it’s not favoured in the top awards, “Dune” was widely expected to clean up in the technical categories.

Greig Fraser’s cinematography win denied one chance for Oscar history. Some had been rooting for Ari Wenger, who lensed Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog,” to become the first woman to win best cinematography, the sole Oscar category that has never been won by a woman in the Academy Awards’ nine decade-plus history.

Best makeup and hairstyling went to Linda Dowds, Stephanie Ingram and Justin Raleigh for “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.” That film’s star and producer, Jessica Chastain, had been among the many academy members who thought all the awards should have been handed out live during the broadcast. Chastain hugged each winner as they took the stage.

“I just hope that each and every day on set everyone takes a moment to just look around and look at all those talented people who work hard,” said Dowds, the make-up artist.

“The Queen of Basketball,” about the basketball great Lusia Harris, took best short documentary film. Its executive producers include Steph Curry and Shaquille O’Neal. Best animated short went to “The Windshield Wiper,” while “The Long Goodbye,” a blistering fictional short starring Riz Ahmed, took best fiction short.

“This is for everyone who feels like they’re stuck in No Man’s Land,” said Ahmed. “You’re not alone. We’ll meet you there.”

Behind this year’s telecast changes was alarm over the Oscars fast-falling ratings. While drops have been common to all major network award shows, last year’s show attracted only about 10 million viewers, less than half of the 23.6 million the year before. A decade ago, it was closer to 40 million.

The film industry recovered significantly from the pandemic in 2021, but despite one of the biggest hits in years in “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” the rebound has been fitful. The global movie industry sold about half the tickets last year as it did two years ago, US$21.3 billion in 2021 compared to US$42.3 billion in 2019, according to the Motion Picture Association. Hollywood pushed more of its top films directly into homes than ever before; half of this year’s 10 best-picture nominees were streamed at or very near release.

Netflix’s “The Power of the Dog,” Campion’s gothic western, came in with a leading 12 nominations and a good chance of snagging the top award. But all the momentum is with Sian Heder’s deaf family drama “CODA,” which, despite boasting just three nods, is considered the favourite. A win would be a triumph for Apple TV+, which acquired the movie out of the Sundance Film Festival last year and has spent big promoting it to academy members.