Witout question, Sunday night’s Oscars were the ugliest in history. By physically assaulting a performer onstage, Will Smith managed to cause irreparable damage to the ceremony. And the outright failure of the show’s producers and guests to chastise Smith, or even fully acknowledge his attack on him, has thrown the entire Academy into disrepute. However, if you squint hard enough and look at it from just the right angle, it might have been just the thing that the Oscars needed.
First, some perspective. This year’s Oscars needed to be a hit. Last year’s Covid ceremony was watched, by some degree, by far fewer people than any other Oscars in history. This was in part due to circumstance – no big films had been released due to Covid, and the big stars were understandably reluctant to all go and breathe on each other in an enclosed space – but also due to the event itself. Held in a train station, it was brisk and brief and shorn of all clips and jokes. It was not in any way fun to watch, so nobody watched it.
But it was also indicative of a wider decline. In 1998, the Oscars were watched by 57 million people. By 2004 that number had dropped to 43 million. In 2015 it had 37 million. In 2018 it had 26 million. In 2020, the last ceremony to happen pre-Covid, the Oscars could only muster a lowly 23 million. This isn’t news, because everyone knows why. The Oscars are too long, too boring, too smug, too irrelevant.
And for the most part, that’s how Sunday’s Oscars were, too. Almost every modernizing change that took place during the ceremony failed hard. All the technical awards happened before the televised ceremony, but almost all of them were won by Dune, which is the only nominated film that people were actually likely to have seen. Some of the time was ceded to “fan favorite” movies voted for by the public, but the segment was inevitably Boaty McBoatfaced by a handful of hardcore Zack Snyder zealots, which meant that Hollywood’s most prestigious night had to grind to a halt so that everyone could watch the Flash enter the Speed Force.
It goes on. The much-hyped performance of We Don’t Talk About Bruno from Encanto ended up being a completely different song about how great the Oscars are. The In Memoriam bit ended up being Jamie Lee Curtis holding a little dog and reading a eulogy while a choir sang Spirit in the Sky behind her. The whole thing was inept, and looked set to go down as yet another punishing snoozefest.
And then Will Smith hit Chris Rock. And people started to talk about the Oscars again. Social media, talk shows, news programmes; they all lit up trying to process exactly what happened. Visits to the liveblog I wrote during the ceremony – which was doing just fine before the incident, by the way – exploded by 3,000% after the slap. By playing host to one man losing his mind (and possibly his career) in real time, the Oscars have snatched back some of its cultural power. Ratings were still the second lowest ever, but people are actually talking about the Oscars again. When was the last time that happened?
But let’s be sensible. In all likelihood, the slap won’t translate to a ratings bump next year. The closest equivalent in recent memory was probably when Janet Jackson’s top came off during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show. Ratings for the following year’s show actually dipped a little.
And that was pre-YouTube, remember. Now everyone knows that all the juicy stuff will be packaged up and stuck online, that’s where they’re likely to watch it. At the time of writing, the Guardian’s video of the slap has been watched for more than four times the number of Americans who watched the ceremony. And while the full ceremony was far more indicative of the queasy, uncomfortable chaos caused by Will Smith’s stupidity, why sit through a four-hour awards show when you can watch the good stuff happen in just 84 seconds?
The bigger question is whether any of us want to live in a world where this is how the Oscars regain the cultural conversation. Cheap violence might be thrilling in the moment, but it tarnishes everything around it. The Oscars might be a steadily declining irrelevance with a rapidly approaching sell-by date, but that’s much more preferable than it becoming The Jerry Springer Show.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism