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The slap that keeps on giving: Will Smith apologizes as Chris Rock launches tour

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

The Will v. Chris Smackdown, Part Deux.

As of this writing ­– a full week later – people are still talking about “The Incident” at the 94th Oscars.” Everyone from my in-laws in North Carolina to my fabulous dentist (Dr. David Hochberg at Colony Square) has brought it up. I brought it up myself with Richard Zoglin, a former AJC colleague who spent the last 30 or so years at Time Magazine where he was an editor and the resident theatre critic.

Zoglin is also an author with brilliant books on stand-up in the ‘70s, Bob Hope (“Hope: Entertainer of the Century”) and, most recently, “Elvis In Vegas: How the King Reinvented the Las Vegas Show.” It was his expertise on Hope, who hosted the Oscars 19 times that I needed. If Hope had, hypothetically, been the host, wouldn’t he have smoothed things over with a quip or some sort of lighten-up-guys intervention?

“It’s so hard to imagine anything like that happening in Hope’s era,” Zoglin emailed. “But yeah, he would have had a line. After a gate-crasher interrupted the 1962 ceremony, walking onstage and giving Hope a bogus Oscar, Bob had a great one: ‘Who needs Price Waterhouse? All we need’s a doorman.’

Will Smith slaps Chris Rock at the 2022 Academy Awards show. (Special: Wikipedia.)

“BTW, Chris Rock is now my hero…Handled it really well, even got off a good line – ‘the greatest night in the history of television.’ Which it almost was.”

It was certainly one of the most memorable. And most discussed. Reaction to the smackdown has become a kind of cultural litmus test. Hosting last weekend’s “Saturday Night Live,” stand-up comic Jerrod Carmichael said, “Doesn’t it feel like it happened years ago? Doesn’t it feel like it happened when we were all in high school?”

Carmichael went on to say he’d made a vow to himself not to discuss it anymore. “Then Lorne (Michaels) came into my dressing room. He said the nation needs to heal…And you want me to do that? The nation doesn’t even know me. I have to be the least famous host in ‘SNL’ history.”

But even that crack wasn’t, well, clean, evoking, as it did, Jada Pinkett Smith’s (i.e., Mrs. Will Smith), enigmatic Instagram post from earlier in the week, “This is the season for healing. And I’m here for it.”

Meaning…?

The Season of the Witch might be more like it since her husband was seen laughing at Rock’s joke about Pinkett Smith filming “G.I. Jane 2,” a reference, apparently, to her shaved head. (The actor has alopecia, which causes hair loss). But, as we used to say about royalty, she was not amused and seconds later, Smith bounded on stage and physically assaulted Rock.

Smith won Best Actor about 40 minutes later for “King Richard” and gave a tearful speech in which he apologized to the Academy and to the audience, but not to Rock. That apology came the next day, along with the Academy’s condemnation of “The Incident” and conflicting reports as to whether there was any attempt to remove Smith from the room. Then the whole thing burst loose, with cultural analyses that ranged from so-called toxic masculinity to black-on-black violence to the perilous state of stand-up comedy.

Co-host Amy Schumer claimed she was “triggered and traumatized.” Jim Carrey was “sickened.” Questlove, whose “Summer of Love” won the Oscar for Best Documentary, the category Rock was presenting, claimed he missed the whole thing because he was meditating before his name was called out, trying to remind himself to thank his mom and dad if he was the winner.

By the end of the week, Smith had apologized some more and resigned from the Academy which, nonetheless, is going ahead with a formal review, the results of which will be announced in mid-April.  The implication, it seems, is that by smacking Rock, Smith smacked the Academy, embarrassing it in public and sullying its, um, image (if that’s possible).

Meanwhile, Rock launched his long-planned comedy tour.

And Russia is still messing with Ukraine. Now that’s the smackdown we all should be talking about.

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Eleanor Ringel

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

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