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It was an A-list ovation for Will Smith at Vanity Fair’s Oscars after-party

Did you think they would boo him after ‘the slap’? You don’t know Hollywood.

Would they cheer for Will? Well, what do you think? Best Actor winner Will Smith arrives at the Vanity Fair Oscar party Sunday night. (Nina Prommer/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — There was one man folks were waiting to see at the Vanity Fair after-party on Sunday, and his name was not Oscar. Will Smith, the movie star who shockingly shrugged off his nice-guy image at the Academy Awards earlier that night, was the party’s official barometer.

Would Will show up? And what would he do if he did? And how should we react if he did?

Five hours after the slap heard round the world, the mood shifted the moment DJ D-Nice dropped the needle on “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It.” It was a signal. The 2022 best actor was here, in the room, no longer weeping with ambiguous remorse but striding into the celebration with all the swagger he had taken to meet Chris Rock’s left cheek and leading an entourage — Jada, Jaden, Willow — to the dance floor, where he rapped along with not one, not two, but three of his own hits:

What? You wanna ball with the kid? Watch your step, you might fall, trying to do what I did.

Will Smith slapped Chris Rock after the comedian made a joke about Smith's wife's hair during the Oscars on March 27. Smith won best actor for "King Richard." (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post, Photo: Brian Snyder/Reuters/The Washington Post)

And what did the Hollywood party people do? They didn’t boo. They didn’t turn their backs. They held up their phones to capture and pay tribute to this, the guy they recognize, the Will Smith they can get behind.

The rest of the country could debate what they saw on the screen — Will Smith, hero or villain? — in their living rooms or on Twitter. But at the annual party hosted by Vanity Fair editor Radhika Jones, Hollywood got the chance to decide in front of the man himself. And the clap-o-meter, at least within the A-lister’s earshot, was off the charts.

Still, in the jittery hours we awaited his arrival, no one seemed to really know what to do with themselves.

“I’ll probably have social anxiety and faint,” predicted Nicole Richie as she walked a sapphire-blue “red carpet” into the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. She was joking — maybe?

“I’m just trying to party,” deflected Diddy as he flew past the scrum of reporters desperate to know one thing: What happened? Also non-commenting was Serena Williams, the GOAT whose family is at the heart of Smith’s trophy-magnet “King Richard.” She had changed out of her long awards-show gown into a mini silver number, all the better for sprinting past the questions.

It wasn’t just “the slap” that left them jumpy. Famous folk were a little rusty. It had been two full years since they’d crammed gorgeously into a room like this. Rosario Dawson and some pals body-rolled to Bruno Mars’s “24K Magic,” but everyone else was standing around gawking, still trying to figure out how to be human again.

So, thank you very much, Lakeith Stanfield, for showing the way. A nominee last year, the “Judas and the Black Messiah” star wasted zero time getting the lay of the land, stalking into the “rum room,” flinging his giant black furry coat onto a banquette and hitting the dance floor with a fierce two-step. The man came for a party.

John Legend and Chrissy Teigen, though, came for a photo opp. The Oscar winner and his free-form celebrity wife stayed just long enough in their matching white tux and opaque silver gown to have their presence duly recorded and then headed for an exit at 10:45 p.m., unless there was some secret A-plus celebrity den at the bottom of those stairs marked “exit, no reentry.”

Wait a minute. Was this “party” really just work for these people? A glittery salt mine? It depends.

At the bar, the Duke of Hastings, er, Regé-Jean Page and his girlfriend were having what appears to be a genuine couple’s chat with Keegan-Michael Key and his wife — comparing addresses, realizing they live near one another, pulling out phones to plan a double date.

On the other hand: “This is work,” said Jonathan Majors, when we ran into him taking a break in a corner. He told us he is two days away from wrapping “Creed III” with Michael B. Jordan (who was here with his gorgeous girlfriend, model Lori Harvey), and he seemed tired, but he perked up as Jon Hamm sauntered past with some casual stubble and a tuxedo jacket with extra sheen.

“I’m following you,” joked Majors.

“Don’t! Stop it!” shouted Hamm, while shooting the kind of finger guns that look ridiculous on men not named Jon Hamm.

But, yes, work. Or so we personally had to tell Saweetie when she asked if we’d like to do a shot with her. The rapper approached in a shimmering black gown that covered only what a censor bar might and gave us a quick up-and-down before offering a tumbler of tequila.

“I’m Saweetie,” she said perkily. She was alone. Her first time at the Vanity Fair party, and they wouldn’t let her bring a plus-one. “I don’t know anyone. I’m not an actress — yet.” But then fashion designer Jeremy Scott appeared by her side, banter-complaining about what a dreadful lesson in humility it was to come in behind her on the blue carpet, and whisked her away to schmooze in the other pavilion. “Bye, girl,” she said.

The liquor flowed, and the VIPs loosened up. Zoe Kravitz smoked a cigarette as if she were starring in the sexiest Marlboro ad ever. Bill Murray shouted the lyrics to Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” and later arm-wrestled with a fan. Patricia Clarkson told Amy Schumer, “You were the best.” Kristen Stewart, in a lace gown, danced like she didn’t care she lost. Julia Fox, fresh off dating Kanye West for a nanosecond, sported a dress that featured a black leather hand clutched around her throat (“Why did it have to be Black though,” asked one partygoer). Trevor Noah told Ariana DeBose to “enjoy it” when she hugged him while holding her Oscar even tighter.

But where was Will? No one had forgotten about him. Lena Waithe whispered something into the ear of Wanda Sykes, and the Oscar host shook her head, giving the international sign for “yeah that was crazy.”

When the superstar did finally show up, the VIPs took turns venturing out to the dance floor to pay tribute. “I just wanted to say congratulations, Will,” shouted D-Nice from the mic, and Smith made his way over to the DJ booth to high-five his friend. They hugged and whispered to each other. Then Noah cut through the sea of bodies and did the same. Waithe, too.After zip-lining through the party for nearly an hour, the Smith machine pointed toward the exit. And once they were gone, the air turned colder. The big names grabbed their In-N-Out burgers and headed off to Madonna’s house. Tiffany Haddish, though, lingered to hold court in the power vacuum, with some thoughts about everything from the politics of Black women’s hair (she shaved hers two years ago) to comedian etiquette.

“This is the problem with the culture,” she was telling the small ring of people who surrounded her, including Smith’s good friend, Duane Martin. “If imma do some jokes about you, imma let you know.”

It was getting late, and as shoes came off, so did the gloves. The ancillaries who help turn the gears of the business stuck around to talk shop. The music was off, too, leaving the noise of so many opinions to fill the air.

“The thing is, I’ve worked for them,” one alleged insider was saying. “And they’re both so cool and nice. That was totally out of his character.” Which character — Smith or Rock — was unclear.

“Not to be corny,” said another suit, “but that’s not setting a great example.”

“Fox News is going to love this,” said a third suit. “ ‘Hollywood liberals can’t take a joke! Cancel culture run amok!’ That’s all we’re gonna hear about.”