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An unfunny, unmemorable joke changed Oscars history and Will Smith’s Hollywood story

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)
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Chris Rock’s joke about a bald Jada Pinkett Smith looking like she could star in “G.I. Jane 2” was such an unfunny throwaway line that no one would have remembered it two days later if it weren’t for the reaction it provoked: Will Smith, Pinkett Smith’s husband, slapping the comedian on the Oscars stage, in front of the entire world, less than an hour before the A-lister was to receive his first best actor trophy since he began his career more than three decades ago.

“Keep my wife’s name out your f---ing mouth,” Smith told Rock repeatedly when he sat back down.

It’s difficult to think of a precedent for such a display of raw, intimate and incautious anger, especially at an event known for its glamorous but choreographed formality. There was the awful best picture mix-up between “La La Land” and “Moonlight” at the 2017 Oscars, but that didn’t involve assault. And it certainly didn’t inspire what will come in the following days: a flotilla of think pieces and social media posts about who was in the right, who was in the wrong, who’s the real victim and who deserves the most blame. (Already, some are expressing sympathy for — if not justifying outright — Smith’s actions on account of his wife’s alopecia diagnosis, which she has talked publicly about.)

Actor Will Smith slapped presenter Chris Rock at the 94th Academy Awards on March 27. The awards show has a history of unpredictable moments. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

“Love will make you do crazy things,” Smith said in his acceptance speech, before apologizing to the academy — though pointedly not to Rock. That logic will fly for some, especially with the actor drawing parallels to his “King Richard” character, Richard Williams, the difficult but fiercely protective father of tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams. But the fact remains that Smith overshadowed his own victory with the strike. Headlines on Monday morning will scream not about his win, but about the eruption of his pique — one all the more memorable for how it counteracts the good-guy image he’s spent a generation constructing.

Perhaps Smith doesn’t mind that this incident will forever be a part of his lore; perhaps he’s even proud. Hollywood is an industry that has never thought of wives as irreplaceable, so his uxoriousness will certainly win him some fans. The couple, for their part, have appeared closer than they ever have in recent years, publicizing the faults in their marriage in their projects — him in his memoir, “Will,” and her in her Facebook Watch talk show, “Red Table Talk” — in an effort to be transparent and relatable. The impression we’ve been given is of a challenged union that’s been through hell and back.

But if his rambling and uncomfortably emotional acceptance speech is anything to go by — one that seemed improvised, and not all that well, to address his actions — this was a man who lost his cool on what should have been one of the greatest nights of his life. As a startling episode like this one becomes flattened and decontextualized — as pretty much all pop cultural history tends to do — it’ll become one more piece of listicle or video countdown fodder, forever trotted out as “that time Will Smith smacked Chris Rock at the Oscars.” Reduced to that, all the achievements of that night might well be forgotten, as well as all the talent that brought him there. At the 2022 Oscars, Will Smith deserved more from himself.

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