Hollywood’s Violent Streak
The year: 1974. The fad du jour: streaking. The spectacle: A streaker unabashedly darts across the stage at the forty-sixth annual Academy Awards (the Oscars).
What could be more obscene than a guy baring what quick-thinking host David Niven immediately called “his shortcomings” on worldwide television?
Flash-forward almost fifty years to this year’s Oscars on March 27. Aides to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy lobbied the Academy board to commit to a video appearance by Zelenskyy at the ceremony. In a televised interview, actor Sean Penn stated that if the Academy denied the request, it would be “the most obscene moment in all of Hollywood history.” Penn vowed to smelt his own award statues and call for a boycott of the Oscars if Zelenskyy was snubbed. A video appearance by Zelenskyy wasn’t pursued; rather, a message on the screen during the ceremony read in part, “We’d like to have a moment of silence to show our support for the people of Ukraine currently facing invasion, conflict and prejudice within their own borders…. Resources are scarce, and we—collectively as a global community—can do more.”
Zelenskyy—a former actor and stand-up comedian—wanted to make a plea for international support of Ukraine against the unprovoked assault by Russia. Instead, Oscars viewers around the world witnessed an actor’s assault on a stand-up comic.
I haven’t watched the Academy Awards in years but later saw a clip of Will Smith’s slap of Chris Rock, which people still analyze. For what it’s worth, my opinion of the cause célèbre is: How ironic! Smith’s physical aggression and expletive-laced outbursts outraged some filmdom powers in Hollywood, a leading exporter of on-screen violence and profanity for decades.
Commendably, Chris Rock maintained his composure and prevented the violent encounter from escalating. Perhaps, then, he might be forgiven for his gaffe and miscount that immediately transpired. When Rock announced Summer of Soul as the winner in the best documentary category, he introduced director Ahmir Thompson and producers Joseph Patel, Robert Fyvolent, and David Dinerstein as “Ahmir Thompson and four white guys.” Patel, of South Asian descent, tweeted his anger that “Chris Rock lumped me in as one of ‘four white guys.’” On Instagram he wrote he was “proud to be one of a handful of South Asians to have ever won an Oscar in the history of the award.”
Coincidentally, history was made a few day later when Ketanji Brown Jackson was confirmed as the first black woman Supreme Court justice on April 7—or, as Chris Rock might dismissively introduce the highest court in the land: “soon-to-be Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson and a bunch of old white dudes.”
While Zelenskyy was denied the opportunity to present a video message at the Oscars, he did make a recorded plea for Ukrainian support at the Grammy Awards on April 3. Nevertheless, the ninety-fourth annual Academy Awards ceremony will be remembered more for its streak of violence than for its moment of silence. For some, the spectacle of one actor darting to the stage to slap another may be the most obscene moment in all of Hollywood history.