Oscars

[Only IN Hollywood] How the slap heard around the world also jolted us backstage at the Oscars

Ruben V. Nepales
[Only IN Hollywood] How the slap heard around the world also jolted us backstage at the Oscars
'Will ruined what should have been one of the best nights of his life'

LOS ANGELES, USA – The slap that was heard around the world (as the Sydney Morning Herald aptly described it) happened while I was backstage with the winners at the 94th Oscars in Hollywood.

As usual, I and journalists from around the world were dividing our attention between the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ newly-minted victors in front of us, answering our questions, and the Dolby Theatre live show proceedings on the monitors.

Then Will Smith slapped presenter Chris Rock and screamed an obscenity at him. Many of us in the press room suddenly turned to each other. Like many folks watching at home, we wondered, what just happened?

Filipino-American actor and educator Rodney To, who was one of the night’s trophy presenters, was right there at the Dolby Theatre when Will assaulted Chris.

RED CARPET. Fil-Am actor Rodney To on the Oscars red carpet: “The pandemic, loss, sporadic work, etcetera have really taken its toll on the industry…. The past few years have made it hard to appreciate what we do. I never thought the Oscars would revitalize that for me.” Contributed photo

“I was onstage waiting to go on in the wings, holding two Oscars, when we saw the incident happen,” Rodney replied to me via email when I asked him about the incident.

“On my side of the stage, it was just me, the assistant director, and another presenter. Just the three of us witnessing what was happening. We were stunned.”

“After we walked off, everyone was still quiet and stunned. But to be honest, they jumped right back in because ‘the show must go on.’ And boy, did they.”

“I was super happy to see Chris again. He gave me my first TV job ever in New York many years ago on The Chris Rock Show. But he was too stunned to speak after the incident and everyone wanted to make sure he was okay, which he seemed to be.”

To recap, Chris was joking onstage about Will’s wife, actress Jada Pinkett Smith, having short hair (she’s suffering from alopecia, which causes partial or total hair loss). Will was caught on camera laughing.

Then the unthinkable happened. Will got up and strode onstage and hit Chris in the face. He shouted to the actor-comedian twice, “Keep my wife’s name out of your f***ing mouth.”

The incident spread like wildfire on social media, provoking various comments – and, no surprise, a flood of memes.

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Rex Nava, a Fil-Am comedian, posted, “No comedian deserves to be assaulted for a bad joke. Never. Ever.”

TV host Trevor Noah echoed the initial reaction of many TV viewers: “Wtaf????? That wasn’t scripted?????”

Actress Shari Belafonte wrote, “Here’s the thing. If Chris didn’t know about Jada’s condition (which many of us didn’t till last night’s debacle), then it was a harmless, funny joke. If he did, then at worst, it was a tasteless joke.”

“But, bottom line, it was a JOKE, and certainly didn’t deserve a slap in the face. An apology, yes. But no violence. And certainly not the profanity that spilled out of Will’s mouth (that was ‘bleeped’ out, but you can see on the internet).”

“Will’s acceptance speech felt disingenuous after that, and hard to listen to, and put a damper on an otherwise enjoyable comeback for the Oscars, in my opinion. Will Smith just went down a few notches in my playbook.”

“And…(I’m now adding)… most likely he’s given credence to others to now ‘shoot first, ask questions later,’ seeing even the tamest of Black men can become angered and violent on the spur of the moment. That’ll be their excuse, unfortunately…”

Jaden Smith, Will’s actor-rapper son, tweeted, “And that’s how we do it.”

Richard Williams, the dad of Venus and Serena Williams, whom Will played in King Richard and for which he won the Academy’s best actor honors, said through his son, Chavoita LeSane, on NBC News: “We don’t know all the details of what happened. But we don’t condone anyone hitting anyone unless it’s in self-defense.”

People magazine reported that Chavoita shared that Richard was shocked to see Will smack Chris in the face.

People also quoted actress Tiffany Haddish, who spoke in Will’s defense: “As a woman, who has been unprotected, for someone to say, ‘Keep my wife’s name out your mouth, leave my wife alone,’ that’s what your husband is supposed to do, right? Protect you.”

“And that meant the world to me. And maybe the world might not like how it went down, but for me, it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen because it made me believe that there are still men out there that love and care about their women, their wives.”

Chris has decided not to press charges. Will wrote an apology on Instagram: “I would like to publicly apologize to you, Chris. I was out of line and I was wrong. I am embarrassed and my actions were not indicative of the man I want to be. There is no place for violence in a world of love and kindness.”

BEST ACTOR. Will Smith accepts the Oscar® for Actor in a Leading Role during the live ABC telecast of the 94th Oscars® at the Dolby Theatre at Ovation Hollywood in Los Angeles, CA, on Sunday, March 27, 2022. Courtesy of AMPAS

After the Oscars show, Will was caught on video dancing the night away, clutching his brand-new golden trophy at Vanity Fair’s traditional after-party.

Variety wrote, “If Will Smith was feeling any remorse about slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars on Sunday night, he didn’t show it. The 53-year-old best actor winner…arrived at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party just after midnight with a large entourage and immediately hit the dance floor.”

“As the DJ played a medley of Smith’s biggest ’90s hits, the actor sang along to ‘Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It’ and ‘Miami’ as he shimmied in the middle of a mosh pit of his fans…swinging his gold statue in the air.”

As I write this, the Academy issued this statement: “The Academy condemns the actions of Mr. Smith at last night’s show. We have officially started a formal review around the incident and will explore further action and consequences in accordance with our bylaws, standards of conduct, and California law.”

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I’ve always liked Will in interviews – he was always warm, friendly, and open. The Will that I saw punching Chris and shouting an obscenity at him totally surprised me. All my good impressions of the actor went down the drain after his violent display last Sunday night.

Will ruined what should have been one of the best nights of his life. The actor’s assault of a fellow entertainer also marred the Academy’s 94th show.

Back to the press room at the Oscars, I asked Ryusuke Hamaguchi, director of Drive My Car, best international feature winner, about casting Filipino actor, Perry Dizon, in the Japanese film.

[Only IN Hollywood] How the slap heard around the world also jolted us backstage at the Oscars

Speaking through an interpreter, Ryusuke gave a surprise shoutout to an internationally renowned Filipino filmmaker: “I auditioned him (Perry) through Zoom. And I realized that he was the most experienced actor and he has the ability to be very flexible.”

“I knew with this production that we are working with different cultures and there would be differences, but I thought that I could work with him.”

WINNER. Ryusuke Hamaguchi poses backstage with the Oscar® for International Feature during the live ABC telecast of the 94th Oscars® at the Dolby Theatre at Ovation Hollywood in Los Angeles, CA, on Sunday, March 27, 2022. Courtesy of AMPAS

“And, of course, I knew he was working with a director I respect very much, Lav Diaz. And if I can work with him, I’m very happy. As a result, I think it ended up being a wonderful film.”

Jane Campion, victorious for Benedict Cumberbatch’s anti-Western, The Power of the Dog, answered my question about being only the third woman in the Academy’s history to win the best director trophy.

CHAMPION. Jane Campion poses backstage with the Oscar® for Directing during the live ABC telecast of the 94th Oscars® at the Dolby Theatre at Ovation Hollywood in Los Angeles, CA, on Sunday, March 27, 2022. Courtesy of AMPAS

She said, “I am very proud to have won tonight. For my film, for my crew, and for my cast. And also, just to be another woman who is going to be followed by a fourth, a fifth, a sixth, a seventh, and an eighth.”

“I am very excited by the fact that this is moving fast now. And, you know, we need it. Equality matters.”

Back to Rodney, he’s one of the most beloved Fil-Am actors around. The witty, amiable actor’s TV and film credits include Parks and RecreationGood GirlsBarryThe Conners, and The Shrink Next Door opposite Will Ferrell and Paul Rudd.

He co-stars in Jo Koy’s coming movie, Easter Sunday, which also features Tiffany Haddish, Jimmy O’Yang, Lou Diamond Phillips, and Tia Carrere.

Rodney is also an educator. Last fall, he was promoted to assistant professor of acting at USC. He is the associate artistic director of the Los Angeles-based IAMA Theatre Company as well.

He explained how he landed his cool Oscars gig: “I received a call from an Academy producer letting me know that I was nominated by various alumni of USC as someone who ‘contributes greatly to entertainment and education.’”

“From those nominations, I was selected. I’m incredibly humbled. I love being an actor, of course, but I also found deep love and passion for being a professor, especially a Filipino one. I never had a Filipino professor ever.”

“So, now to be a Filipino educator whose work is somehow affecting the lives of some of my students – it’s profound and means a tremendous amount to me.”

The Will Smith-Chris Rock incident notwithstanding, Rodney welcomed his Oscars experience.

He said, “The pandemic, loss, sporadic work, etcetera have really taken its toll on the industry and have made it hard to walk around with our heads held high. Coupled with being an artist which has always been challenging, the past few years have made it hard to appreciate what we do.”

“I never thought the Oscars would revitalize that for me. Feeling the buzz from the moment I woke up, to meeting movie stars and celebrities, to seeing friends shine, to seeing Hollywood through the eyes of young emerging artists who comprised some of the trophy presenters, reminded me that this life I chose for myself was absolutely the right one.”

“Call the Oscars what you will. I, for one, am glad artists get to celebrate Hollywood and each other this way.”

Rodney cited the highlights of his Sunday experience.

“My tux,” he quipped. “It was from Ted Baker and I was not only relieved. Ted Baker fits me just right but I also felt great in it.”

“Meeting Anthony Hopkins. He is one of my all-time actor heroes. I’m thrilled I got to chat with him about everything but being an actor.”

“We talked about his cat that he played piano with – yes, that’s right. He told me his dear cat passed away and it’s been rough for him. But he’s happy his dear cat found its way into people’s hearts.”

“Watching the Williams Sisters (Venus and Serena) hug each other and hold each other’s hands backstage before they went on to announce Beyonce’s performance. They love each other and are best friends. Their closeness was beautiful to witness up close.”

“I heard Serena say, ‘I can’t believe we’re here! Did you ever think this would happen?’ Knowing that after all they’ve accomplished in their glorious careers they still were giddy with excitement and that they loved experiencing it with each other made me appreciate these beautiful women on a whole other level.”

“H.E.R. and I chatting about being Filipino and how she knew from the minute she looked at me that I was Pinoy. I couldn’t be prouder of that compliment.”

RODNEY AND H.E.R. For Rodney To, one of his Oscars highlights: “H.E.R. and I chatting about being Filipino and how she knew from the minute she looked at me that I was Pinoy. I couldn’t be prouder of that compliment.” Contributed photo

“Red carpet – it was massive. It felt like walking through a crowded neighborhood. So many people, different sections and all along the way, there was someone to see. I was sweating by the time I got to the end.”

“But all in all, it was incredibly impressive and surreal. But moment to moment, you felt the history behind the tradition of the red carpet and the glamor that goes into it. You feel like a movie star just walking through it.”

Rodney writes amusing posts about his mom and grandma (lola), especially when the latter was still alive – she was apparently quite a character, funny and unforgettable.

Here’s how Rodney’s mom, Jean Gestoso To, reacted to news of his Oscars gig: “No joke, I sent my mom a video of me holding an Oscar statue and her response back? ‘Why do you look so old?’ That’s how my mom responded.”

“My mom is so far removed from anything Hollywood. I didn’t expect her to have a huge reaction. That’s my mom. It used to unnerve me that my family didn’t really understand the gravity of moments like this in entertainment or just how hard they are to come by.”

“But now that I’m older and have a lot of perspective, I hold a ton of grace and love for them because they show support by still being around and loving me regardless of whether I’m holding an Oscar in my hand or a stethoscope. Although I’m sure they’d much rather that I was holding a stethoscope if I’m being honest.”

And how would his beloved late lola, Betty Gestoso, have reacted if he told her he’d be on the Oscars show?

“Even though she’s passed, I still ‘talk’ to my Lola every day. She knows. She’s here. And she’s wearing a ridiculous wig and in a shimmery gown, flirting with all the men in tuxedos and telling me to take pictures.” – Rappler.com

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Ruben V. Nepales

Based in Los Angeles, Ruben V. Nepales is an award-winning journalist whose honors include prizes from the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards, a US-wide competition, and the Southern California Journalism Awards, presented by the Los Angeles Press Club.