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How to spoil the Oscars in one uneasy lesson

Actor Will Smith assaults comedian Chris Rock during the 94th Academy Awards on March 27. Photo: Robyn Beck, AFP.

Peter Howell

Movie Critic

Family heart-warmer “CODA” prevailed over prestige drama “The Power of the Dog” at the 94th Academy Awards Sunday night, while sci-fi blockbuster “Dune” raked in gold for Canada’s Denis Villeneuve and his team.

But an event that was mainly a return to the Hollywood love-ins of pre-pandemic times turned nasty late into the evening, as Best Actor nominee Will Smith jumped onto the stage to deliver a smack to comic Chris Rock, apparently over a joke Rock made about Smith’s wife.

Sian Heder’s indie film “CODA,” the story of an aspiring singer and her deaf family in a Massachusetts fishing town, overcame a slew of odds that insisted the top prize would go to Jane Campion’s gothic western “The Power of the Dog,” which led the Oscar pack with 12 nominations.

“CODA,” which stands for “Child of Deaf Adults” and which also won Oscars for Best Supporting Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay, is the first Best Picture winner with a mostly deaf main cast.

It’s also the first time in 90 years — “Grand Hotel” in 1932 — that a film with fewer than four nominations took Best Picture. And it’s the first Sundance-premiering movie to win Best Picture, a true story of a little movie that made it to the top.

Roy Kotsur accepts the Actor in a Supporting Role award for "CODA" from Youn Yuh-jung during the 94th Academy Awards at the Dolby Theatre at Ovation Hollywood on Sunday, March 27, 2022, in California.

Perhaps most significantly of all for the movie industry, “CODA” is the first film by a streaming service, Apple TV+, to win the Academy’s biggest prize. It represents a sea change for Hollywood, which has for years seen the rise of streamers as a threat to traditional theatrical movie-going.

The immensity of her achievements had already started to hit writer/director Heder as she accepted the prize for Best Adapted Screenplay, for her film, which is a remake of a 2014 French film. She described the experience of making “CODA” as “life-changing as an artist and as a human being” for her, since she learned so much from working with her mostly deaf cast.

A discordant note sounded late into the mostly feel-good ceremony, as actor Smith, shortly before being named Best Actor for his title role in “King Richard” took exception to a joke made by comic Chris Rock, who was presenting the Best Documentary Feature award to Questlove for “Summer of Soul.”

Smith climbed the stage and apparently slapped Rock in the face, after shouting angry obscenities at Rock for a weak joke the comic made about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, that her close-shaven hairstyle made her a natural to star in a movie titled “G.I. Jane 2.” (She actually suffers from alopecia, which causes hair loss.) The exchange was cut from the official broadcast but shown on the internet.

Rock, shocked but apparently unhurt, rolled with it and carried on, but the incident cast a pall on the rest of the ceremony.

Smith, who plays Richard Williams, the coach dad of tennis star Serena and Venus Williams in “King Richard,” received the Best Actor prize, his first Oscar, from actors Samuel L. Jackson, John Travolta and Uma Thurman — it was a “Pulp Fiction” cast tribute. Smith seemed in a much better mood as he accepted his awards.

With tears freely flowing down his cheeks, he apologized to the Academy and his fellow nominees for marring “this beautiful moment” by his behaviour. He didn’t apologize to Rock.

He offered explanation by way of observing that Richard Williams “was a fierce defender of his family” and Smith felt a similar urge.

“Art imitates life. I look like the crazy father, just like they said about Richard Williams. But love will make you do crazy things,” he said.

Smith added that fellow Best Actor nominee Denzel Washington had offered some advice: “At your highest moment, be careful, that’s when the devil comes for you.”

That was a hard act to follow for Best Actress winner Jessica Chastain for her title role in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” winning her first Oscar in three attempts. Triumphant in a hotly contested category, she made a gracious acceptance speech.

As expected, Campion was named Best Director, her first win in two attempts for the category. She previously won a screenwriting Oscar for “The Piano” in 1994. It was the only win of the night for “The Power of the Dog.”

The 2022 Academy Awards sought to restore Hollywood excitement, glamour and sense of fun, even as the Oscars ceremony unfolded against the global backdrop of the continuing pandemic and war in Ukraine.

Eight of the 23 awards were handed out prior to the televised start of the ceremony, with director/co-writer Villeneuve’s team making short work of the technical categories for the sci-fi blockbuster “Dune,” based on a classic novel by Frank Herbert.

Nominated for a total of 10 Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay among them), “Dune” took the gold for production design, editing, sound and score in the pre-telecast, later adding visual effects and cinematography after the telecast began. With six Oscars to its credit before the show was barely into its first hour, “Dune” became the night’s numerical winner early and stayed there.

Nominees and other celebrities once again walked the red carpet into Los Angeles’ Dolby Theatre, a welcome return to pre-pandemic tradition after the socially distanced 2021 event held in L.A.’s Union Station transport hub, receiving record low TV ratings.

This year’s Oscars telecast went much bigger. It opened with a lavish outdoor performance at a glammed-up tennis court, with pop diva Beyoncé and dozens of other singers and dancers doing Best Original Song nominee “Be Alive” from tennis biopic “King Richard,” a Best Picture nominee. Tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams, whose coach father is the Richard of the title, introduced the number.

Best Supporting Actress winner Ariana DeBose, who is Afro-Latina, became the first openly queer woman of colour to win an Oscar for acting. She plays the feisty Anita in Steven Spielberg’s remake of “West Side Story.” It was her first Oscar win, and it came 60 years after Rita Moreno won the same prize for playing the same character.

“Oh my word, what is this?” DeBose said, seeming almost overwhelmed as she accepted her prize on behalf of “hundreds of Anitas like me” who have ever questioned their identity.

“Even in this weary world that we live in, dreams do come true and that’s really a heartening thing right now.”

Her win was expected, but it was also the only one considered a good bet out of the seven nominations for “West Side Story.” The original film won a near-record 10 Oscars in 1962, out of 11 nominations.

Best Supporting Actor winner Troy Kotsur, another first-time winner, also made history: he’s the first deaf man to win an Oscar. He plays the father of the mostly deaf fishing family in “CODA.” His co-star Marlee Matlin was the first deaf woman to win an Oscar, Best Actress for “Children of a Lesser God” at the 1987 Academy Awards.

Kotsur signed his acceptance speech, saying “I cannot believe I’m here” and promising not to drop any of the “F bombs” he hilariously signs in “CODA.”

He talked about the cast visiting the White House to visit U.S. President Joe Biden and his family, who are fans of the movie.

Set on a stage set resembling the gun barrel sequence from 007 films — which received a 60th anniversary salute — the show was co-hosted by the comically inclined Amy Schumer, Regina Hall and Wanda Sykes after several years without a host.

Their gags included, among other things, COVID, the slow pace of “The Power of the Dog,” Samuel Jackson’s career (and his swearing) and “Dune” star Timothée Chalamet’s attire: he was shirtless beneath a sequined jacket. Hall joked about how COVID protocols required her to give pat-downs to sexy men in the audience, which she proceeded to demonstrate with Josh Brolin and Jason Momoa.

The war in Ukraine was recognized with a call for a minute of silence to acknowledge the suffering caused by Russia’s invasion. An onscreen note urged viewers to express support via the hashtag #StandWithUkraine.

Another Canadian did well at the Oscars last night: Halifax-born director Ben Proudfoot won Best Documentary Short Subject for “The Queen of Basketball,” the largely unknown story of U.S. basketball superstar Lusia “Lucy” Harris, who died earlier this year.

Best International Feature Film went to “Drive My Car” by Japan’s Ryusuke Hamaguchi, who was also hoping to win for Best Picture and Best Director.

British actor Riz Ahmed, a Best Actor nominee last year for playing a drummer who lost his hearing in “Sound of Metal,” received his first Oscar Sunday night for “The Long Goodbye,” winner of Best Live Action Short Film, which he co-wrote (with director Aneil Karia) and starred in.

The film is a harrowing story of a white militia attacking a South Asian family in London. Ahmed appealed for people around the world to see beyond race, colour and other differences that often divide them.

“There is no us and them. There’s just us,” he said.

“This is for everyone who feels like they don’t belong. Anyone who feels like they’re stuck in no man’s land. You’re not alone. We’ll meet you there. That’s where the future is. Peace.”

Writer/director Kenneth Branagh, an eight-time Oscar nominee, finally entered the winner’s circle with a Best Original Screenplay award for his childhood reverie “Belfast,” which at one time was considered a front-runner for Best Picture. 🌓

(This story originally appeared in the Toronto Star.)



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