Sian Heder's CODA, story of a deaf fishing family from Massachusetts, has come from behind to win best picture at an uncomfortable Academy Awards ceremony that will be forever remembered for an extraordinary, shocking confrontation between Will Smith and Chris Rock.
Kenneth Branagh took best original screenplay for his work on the charming autobiographical drama Belfast. That was the only one of the film's seven nominations to convert. Belfast had been tipped for Oscars since premiering at the Telluride Film Festival back in September, but had struggled to win prizes in precursor awards.
"We will never forget all of those lost in the heart-breaking, heart-warming human story of that amazing city of Belfast on the fabulous island of Ireland, " Branagh said from the podium. "This means a lot. Thank you so much."
Branagh and Ciarán Hinds, nominated for best supporting actor, had both tested positive for Covid in the last two weeks, but were cleared to attend the event at the last moment.
The evening took its extraordinary turn when Chris Rock, presenting the award for best documentary, seemed to make a joke comparing Smith's wife Jada Pinkett Smith, who shaved her head after contracting alopecia, to the protagonist of the film GI Jane.
Smith walked on stage and smacked Rock in the face. The audience understandably took this for a joke. Doubts crept in when Rock responded: “Will Smith just smacked the s**t out of me.” Smith could then be heard yelling: “Keep my wife’s name out of your f**king mouth!” from his seat.
Most American broadcasters, working from a delay, didn’t screen the later stages of the incident, but it was seen in full on Sky in this country. “Wow, dude. It was a GI Jane joke,” Rock said before, with extraordinary sangfroid, continuing with the presentation.
The following half-hour was fired with tension as the audience awaited Smith's near-inevitable best actor win for his turn as Richard Williams, father of Venus and Serena, in King Richard.
Pinkett Smith seemed to give him a word of advice before he ascended to the podium. Barely able to talk through deep sobs, he delivered a bizarre speech that touched obliquely on the incident. "Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family," he pointedly began. He went on to talk about how, making the film, he "got to protect" female members of the cast.
“I am being called on in my life to love people and protect people and to be a river to my people,” he continued. “I want to apologise to the academy and I want to apologise to all my fellow nominees. This is a beautiful moment and I am not crying about winning an award. It’s about being able to shine a light.” He did not mention Rock by name.
Presenting the award for best actress, Anthony Hopkins referenced the speech. "Will Smith said it all. Let's have peace and love and quiet," the Welsh actor said. That award, in one of the closest races of the evening, went the way of Jessica Chastain for playing televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker in The Eyes of Tammy Faye.
The violent incident distracted from an extraordinary win for CODA. The film was a rank outsider until a few weeks ago when victories at the Screen Actors Guild and the Producers Guild of America edged it alongside presumed favourite The Power of the Dog.
Heder’s film was nominated in only three categories – also winning for supporting actor and adapted screenplay. No film with so few nominations has won best picture since Grand Hotel took the prize in 1932.
Jane Campion took best director for The Power of the Dog. That film came close to the biggest shut-out in Oscar history, winning just one award from its 12 nominations.
Troy Kotsur became the second deaf actor to ever win an Oscar for his turn as a kindly, sometimes badly behaved dad in CODA. His moving speech was memorable for all the right reasons. Kotsur referenced his dad who, also deaf, lost the ability to sign after a car accident.
“This is dedicated to the deaf community, the CODA community and the disabled community. This is our moment!” he said proudly.
Kerry's Jessie Buckley, nominated for The Lost Daughter, looked splendid in salmon, but, as expected, could not get past Ariana DeBose, hot favourite for West Side Story, in the best supporting actress category.
DeBose, an openly gay woman, has been delivering highly professional speeches throughout and did not disappoint. “To anybody who has ever questioned your identity or you find yourself living in the grey spaces ... I promise you this: there is indeed a place for us,” she said.
Following a slump in ratings over the last decade, the producers, allegedly acting under pressure from broadcasters ABC, had moved to streamline the show. There was much protest at the decision to present eight categories in the hour before the live show began. This resulted in the bizarre situation of viewers learning about the winner in categories such as best editing and best original score from the Twitter accounts of bloggers within the auditorium.
By the time the broadcast began Denis Villeneuve’s Dune had already won more Oscars than CODA had nominations. The integration of those awards into the later broadcast was, however, reasonably seamless. Dune ended up topping the Oscars charts with six wins.
Venus and Serena Williams welcomed viewers to the ceremony and then cut to Beyoncé singing Be Alive, the best song nominee from King Richard, at the tennis courts in Compton where the sisters honed their skills.
Hosts Amy Schumer, Regina Hall and Wanda Sykes then launched into clunky comedy that, happily, later improved a little when the comics went solo. Schumer was particularly sharp, suggesting that the devalued Golden Globes awards now belonged in the in memoriam section and taking a swipe at a particular star's habit of dating younger women.
“Leonardo DiCaprio, what can I even say about him? He’s done so much to fight climate change and leave behind a cleaner, greener planet for his girlfriends,” she said. Returning after the Will Smith incident, she wondered if she’d missed anything.
The show started off in a weird nowhere between the flash of the Grammys and the more sober approach the Oscars formerly observed. A DJ entertained nominees and presenters seated in a pseudo-café area beneath the stage of the Dolby Theatre. A tribute to 60 years of James Bond zoomed by without taking a breath – inexplicably presented by skateboarder Tony Hawk and two other stars of boarding sports.
But the tone changed dramatically after Smith slapped Rock, layering the closing section with unease. Nothing remotely like this has ever happened at an Oscar ceremony. It belongs with Marlon Brando sending Sacheen Littlefeather to collect his best actor award for The Godfather and La La Land mistakenly being announced as best picture winner. But this was altogether stranger and more unsettling.
It remains to be seen if the viewing figures will improve, but it is safe to say many people will, when the news emerges, wish they had been watching.