Will Smith breaks character – after 40 years playing the energetic, merry prankster

Oscars 2022 should have been the culmination of Smith’s extraordinary career. But he snapped

"I would be the golden child," Will Smith explains in his recent memoir, Will. "It was going to be the performance of a lifetime. And over the next 40 years, I would never break character. Not Once."

The book navigates the troughs as well as the peaks. His career as a pop star fizzled before he managed spectacular reignition in the TV series The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. He admits to the marital difficulties he and Jada Pinkett Smith have been through in recent years. But there is throughout a sense that Smith, abused as a child, strives to be in control of his own destiny.

We can safely say he did not plan the incident that jolted a wheezing Academy Awards ceremony into uncomfortable life on Monday morning.

This was supposed to be the culmination of an extraordinary career. It is not uncommon for the Oscars to honour a mediocre performance with an unofficial lifetime achievement award. But Smith was genuinely excellent as Richard Williams, father to Venus and Serena, in Reinaldo Marcus Green's King Richard.

There was nothing discreditable about him triumphing over the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch and Javier Bardem to take best actor. Now, all the world will recall is him thumping Chris Rock half an hour earlier.

The “character” he didn’t intend to break was that of an energetic, merry prankster who charms interviewers with inspirational aphorisms and sparky anecdotes concerning life as a supernova. Yelling “Take my wife’s name out of your f**king mouth!” before an audience of Hollywood aristocracy was never part of the scheme.

There are a number of notorious deviations from the script in Oscar history. A rogue streaker gave David Niven an opportunity to deliver an unbeatable quip in 1974. Marlon Brando sent Sacheen Littlefeather to accept his best actor award in 1973.

To this point, the most notable was Faye Dunaway mistakenly awarding best picture to La La Land in 2017. All had a certain ramshackle charm. No such accidental magic hangs over the grim altercation between Rock and Smith.

The comic's remarks about Pinkett Smith, who had shaved her head to help manage alopecia, certainly slipped outside the boundaries of good taste. "Jada, can't wait for GI Jane 2," he said, referencing Demi Moore's skinhead in a barely remembered Ridley Scott film from 25 years ago.

We are always hearing complaints about how “woke” (complainants own inverted commas) the Oscars have become. Joking about an attendee’s medical condition does not fit in with that allegedly oversensitive snowflake ascendency. Still, Smith would have won the night comfortably if he had saved his fire for a spiky rejoinder in the acceptance speech we were 90 per cent certain was due within the hour. He has always been quick with language.

Nothing can replicate the experience of seeing the slap live. On seeing it happen live, this writer made a note about how well the two men staged what seemed like a fake blow – it had to be. Right? The camera was in the right place. Rock looked genuinely shocked.

Will Smith offended bourgeois morality by slapping a fellow celebrity on primetime TV

And Will Smith has been keeping character for 40 years. He would never jeopardise his career in this fashion. It would scarcely have been more incredible if he'd kicked Graham Norton in the unmentionables during a chat-show appearance.

“Will Smith just smacked the s**t out of me,” Rock remarked. Hang on. Mainstream American broadcasters are more wary of swearing than violence. Is this really a “bit”? Smith’s bellowed F-words then cleared up any ambiguity.

The most useful comparison to Smith's career is that of the equally ambitious, equally unknowable, still bankable Tom Cruise. That actor "broke character" when, celebrating his love for Katie Holmes, he climbed onto Oprah Winfrey's sofa.

But there is a clear distinction between a manifestation of eccentricity and a televised act of violence on Hollywood’s biggest night. If Rock and Smith had been snapped squaring up outside a bar, the story would barely have registered outside the entertainment press and gossip columns.

Smith offended bourgeois morality by slapping a fellow celebrity on primetime TV (even if American broadcasters, on delay, cut the audio from swearing that was played in full on Sky in Ireland).

He did worse. He did so in front of the nobility. The evening was supposed to culminate with a moving reintroduction to a frail Liza Minnelli, as Lady Gaga wheeled out the star to present best picture.

The next morning, this rare sighting of a much-loved deity – daughter of Judy Garland, no less – was obscured by discussion of an unseemly schoolyard brawl. That may prove too much to forgive.

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