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For Will Smith, the damage has been done

Opinion by Bill Carter for CNN Business Perspectives

While Will Smith apologized to Chris Rock and the Academy Tuesday for the slap heard around the world, it doesn’t detract from the stupidity of his actions or greatly minimize the damage that he has done.

Smith could have done a few different things at the Academy Awards ceremony after Rock made a joke about his wife, Jada Pinkett-Smith:

He could have taken in the Rock line, felt its sting, and then narrowed his eyes, shook his head ominously, and stayed in his seat.

He could have reached out to Pinkett-Smith, took her hand and leaned over to whisper in her ear: “This guy is a mean-spirited jerk and I’m going to tell the world that. You’re beautiful, tonight and always.”

He could have bided his time, aware he might be about to reach the pinnacle of his acting career by winning the Best Actor award for his role in “King Richard” and that he could soon have the biggest platform in the world to say whatever he wanted to say. And then he could have graciously accepted his award and included just one pointed take like: “Richard Williams was all about his family; I’m all about mine. My wife is beautiful and anybody trying to mock her, even in a so-called joke, is beneath contempt.”

Or, as he accepted his award, he could have skipped saying anything at all about the joke and instead stated the grateful, moving comments he had prepared; and then walked into the media room and told the world his wife had a health reason for her hair to be worn like that, and she should not be subjected to a cheap, nasty joke. “As for Chris Rock, that guy mistakes cruelty for humor and I want nothing to do with him.”

Instead, of course, Smith chose a totally theatrical and violent route, getting up from his seat, walking purposefully, uninvited, onto the Oscar stage and throwing a slap-punch at Rock’s face, instantly turning a huge TV production — the most important night of the year for movie-making and the celebration of the life’s work of dozens of winners (and nominees) — into a “hey-look-at-me” moment destined to be all anyone would talk about or remember.

Then he turned his acceptance speech into more “look-at-me” theatrics, seeking to justify an ugly act of violence as some form of noble family values, even saying, “Love will make you do crazy things.”

A few seconds after the slap, Rock announced that Questlove had won the Oscar for his extraordinary documentary, “Summer of Soul.” How much did Smith’s toxic display diminish the moment for Questlove? While he seemed suitably moved to receive the Oscar, the room still seemed a bit gobsmacked.

How much did Smith’s actions unjustly overshadow the powerfully moving words from winners like Ariana DeBose (Best Supporting Actress), Jane Campion (Best Director), Sian Heder (Best Adapted Screenplay) and Troy Kotsur (Best Actor in a Supporting Role), all of whom may never experience a night like that again in their lives? What right did Smith have to seize attention away from them?

Smith, and maybe the people who depend on making 10% of the very large payments for the movies he stars in, came to their collective senses less than 24 hours after the slap. Smith offered a personal apology to Rock and the Academy and everybody else who was swept up in the gratuitous attention paid to that moment of nastiness.

But much of the damage had already been done and Smith’s mea culpa will do little to minimize it.

He won’t be able to take back the disturbing distraction he injected into the event. And he may be disinvited to next year’s ceremony. There may be some other damage to his career, although in Hollywood, even pariah stars still get some offers (look at Mel Gibson). Generally speaking, winning a Best Actor Oscar sends a film career to new heights, not hibernation. His apology will surely go some way to salving the self-inflicted wound.

Still, there are some others who are potentially affected from that vivid moment of show-business violence. Comedians, politicians or anyone else who dares to stand in front of crowds and challenge the famous or the powerful may now be worried about facing physical abuse more than ever before.

Late-night host Jimmy Kimmel spoke for many when he said on The Bill Simmons Podcast: “Was there anyone who didn’t like Will Smith an hour ago in the world? Like no one, right? And now he doesn’t have a single comedian friend — that’s for sure.”

But will the slap have any lasting impact? Could it possibly tarnish the image of the Oscars, or the Academy? That seems unlikely, because the Oscars have already plunged precipitously as a cultural event in the minds of most of the public. The ratings for Sunday night’s ceremony did soar 56% above last year’s number — 15.3 million people watched, up from 9.8 million for the disastrous, masked, host-less and fun-less edition of 2021. But this was still the second-lowest number in Oscar history.

So a comeback for the show still has a long way to go before it could approach an average mid-season NFL game. (NFL games averaged 17.1 million viewers this past season.)

For that reason, maybe the Rock-Smith tiff could pump up a little extra interest next year. Maybe Rock could even be invited to host.

Aside from maybe a little lingering tenderness on his left cheek, Rock seems to have come out of the incident all right — maybe even more than all right. Ticket sales appear to be soaring for his stand-up tour, and he’s performing Wednesday night in Boston.

For one thing, he’s going to have some new material for his act; for another, ticket sales…

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