The 94th Academy Awards opened in dramatic fashion on Sunday, lauding Dune with six trophies out of 10 nominations, awarding CODA in the best-picture and two other categories for which it was nominated, making history for deaf, women and LGBTQ+ actors — and nearly breaking down following a chaotic, violent moment between Will Smith and Chris Rock.
The night was a triumph for Canadian Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi epic Dune, and a return to form for a beleaguered show struggling to reignite the relevancy and spark it once had, until the shocking moment between Smith and Rock left the audience in stunned silence and viewers at home bewildered and wondering how much of what they were seeing was real.
As Rock was presenting the award for best documentary feature, he tossed an offhand joke to Smith’s wife, actor Jada Pinkett Smith, pointing to her and saying, “G.I. Jane 2, can’t wait to see it.”
The joke was a seeming comparison between Pinkett Smith, who shaved her head late last year after a long struggle with alopecia, and Demi Moore, who sported a buzzcut in the 1997 film G.I. Jane.
Striding purposefully onto the stage, Smith slapped Rock before returning to his seat. The live broadcast cut the audio while Smith screamed to Rock that he should, “Keep my wife’s name out of your f–king mouth.”
WATCH The slap heard ’round the world, minutes before Smith’s 1st Oscar win:
Later, a tearful Smith took to the stage to accept his award for best actor for King Richard — a movie about the life of Richard Williams, the father and coach of tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams. Smith struggled through an emotional speech as he apologized to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and spoke about learning to protect his family and co-workers.
“Art imitates life. I look like the crazy father, just like they said about Richard Williams,” Smith said to laughter and applause.
It was an oddly uplifting response to him slapping Rock, which had occurred only a few minutes earlier, but the explosive moment — and the confused response to it — represented both the worst and best outcome organizers could have hoped for.
Trying to cast aside seven years of bad luck — the show reported record-low ratings for each of those presentations — the shocking encounter broke up a ceremony that began clipping along at a fast pace, before dragging to a close after its nearly four-hour run time.
Organizers had tried a bit of everything to capture viewership once again, alternately peppering the ceremony with live and pre-recorded skits, but it was the moment between Smith and Rock that captured attention on social media. And though it marred the seemingly cheery theme of “movie lovers unite,” clips of the exchange pulled in millions of views within minutes, and made the entertainment world — once again — focus solely on the Oscars.
The academy had attempted to achieve that through more traditional means. Venus and Serena began the show by introducing Beyoncé for her first-ever nominated appearance at the awards, as she performed her King Richard-nominated song Be Alive alongside a tennis-yellow phalanx of dancers.
That was followed soon after by the first live performance of Encanto‘s We Don’t Talk About Bruno and Billie Eilish’s Bond theme No Time To Die. And while Encanto did win for best animated feature, Eilish managed to beat out the chart-dominating musical for best song with that track.
Balancing out the mayhem, a raft of positive stories developed through the night.
Veteran actor Troy Kotsur took home the Oscar for best supporting actor for his turn in CODA, becoming only the second deaf actor ever to win an Academy Award. He thanked both the academy and “deaf theatre stages” for giving him a space to hone his craft, before thanking his father — who was also deaf, but unable to use sign language after becoming paralyzed in a car crash — as his sign language interpreter appeared to struggle through tears of his own.
“I just wanted to say that this is dedicated to the deaf community, the CODA community and the disabled community,” Kotsur said through an interpreter. “This is our moment.”
Ariana DeBose won best supporting actress, one of the most contested categories of this year’s awards. Her performance as Anita in the Steven Spielberg-adapted West Side Story put her above a tough field of actresses, including Judi Dench in Belfast, Kirsten Dunst in The Power of the Dog, Jessie Buckley in The Lost Daughter and Aunjanue Ellis in King Richard.
In so doing, she became the first Afro-Latina and openly LGBTQ+ person to win in the category — a fact she glowingly underscored in her acceptance speech.
“To anybody who has ever questioned your identity,” she said, “I promise you there is a place for us.”
Jane Campion took the best-director Oscar for her work on The Power of the Dog, becoming the first woman to ever be nominated for that honour twice. She was previously up for that category in 1994 for her film The Piano, for which she won best original screenplay.
Outside of individual wins, Dune came away as the star performer.
Before the show even started, it had pulled in four awards, capturing best production design (for Montreal’s Patrice Vermette) sound, film editing and original score for Hans Zimmer — his first since 1994’s Lion King — in a series of categories removed from the main events of the night.
The decision to cut those categories (part of a strategy to streamline and energize the show) was controversial, as insiders felt it was an insult to tech workers removed from the ceremonies. But the controversy turned out to be mostly much ado about nothing, as the winners’ speeches were spliced in their entirety into the live broadcast.
Dune continued its reign in technical categories as Greig Fraser pulled in cinematography once the live event actually began. It then beat out some of the biggest films of the year — including Spider-Man, Shang-Chi and Free Guy, which were all only nominated in that category — for visual effects.
Outside of Vermette’s win for Dune, Nova Scotia’s Ben Proudfoot started out the night with a win in one of the eight untelevised categories. He took home his first Oscar for the documentary short The Queen of Basketball, which follows the story of Luisa (Lucy) Harris — a pioneer in women’s basketball who scored the first basket in Olympic women’s basketball history and who died only two months ago. Last year, Proudfoot was nominated in the same category for A Concerto is a Conversation.
While The Power of the Dog and Belfast were both heavily favoured going into the night, they only managed to capture a single award — best director and best original screenplay, respectively. In fact, outside of Dune, CODA and The Eyes of Tammy Faye (which managed to take home two), no film won more than a single award.
Just another underwhelming surprise on a night that had its overwhelming moments.