(Note language in paragraphs 11-12, which may offend some readers)
By Lisa Richwine
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – “CODA,” a heartwarming movie about a deaf family with a hearing daughter, won a landmark best picture prize at the Oscars on Sunday, in a ceremony overshadowed by best-actor winner Will Smith’s slapping of presenter Chris Rock.
“CODA” became the first movie from a streaming service, Apple TV+, to win the film industry’s biggest prize.
In a moment that initially looked like one of the gags that enliven the Oscars telecast, Smith strode up to the stage and delivered an open-handed slap to Rock after the presenter made a joke about the actor’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith.
But it swiftly became clear the moment was in fact unscripted when Smith, who had returned to his seat, exchanged words with Rock that included a twice-repeated obscenity, shocking the audience at the Dolby Theatre.
Minutes later, Smith learned he had won best actor. In his acceptance speech, he broke into tears and apologized to his fellow nominees and the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences — but not Rock.
The altercation contrasted with the feel-good moments associated with “CODA.” When the movie won Oscars for best picture, best supporting actor and best adapted screenplay, nearly everyone in the audience stood and applauded in sign language.
“CODA” beat Netflix Inc’s contender, dark Western “The Power of the Dog,” and other entries from traditional Hollywood studios.
“I really want to thank the Academy for recognizing a movie of love and family at this difficult time that we need today,” producer Patrick Wachsberger said in front of the film’s cast standing on stage.
Hollywood’s most prestigious awards ceremony returned to all-out glitz after pandemic restrictions limited last year’s event.
The mood turned somber, however, after Smith slapped Rock following the comedian’s reference to the 1997 movie “G.I. Jane,” in which actress Demi Moore shaved her head. The comment was directed at Smith’s wife, who told Billboard in December she has been battling the autoimmune disorder alopecia, which can cause hair loss and balding.
“Will Smith just smacked the shit out of me,” Rock said as the audience laughed, at first thinking it was a skit.
Back in his seat, Smith shouted back, “Keep my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth.” The comment was silenced during the live U.S. broadcast on Walt Disney Co’s ABC.
Smith won best actor for playing the determined father of tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams in “King Richard.”
In his vague apology when accepting the award, he said, “Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family. Art imitates life. I look like the crazy father, just like they said about Richard Williams. But love will make you do crazy things.”
The film academy said on Twitter it “does not condone violence of any form.”
Los Angeles police, without naming names, said in a statement that investigators were aware of the incident, but that “the individual involved” had so far declined to file a police report.
In other awards, Jane Campion became just the third woman in the 94-year history of the Oscars to win best director, for her “Power of the Dog.”
Jessica Chastain landed the best actress award for playing TV evangelist Tammy Faye Bakker in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.”
Troy Kotsur made history as the first deaf man to win an Oscar, earning best supporting actor for “CODA,” which is also an acronym for “child of deaf adults.” Kotsur played Frank Rossi, the father of a teenager who struggles to help her family’s fishing business while pursuing her own aspirations in music.
“This is dedicated to the deaf community, the ‘CODA’ community and the disabled community. This is our moment,” Kotsur said in a heartfelt speech delivered in sign language as he accepted the supporting actor honor.
Supporting actress went to Ariana DeBose for playing the spirited Anita, who sings “America” in Steven Spielberg’s remake of “West Side Story.”
The Afro-Latina actress asked the audience to imagine her as a young girl “in the back seat of a white Ford Focus.”
“You see a queer, openly queer Latina, who found her strength in life through art,” she said.
“So, anybody who’s ever questioned your identity. Or find yourself living in the gray spaces, I promise you this: There is indeed a place for us,” she added, referencing the moving song from “West Side Story.”
Science-fiction epic “Dune” won the most awards of the night, earning six accolades in categories such as cinematography and editing.
Chastain, Nicole Kidman and other nominees donned a rainbow of colors for a ceremony with 2,500 attendees, a contrast to last year’s pandemic-era, scaled-down ceremony in a train station.
After going three years without a host, a trio guided Sunday’s ceremony: Amy Schumer, Regina Hall and Wanda Sykes.
“This year, the Oscars hired three women to host because it’s cheaper than hiring one man,” Schumer joked.