LOS ANGELES (AP) — Chris Rock made a joke. Will Smith quickly took offense.
And the Oscars suddenly had a scene like none other.
Smith — moments before winning best actor honors for his portrayal of tennis dad Richard Williams in “King Richard” — marched on stage and smacked Rock during Sunday night’s Academy Awards after the comic made a joke about the appearance of Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith.
Smith shouted at Rock to “keep my wife’s name out of your (expletive) mouth,” and the crowd hushed as it became clear this was no act.
Smith apologized afterward to many people — including tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams, Richard Williams’ daughters — but did not mention Rock in his apology.
“Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family,” Smith said as he began his acceptance speech.
He then paused, the meaning behind his choice of words clear, and teared up as he spoke about being a protector for those who worked with him on the film such as Aunjanue Ellis along with Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton, the two actors who played Venus and Serena.
“I’m being called on in my life to love people and to protect people and to be a river to my people,” said Smith during his acceptance speech after winning his first-ever Oscar. “I know to do what we do you’ve got to be able to take abuse. You’ve got to be able to have people talk crazy about you. In this business, you’ve got to be able to have people disrespecting you. And you’ve got to smile and pretend like that’s OK.”
There were few, if any, smiles during the incident.
The exchange began when Rock took aim at Pinkett Smith’s shaved head, saying, “Jada, I love you. G.I. Jane 2, can’t wait to see it, all right?” Rock’s reference was made from the 1997 film “G.I. Jane,” starring Demi Moore, who shaved her head to portray Jordan O’Neil.
Pinkett Smith revealed in 2018 that she was diagnosed with alopecia. She has often discussed the challenges of hair loss on Instagram and other social media platforms.
The joke missed, badly.
Smith walked onto the stage from his front-row seat and took a swing at Rock with an open palm, generating a loud smack. Smith walked back to his seat and shouted for Rock to leave Pinkett Smith alone. Rock replied that he was just making a “G.I. Jane” joke — and Smith yelled back at him a second time.
A representative for Rock didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
The Los Angeles Police Department said in a statement that it was aware of the incident.
“The incident involved one individual slapping another,” the statement read. “The individual involved has declined to file a police report. If the involved party desires a police report at a later date, LAPD will be available to complete an investigative report.”
“That was the greatest night in the history of television,” Rock said before resuming his role as presenter.
A few minutes later, rapper Sean Combs — on stage to introduce a tribute to “The Godfather” — tried to play peacemaker and suggested Smith and Rock settle their differences at an Oscars afterparty.
“Will and Chris, we’re going to solve that like family at the Gold party,” Combs said.
The reverberations did not stop there. Several people approached Smith and Pinkett Smith in the commercial breaks that followed; Keith Urban hugged Smith during one stoppage in the show, and Nicole Kidman also went over to say a few words as well.
Backstage, during interview sessions with winners, the Rock-Smith incident seemed like something few — if anyone — wanted to discuss.
“I’m not talking about that,” said Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, the director of “Summer of Soul,” which won an Oscar for best documentary.
The confrontation overshadowed Smith’s milestone accomplishment. He was previously nominated twice for best actor, for his role in “Ali” in 2002 and “The Pursuit of Happyness” in 2007. In those films, he portrayed real-life characters: Boxing legend Muhammad Ali and Chris Garner, a homeless salesman.
This time, Smith won against formidable competition including Andrew Garfield, Javier Bardem, Benedict Cumberbatch and Denzel Washington — who won his first and only best actor Oscar award in 2002 over Smith for “Training Day.”
Pinkett Smith was also the subject of jokes from Rock when he hosted the Oscars in 2016. She did not attend the Oscars that year, saying at the time her decision stemmed from a lack of diversity among award nominees and how Black artists were not properly represented.
“I’m hoping the Academy invites me back,” Will Smith said, as he concluded his on-stage remarks.
There were awards won as well. After a movie year often light on crowds, the Academy Awards named an unabashed crowd-pleaser, the deaf family drama “CODA,” as best picture, handing Hollywood’s top award to a streaming service for the first time.
Sian Heder’s “CODA,” which first premiered at a virtual Sundance Film Festival in winter 2021, started out as an underdog but gradually emerged as the Oscars’ feel-good favorite. It also had one very deep-pocketed backer in Apple TV+, which scored its first best picture Academy Award on Sunday, less than three years after launching the service.
It also handed another near-miss defeat to Netflix, the veteran streamer that for years has tried vainly to score best picture. Its best chance, Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog,” came in with a leading 12 nominations.
Also, Ariana DeBose became the first Afro-Latina to win an Academy Award for supporting actress, while Troy Kotsur became the first deaf actor to win an acting award.
Jane Campion won the Oscar best director for “The Power of the Dog,” her open-plains psychodrama that twisted and upended western conventions. Campion, who had been the first woman ever twice nominated in the category (previously for 1993’s “The Piano”), is only the third woman to win best director. It’s also the first time the directing award has ever gone to women in back-to-back years, after “Nomadland” filmmaker Chloé Zhao won last year.
Best actress went to Jessica Chastain, who also won her first Oscar. Chastain won for her empathetic portrayal of the televangelist Tammy Faye in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” a movie she also produced. The award was presented by Anthony Hopkins, who last year was absent when he surprisingly won best actor in that ceremony’s final award.
After record-low ratings and a pandemic-marred 2021 show, producers this year turned to one of the biggest stars around — Beyoncé — to kick off an Oscars intended to revive the awards’ place in pop culture. After an introduction from Venus and Serena Williams, Beyoncé performed her “King Richard” nominated song, “Be Alive,” in an elaborately choreographed performance from a lime-colored, open-air stage in Compton, where the Williams sisters grew up.
Hosts Wanda Sykes, Amy Schumer and Regina Hall then began the telecast from the Dolby Theatre.
“All right, we are here at the Oscars,” began Hall. Sykes finished: “Where movie lovers unite and watch TV.”
Sykes, Schumer and Hall breezily joked through prominent Hollywood issues like pay equity — they said three female hosts were “cheaper than one man” — the Lady Gaga drama that Sykes called “House of Random Accents,” the state of the Golden Globes (now relegated to the memoriam package, said Sykes) and Leonardo DiCaprio’s girlfriends. Their most pointed political point came at the end of their routine, in which they promised a great night and then alluded to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
“And for you people in Florida, we’re going to have a gay night,” said Sykes.
Associated Press writers Lindsey Bahr, Jocelyn Noveck, Andrew Dalton and Amanda Lee Myers contributed to this report.