Will Smith, who started his acting career in 1990 in an after-school special on ABC and became one of Hollywood’s most bankable and prolific action stars and producers, finally achieved the one thing that had always eluded him: He won an Oscar.
Moments earlier, Smith had brought the ceremony to an awkward standstill by striding onstage from his seat and — in what at first seemed like a preplanned bit — hitting Chris Rock, who had just cracked a joke about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. (“Jada, I love you. G.I. Jane 2, can’t wait,” Rock had said, an apparent reference to her short-cropped hair.)
Smith then returned to his seat and angrily shouted twice at Rock to not utter his wife’s name, using an expletive that was bleeped by ABC. A rattled Rock tried to regain his composure, and a stunned audience, both in the theater and at home, tried to figure out what happened. “Right now, we’re moving on with love,” Sean Combs said, arriving onstage soon afterward to introduce a celebratory montage from “The Godfather.”
Smith was celebrated for his performance in “King Richard” as the fiery, flawed coach and father of the tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams — mirroring best actor wins at major film awards ceremonies this year, including the Critics Choice Awards and the Screen Actors Guild Awards.
“Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family,” an emotional Smith said in his acceptance speech. “In this time in my life, in this moment, I am overwhelmed by what God is calling on me to do and be in this world.”
He went on to apologize to the academy and to his fellow nominees, but not to Rock. “This is a beautiful moment,” Smith said. “And I’m not crying for winning an award. It’s not about winning an award for me, it’s about being able to shine a light on all of the people.”
Smith was previously nominated for best actor in 2007 for “The Pursuit of Happyness” and in 2002 for “Ali.” Rather incredibly, given the lack of diversity in the movie business, he lost to a Black actor in both instances: first to Denzel Washington and then to Forest Whitaker.
In 2016, however, Smith became part of the #OscarsSoWhite movement. After nominating only white actors and actresses for its awards in 2015, drawing widespread criticism, the academy did it again the next year — overlooking performances like the one Smith gave in “Concussion.” Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, was outspoken about what many people saw as an urgent need for the academy to become more inclusive. Smith was less pointed in his criticism, but joined her in a boycott of the ceremony. In the years since, the academy has dramatically expanded its voting membership.
Also nominated for best actor on Sunday were Washington (“The Tragedy of Macbeth”), Javier Bardem (“Being the Ricardos”), Benedict Cumberbatch (“The Power of the Dog”) and a hard-campaigning Andrew Garfield (“Tick, Tick … Boom!”).
Here is Smith’s entire acceptance speech:
Oh, man. Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family. In this time in my life, in this moment, I am overwhelmed by what God is calling on me to do and be in this world. Making this film, I got to protect Aunjanue Ellis, who is one of the most strongest, most delicate people I’ve ever met. I got to protect Saniyya [Sidney] and Demi [Singleton], the two actresses that 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. I know to do what we do, you got to be able to take abuse, you got to be able to have people talk crazy about you. In this business you got to be able to have people disrespecting you, and you got to smile and pretend like that’s OK. But Richard Williams, and what I loved — thank you, D. — Denzel [Washington] said to me a few minutes ago, he said, “At your highest moment, be careful. That’s when the devil comes for you.”
It’s like, I want to be a vessel for love. I want to say thank you to Venus and Serena — I just spit, I hope they didn’t see that on TV — I want to say thank you to Venus and Serena and the entire Williams family for entrusting me with your story. That’s what I want to do. I want to be an ambassador for that kind of love and care and concern.
I want to apologize to the Academy. I want to apologize to all my fellow nominees. This is a beautiful moment, and I’m not crying for winning an award. It’s not about winning an award for me. It’s about being able to shine light on all of the people: Tim [White] and Trevor [White] and Zach [Baylin] and Saniyya and Demi and Aunjanue and the entire cast and crew of “King Richard” and Venus and Serena, the entire Williams family. Art imitates life. I look like the crazy father, just like they said. I look like the crazy father, just like they said about Richard Williams. But love will make you do crazy things.
To my mother, a lot of this moment is really complicated for me, but to my mother — she didn’t want to come out; she has her knitting friends, she has a knitting crew that she’s in Philly watching with. Being able to love and care for my mother and my family and my wife. I’m taking up too much time. Thank you for this honor. Thank you for this moment. And thank you on behalf of Richard and Oracene [Price] and the entire Williams family. Thank you. I hope the Academy invites me back. Thank you.
Nancy Coleman contributed reporting.
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