Jada Pinkett Smith's Brief Moment as the Most Powerful Woman in Hollywood
The stage set was overwhelmingly dark, an orange glow at the bottom, with pale, curved, upright lines. It made me think of Jonah and the Whale. It looked nothing like celebration, glamor or achievement. It was just darkness, heaviness.
The show was already under a pall. Ratings for Oscars broadcasts had been dropping steeply for years, and Sunday night's show continued the trend. (Even with a small, brief increase in TV viewers, social media were where the viewers tuned in once word of the incident began to spread.)
Chris Rock directed a joke to married couple, Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz, saying that if Penelope doesn't win, Javier had better not — and that Javier was praying for Will Smith to win. The clear implication was that even the highest honor the Academy could bestow to an actor wasn't worth having if his wife was not being similarly honored. Chris Rock's focus then shifted to Jada Pinkett Smith, saying, "I love you, Jada. G.I. Jane 2. Can't wait to see it." Will Smith laughed. Jada rolled her eyes. Then Will marched onto the stage; hit Chris Rock in the face; went back to his seat; and, looking overwhelmed with fury, dropped a couple of F-bombs on Chris.
I've watched the video multiple times, and I noticed a split-second, while she was facing Chris Rock, where Jada had a slight, tight smile. Then she rolled her eyes, pursed her lips and turned toward her husband.
Another thing I noticed was that the joke was not mean. Chris Rock was saying 50-something Jada could play the fierce, determined, and successful character that famously beautiful Demi Moore had played at 35. (Demi also appeared on the red carpet with a shaved head.) It's not as though he had said she could play Elmer Fudd in the next Space Jam.
Soon after his father assaulted Chris Rock, Jaden Smith tweeted, "And That's How We Do It," as if it was a moment of family pride. About forty minutes later, Will Smith was announced to have won Best Actor and gave a tearful speech including an apology to the academy and attendees — but not to Chris Rock. The crowd responded with a standing ovation. (Later, Will would post another, rambling apology, which did include Chris.)
A few days later, on March 31, video surfaced showing Jada laughing as Will was returning to his seat. Not just a chuckle — she was laughing hard. This may have changed how some people view the incident. For me, it was more like the confirmation of a suspicion.
Chris Rock said he didn't know Jada had alopecia. I can believe that. A woman shaving her head is not rare and shocking as it was when Demi Moore did it in 1997. There are many, many videos on You Tube of young women shaving their heads, with comment sections full of compliments. Will's and Jada's daughter, Willow, has also shaved her head a number of times. Photos from that night, in places with brighter lighting than the Dolby Theater, show Jada's head covered evenly with stubble and her hairline entirely intact. She was close-shaved, not bald. Four days before the Oscars, she posted a video on TikTok proclaiming how much she loves her bald head, which she had shaved in response to developing alopecia.
Most forms of autoimmune alopecia cause patchy, transitory hair loss (follicles remain able to grow hair again). The severe forms of alopecia are totalis (total head hair loss) and universalis (all head and body hair lost). Traction alopecia is follicle damage caused by extremely tight hairstyles, chemical processing, or head gear. The latter three types are most likely to be permanent. Even the most severe forms of alopecia are not debilitating or life-threatening. The milder forms are more akin to embarrassing skin conditions like foot fungus and warts. Portraying Will Smith hitting Chris Rock as a chivalrous defense of an ill wife is laying it on a bit thick.
The troubles in the Smiths' 24-year marriage have been well known for years, made public by the Smiths themselves. Page 6 published an article about their "open marriage" only eight days before the Oscars ceremony. Last year, they posted video talking about the difficulties in their relationship. She characterized her infidelity with their friend August Alsina as "an entanglement." Will was pulling teeth to get her even to say it was a relationship, never mind infidelity or betrayal. Jada justified her behavior as a reaction to unhappiness and "not feeling good" for a long time, implying Will had some responsibility for her suffering. Jada was dry-eyed discussing the difficulties within their marriage. Images of Will crying during the video have been incorporated into numerous memes.
The Smiths' children are flamboyant. At age 10, Willow went on tour with Justin Bieber after recording her hit "Whip My Hair." One morning, she came to the kitchen bald. Will's description of the incident was that seeing her shaved head gave him the realization that she didn't want to tour anymore. In a family that proclaims its household rules that children have full freedom of expression, and can tell their parents anything, one would think young Willow wouldn't need to go to such an extreme to communicate the desire to quit touring. Her brother, Jaden, requested emancipated minor status as a fifteenth birthday present from their parents. Will Smith attributed the request to his and Jada's "hands off approach" to parenting. Again, Will describes himself as a reading a nonverbal cue from a child permitted full expression.
Over the 24 years the Smiths have been married, Will's career has been solid, and he's been one of Hollywood's more respected actors. Jada's career has been...well, spotty. I can't think any movie I've seen her in.
What I saw in that violent outburst in the Dolby Auditorium was neither a performance aimed to generate ratings nor a man defending a suffering wife. I saw a man, Will Smith, on the verge of reaching his professional pinnacle, in front of people he respects and admires, broadcast to anyone in the world who wanted to watch. Even the night's comedy performer, Chris Rock, foreshadowed Will Smith winning the Oscar. It was the perfect moment to spoil, and Jada took the opportunity to ruin it for him. Even if he isn't forced to return the statue, that Oscar will always be tinged with the very public, violent loss of control that preceded the award.
As a bonus, winners of all the other Oscars, and wearers of fabulous fashions, have been virtually ignored. All the post-Oscars discussion has centered around Jada. Jada's hair loss. Jada's suffering. Jada's "illness." Jada's "medical condition." Her husband Will, defending his Jada.
It's all about Jada.
Image: Access via YouTube.