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Will Smith: Can his career recover after Oscars slap?

By Ian Youngs | BBC News |

Will Smith went from beloved film favourite to Hollywood villain when he slapped Chris Rock on stage at the Oscars last weekend. Has he done permanent damage to his image and career, and what might happen next?

As the Oscars ended on Sunday night, Will Smith may have hoped he had nipped the fallout from his slap in the bud.

His tearful best actor acceptance speech, in which he apologised to the Academy and his fellow nominees and tried to frame himself as a “defender of his family”, received a standing ovation.

He later made a show of posing and dancing with his best actor statuette at the after-show party in classic Big Willie style, as if nothing had happened. Or as if he was relieved to have ridden out the storm.

But when he woke the next morning, the storm hadn’t passed. It only intensified as people took stock of his violent behaviour in the cold light of day.

“It is kind of crazy to think that this one incident could wipe away so many decades of goodwill,” says The Wrap editor-in-chief Sharon Waxman.

“But it was so public, it was so outside of the box. One agent we talked to called it a ‘stunning act of narcissism’. The movie star brand for Will Smith is badly tarnished.”

Her website has published an article asking film industry insiders if Smith’s career is “mortally wounded”.

“The conclusion is, yeah,” Waxman says. “‘Mortally wounded’ is a quote, that’s what one of the agents we talked to called it, and said he’s kind of done as an A-list movie star.

“The idea that people still relate to Will Smith and feel like he’s somebody they want to look up to, and they want to admire, and pretend that – hey, that could be me up there on the screen – there’s a real sense that that relatability has been taken away with this gesture.”

Kim Masters, editor-at-large of the Hollywood Reporter, agrees Smith – known for hits like Men In Black, Independence Day and Bad Boys – has done huge damage to his image.

“He’s built a persona over many, many years, and this was a complete break from that persona,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“People were absolutely shocked by his comportment and subsequently a rather peculiar acceptance speech and then dancing as if he had not a care in the world at the Vanity Fair party. So this is a big change of what people know and expect from Will Smith.”

The 53-year-old star had no history of causing trouble and was known to be generous with fellow cast members, she added. “But nonetheless, many people have said they can’t look at him the same again.”

What can we expect from him in the coming months?

There may be charity work, a public announcement of therapy or anger management, and the obligatory confessional interview – perhaps even on his family’s Facebook chat show Red Table Talk.

That is where he and wife Jada Pinkett Smith came clean about their relationship issues in 2020, which is the closest he has come to scandal in the past.

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It is also where Pinkett Smith opened up about her alopecia – the hair loss condition that was at the nub of her husband’s Oscars outburst – and where Kevin Hart talked about quitting as host of the 2019 Oscars.

Forthcoming films
Smith also has a number of films in the pipeline that have now been thrown into uncertainty. They include Bad Boys 4, Bright 2 and Apple’s Emancipation, in which he plays a runaway slave.

“A big indicator of how tarnished Will Smith’s reputation is [will come] when we see what Apple decides to do with this movie,” Waxman says.

“Everybody thought it would come out the second half of the year and be in contention for awards for next year, and we don’t know what Apple’s going to do.

“If they decide to push it [back], I think that’ll give you some strong sense of, they don’t want to be out in the marketplace with Will Smith this year.”

Other Hollywood stars who have fallen from grace may offer clues about what comes next, even if the circumstances of their behaviour differ.

Johnny Depp lost his role in the third Fantastic Beasts film after losing a libel case over a newspaper article that called him a wife beater. But he kept his Christian Dior adverts and a die-hard fanbase who have continued to support him at every turn.

He has also just been cast in his first film since the libel trial, a French production in which he will play Louis XV.

Mel Gibson has been hit by scandal more than once, admitting a drunken anti-Semitic outburst in 2006, and in 2010 when leaked tapes emerged of a tirade including racist insults against his then-girlfriend, who accused him of physical abuse.

He was eventually welcomed back by Hollywood – and was nominated for an Oscar in 2017.

Smith’s career may be wounded but, if he can reconcile with Hollywood, it’s not necessarily over. The final words of his acceptance speech on Sunday were: “I hope the Academy invites me back.”

The chances of him being asked to present the best actress award at the 2023 Oscars – as the previous year’s best actor winner would traditionally do – appear slim.

But it’s also unlikely that he will be forced to hand back the golden statuette he won on Sunday.

Oscars organisers introduced a new code of conduct in 2017 in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Harvey Weinstein and Roman Polanski were expelled from the Academy as a result, but even they were not stripped of their Oscars.

Former ceremony host Whoopi Goldberg, who is one of three governors in the Academy’s acting branch, said last week: “We’re not going to take that Oscar from him.

“There will be consequences, I’m sure, but I don’t think that’s what they’re going to do, particularly because Chris [Rock] said, ‘Listen, I’m not pressing any charges.'”

‘Shocking and inexcusable’
Police did not arrest Smith after consulting Rock on the night, but have said they could file a report at a later date if the comedian changes his mind.

The Academy started disciplinary proceedings against Smith last week, with expulsion and suspension among the possible punishments. But Smith took matters into his own hands on Friday when he resigned his membership.

Despite that, Academy bosses said their disciplinary proceedings would continue and will discuss any further action on 18 April.

In his resignation letter, the actor hinted that he wants to move forward, saying he is “committed to doing the work to ensure that I never again allow violence to overtake reason”.

But he also made clear that the gravity of his actions has now fully sunk in, acknowledging how “shocking, painful and inexcusable” they were.