For at least a decade and a half, my interest in the Oscars has gone precisely as far as my paycheck; this year, it was in the form of soliciting the oddsmaking opinion of DraftKing’s Director of Race and Sportsbook Operations, Johnny Avello. It was an interesting conversation with a pleasant and knowledgeable gentleman, and Mr. Avello had a prescient observation about Best Actor nominee Will Smith.
“Sometimes,” Mr. Avello said, “you get recognized for your body of work.”
The money was on the Fresh Prince running away with the thing. This was indeed to be a “well, he’s waited long enough” version of the Julie Andrews 1965 Oscar of Revenge. The award was ostensibly presented for her work in Mary Poppins, but was actually a middle finger to the powers that be of My Fair Lady. who brought into the film every single person in the original Broadway cast except for her. Audrey Hepburn got the role instead, but not so much as a nomination for Best Actress. And on Oscar night, Audrey Hepburn is pictured with everyone else from My Fair Lady holding their golden trophies while Audrey holds… Rex Harrison’s arm.
So Will Smith’s Oscar, I wrote last week, was a tribute to his body of work ,a solemn nod to his long, slow ascent from fluorescent baseball hat-wearing rapper to fluorescent baseball hat-wearing sitcom star to action hero to Very Serious Film Person. It’s a rocky trail, one pitted with boulders and sandtraps; few have negotiated it and lived to tell the tale. Tom Hanks made it. Tom Cruise didn’t.
This was Smith’s third nomination; the other two came for his roles in Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness. Sunday night was to serve as the apex of 35-year career that began with the lyrics “You know parents are the same no matter time nor place/They don’t understand that us kids are gonna make some mistakes.“
Just so we’re all grounded in the immensity of that time span, that song, “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” references a car phone as the epitome of a meaningful and glamorous life.
And, in the moment his open palm met host Chris Rock’s face, I did not think, like the rest of the internet, “What just happened?!” but “What compels a man to thrown himself off the mountain he has just summited?”
Will Smith is sunk; I don’t mean that his career is over, or that he will never perform again, or that he cannot possibly move forward from this moment a different and finer man. I mean: He is sunk. He has sunk into an alternate universe of the grotesque from which there is no returning. He either just gets more bizarre from here, or he charts a comeback course that will be eternally measured by two seconds on a Hollywood stage.
The Oscar he held in the air less than half an hour later does not, cannot, change this. The post-industrial population is not a people of “Wait, let’s think about the many facets of this unique human soul who happens to have a body and has charted a singular course through this world of ours.” No. That’s not allowed. Will Smith has now vanished with Doc Brown into another timeline of his own slow making. Maybe he finds his way back to us in double trails of fire. Maybe he doesn’t.
But either way, there’s no pretending this didn’t happen. Particularly for those of us who grew up admiring him, Will Smith has been in our lives so long that his first albums were issued on cassette tapes. He’s had time to think about this. He is an intelligent person. He’s seen the crashing and the burning, both quickly and slowly. He picks his way through the corpses of less cannily steered careers every single day.
There was a controversy not so long ago about whether or not celebrities and sports stars should be regarded role models. Those terms are not the same, you know. My parents and my big sister and my teachers—they are beyond role models. These people kept me alive. They steered me around the alternate timeline. There were no seats for them at the Oscars last night.
And, really, why do we care who did sit at the Academy Awards? Why should we? In 2022, it’s more a question of why we wouldn’t. These people aren’t just larger than life in a theater we visit maybe a couple times a year. They’re in our homes now–and not just the living room, either. Celebrities are in the kitchen. In your bedroom. On the back deck. While you’re driving, at the bar, waiting in the vestibule at church, in the dentist’s waiting room, the little hygienist’s work station where the dentist checks your X-rays, and on a smeared little screen blaring at us from the side of the gas station pump.
Celebrities from every possible field are everywhere, all the time, and, sometimes, if we tap the phone screen in the right sequence at the right time, they’ll even acknowledge our existence.
They’re in our homes. We invite them there. They’re in our lives. We invite them there, too. We know them.
Right? We know them.
This is one of the reasons why the Pete Rose saga cut so deeply and wounds across generations. You think you know a guy. But, really, you don’t—or you didn’t let yourself know what you know you should know.
That is why attachments form so deeply and so true in baseball; the roster might shift and the season doesn’t end correctly, but for half the year these men are in our homes–dropping in and out of the dinner prep, the late-night feeding, the drive to the grocery store. It’s every day. It’s the last thing in on the planet people listen to on the radio.
It is, for a season, a deep and dependable relationship. Baseball games aren’t in a rush and baseball careers last years and years. Even if we don’t chase the player name across the country, the slogan on the front is a bulwark against all things dreadful.
And, in baseball, sometimes you get do indeed get recognized for your body of work. It takes a while for dimensions to develop and re-develop into alternate ones, and we need that to survive a world in which our telephones know what we want at the store before we buy it.