The Academy has spoken – and still there are questions.
Newly minted Oscar winner Will Smith has been banned from the Academy Awards for 10 years, according to the punishment doled out Friday by the board of governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences following a virtual meeting that lasted more than two hours.
This was the Academy’s response to the buzz-killing, shock-inducing scene of Smith, 53, striking comedian Chris Rock, 57, and cursing him live on camera before millions watching the Oscars on March 27, shortly after which he won a best actor Oscar for “King Richard.”
Later Friday, Smith issued a short statement to USA TODAY via his representative Meredith O’Sullivan: “I accept and respect the academy’s decision.”
Will Smith blocked from Academy:Board of Governors bans actor for 10 years after slap
Most people not in Hollywood are likely wondering: What does this mean for Smith’s future and his future projects, which could involve hundreds or even thousands of blameless movie workers?
Here’s a look at what this means in terms of practical consequences, with help from some legal experts:
What did the Academy say?
In a Statement released Friday announcing its decision, the Academy said that the 94th Academy Awards show was “overshadowed by the unacceptable and harmful behavior” of Smith. So he’s persona non grata for the next decade, forbidden from attending “any Academy events or programs, in person or virtually, including but not limited to the Academy Awards.”
The Academy also apologized for its own missteps and gave a shout out to Rock for his grace under “extraordinary circumstances.”
“During our telecast, we did not adequately address the situation in the room. For this, we are sorry. This was an opportunity for us to set an example for our guests, viewers and our Academy family around the world, and we fell short — unprepared for the unprecedented.
“We also hope this can begin a time of healing and restoration for all involved and impacted. Thank you.”
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Can Smith be nominated and win an Oscar in the next 10 years?
Yes, but the Academy said nothing about that. Cue Rachel Fiset, a former lawyer for the Academy, now a criminal defense lawyer in Los Angeles.
She says Smith is not banned from being nominated or winning in the future. If he wins, he can’t be there to accept but he can send a representative to accept for him. It’s happened before and more than once.
Smith will not be allowed to vote for awards for the next 10 years, which would have been the case anyway after he resigned from the Academy last week. He also won’t be able to attend the awards show and related events, and next year will miss the pleasure of following a tradition considered a big deal in Hollywood.
“He lost the ability to present the best actress award next year, which is a special moment in and of itself,” says Los Angeles entertainment lawyer Mitra Ahouraian.
Was this punishment the worst the Academy could hand out?
No. The Academy could have expelled him permanently, banned him from being nominated or winning future awards, and/or rescinded his just-awarded Oscar.
“Their decision is what makes the most sense and what I thought would happen,” says Ahouraian. “He shouldn’t be allowed to attend the Oscars – that makes perfect sense and he lost that privilege by showing he doesn’t know how to act.”
But both Ahouraian and Fiset were surprised at the length of the ban; they expected five years or less. “It had to be a long enough period to feel like punishment,” Ahouraian says.
Fiset called it a “pretty heavy-ish punishment.”
“It may reflect how the industry is thinking of Will Smith at this time,” she says. “It looks like the temperature in Hollywood is angry at him, there is a bad feeling and it’s lingering. (This) shows that the board of governors, which includes producers, actors, writers, directors – a little sliver of every part of the industry – is showing what the movie-making industry feels about him right now.”
Why were the Academy’s options limited?
First, because Smith resigned before the board could act to do worse.
“He took away their ability to expel or suspend him, so now the punishment options were limited to: Are you allowed back into the Academy Awards?” Fiset says. “They didn’t address whether he could rejoin again (after 10 years)… They were silent on that because it was not the question in front of them. Since he’s no longer a member of the group, they could only choose to let him in or not at the awards.”
Only a handful of members have ever been expelled, including convicted sex offender Harvey Weinstein and director Roman Polanksi, who was expelled in 2018 four decades after he pleaded guilty to statutory rape and then fled the country to avoid a harsh prison sentence.
The Academy did not rescind Smith’s Oscar. Neither Weinstein’s nor Polanski’s Oscars have been rescinded, and Polanski got his in 2003 for directing “The Pianist,” decades after his guilty plea.
“They couldn’t take back his Oscar when they didn’t take back Harvey Weinstein and Roman Polanski’s without causing a huge uproar in Hollywood and beyond,” Ahouraian says.
Another option, banning Smith’s future films from being eligible for nominations and awards, also would be seen as too extreme and unfair to the hundreds or thousands of people who work on any given movie, Ahouraian says.
“It wouldn’t be just to disqualify his films from future awards given he’s not the only one creating those films,” she says. “It would in essence end his career in Hollywood since the possibility of an Oscar is always an aspiration, and who would want to rule that out by working with him?
“That decision would be far too extreme and I don’t think Hollywood would back it.”
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Why the pressure to punish Smith when other Academy members’ punishments were belated?
Times have changed, and public opinion has changed. Also, a physical attack on TV doesn’t happen every day.
“There’s a more heightened awareness as to what actors and superstars can get away with – we’re living in a more enlightened world and the Academy is waking up, albeit slowly, to that,” says Fiset. “It’s hard for them to promote kindness and a non-violent society and at the same time have someone get slapped on their stage in front of millions of viewers.
“The public was outraged so the Academy is just being in some ways reactive of public opinion,” she says. “It reflects the image of a newer society, one in which you don’t beat up a guy who insults your wife – you talk about it.”