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Will Smith punches Chris Rock at the Oscars: real or fake?

Will Smith’s Oscar win was overshadowed by an incident that saw him punch Chris Rock on stage. But some have suggested the altercation was staged.

Will Smith hits at Chris Rock as Rock spoke on stage during the 94th Academy Awards in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, U.S., March 27, 2022. REUTERS/Brian Snyder     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

The night Will Smith won the Oscar for Best Actor will chiefly be remembered for the 53-year-old hitting Chris Rock on stage, over a joke the comedian made about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett-Smith. The incident stunned the watching world and quickly went viral on social media, with many users posing the question: was it real or fake?

"Jada, I love you - GI Jane 2, can't wait to see it"

As Rock introduced the nominees for the Best Documentary category at LA’s Dolby Theatre, he engaged in a bit of harmless banter with Spanish actors Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz, before turning to Pinkett-Smith and unleashing a quip that was certainly rather less innocuous. Referencing Pinkett-Smith’s shaved head - a product of her struggles with the hair-loss condition alopecia - Rock said: “Jada, I love you - GI Jane 2, can’t wait to see it.” The joke was an apparent reference to Demi Moore's close-cropped look in the 1997 film GI Jane, in which Moore plays a woman who undertakes special-operations military training.

Related: Will Smith resurfaces nine thousand miles from Hollywood

It was immediately clear that Pinkett-Smith was not amused by the gag. Smith, however, could initially be seen laughing. But as Rock continued, Smith then got up, strode on stage, hit Rock in the face, and marched back to his seat. Now visibly angry, the actor twice shouted: “Keep my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth.”

In response, Rock quipped: “That was, uh, the greatest night in the history of television.” From the point of view of TV audience, the Smith-Rock spat means the Oscars are now likely to have garnered significantly greater interest than in previous years. The Academy Awards have been locked in a steady ratings decline in the past couple of decades. In 2021, indeed, the show's record-low TV audience - some 10 million, according to Nielsen data - was about a fifth of what it was at the turn of the millennium.

But what incentive was there for Smith to take part in a staged punch-up, at the cost of distracting attention from his night of glory if, as proved the case, he won the award he was nominated for? He has been widely condemned for his actions. If the altercation was in fact fake, he’s certainly taking his time about telling us so - and is giving people plenty of opportunity to focus on the punch rather than the prize. “What I saw was one of Hollywood’s most powerful movie stars stalk onto a stage to strike a comedian for an unfortunate joke about his (gorgeous) wife’s shaved head,” actor Mia Farrow tweeted. “Anyone who is OK with that has probably never been hit by a powerful man. As we advise our kids, ‘use your words’.”

Smith may be an Oscar-winning actor, but that anger certainly didn't seem put on

Furthermore, while there may be some room for speculation over the punch itself, Smith’s anger as he shouted at Rock certainly seemed 100% genuine.

In the aftermath of the incident, footage shows Denzel Washington consoling Smith during an ad break, the latter wiping away tears. Smith also wept during an acceptance speech that looked a deeply troubled one for him, despite the fact he had just reached what is the pinnacle of a film actor’s career. Apologising to the Academy and his fellow nominees - but not Rock - he said: "Art imitated life; I look the crazy father, just like they said about Richard Williams. Love will make you do crazy things.” If all that was make-believe, he deserves a lorryload of Oscars.

What seems clear is that Rock’s joke about Pinkett-Smith crossed a line. It is absolutely believable that it could cause significant offence. As Pinkett-Smith told a 2018 episode of her Facebook Watch series Red Table Talk, her alopecia has caused her considerable suffering. “It was terrifying when it first started,” she said. “I was in the shower one day and had just handfuls of hair in my hands and I was just like, ‘Oh, my God, am I going bald?' It was one of those times in my life where I was literally shaking with fear.”

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Couple's previous beef with Rock

It has also been pointed out that Smith and Pinkett-Smith do have some previous with Rock, having been on the end of another Oscars ribbing by the 57-year-old in 2016. Reacting to the pair’s decision to boycott that year’s awards over a lack of diversity in the nominees, Rock, who was hosting the ceremony, said: “Jada said she’s not coming. I was like, ‘Isn’t she on a TV show?’ Jada’s gonna boycott the Oscars? Jada boycotting the Oscars is like me boycotting Rihanna’s panties. I wasn’t invited!” Rock also took aim at Smith, saying: “It’s not fair that Will was this good [in the movie Concussion] and didn’t get nominated. It’s also not fair that Will was paid $20 million for Wild Wild West!”

Will Smith punches Chris Rock at the Oscars: real or fake?