The 94th Academy Awards took place on the 27th of March 2022. This in itself is entirely immaterial; unless your sister’s boyfriend’s hairdresser’s postman knows someone who held Benedict Cumberbatch’s parasol for two weeks on the set of The Power of the Dog, chances are you didn’t tune in. You wouldn’t be the only one- this year’s Oscars were the second-least watched since their first broadcast in 1953. 16.6 million people saw the ceremony as it happened. To put that in perspective, the 2022 Superbowl garnered 112 million viewers. To put that in even greater perspective, 1.5 billion people took notice when Bob Geldof eloquently beseeched them to “GIVE US ALL YER F***ING MONEY NOW!” at Live Aid in July 1985. The most-watched television event of all time remains the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997, with a worldwide audience of 2.5 billion. You’d be forgiven for thinking, then, that the 2022 Oscars passed with little more than a sparkling, bedecked whimper; for the most part, you’d be right.
We could talk all day about what this means for the cult of celebrity, how the monopolisation of the film industry by streaming services has demystified and deglamourized the Oscars, even how the age of digital culture has killed the lure of the gold statuette. And yet, there was one brief and disarming episode at the 2022 Academy Awards that threw us right back into the throng of morbid fascination with what famous people say, think, and do. The moment in question? A minor case of physical assault.
Picture the scene: Awards announcer Chris Rock (one time SNL golden-boy and beloved by all for his powerful portrayal of Marty The Zebra in the 2.2 billion dollar-grossing Madagascar film franchise) makes a weak joke about Jada Pinkett-Smith’s shaved head. Will Smith (husband of Jada, and mere minutes away from winning his first Best Actor gong) laughs at said joke, realises his wife is not laughing at said joke, then takes to the stage in order to administer the mother of all girl-fight slaps to an incredulous Rock. In words now so famous I think I’ll have them tattooed on my inner thigh, Smith utters his immortal line, “Keep my wife’s name out your f***ing mouth!” He says it twice. It’s all a bit weird. In the week since its upload to YouTube, nearly 94 million people have watched the clip. For most of them, it’s the only piece of footage from this year’s Academy Awards they actually saw. YouTube commenter DaFuq!?Boom! puts it better than perhaps I ever could: “If this didnt happen I wouldn’t even know about oscar today.” Quite right, DaFuq.
Will Smith resigns from Oscars Academy over slap https://t.co/VmIgVsudvO
— BBC News (UK) (@BBCNews) April 1, 2022
Now, Harthcommunicatons is- you guessed it- a communications company, and this is a communications blog. Meaning I’m duty-bound to say something clever about The Slap™ and how it relates to a more open working culture for your employees, or at least something a little bit corporate. That, however, would be a gross misuse of everyone’s time; a slap’s a slap, even one that’s been watched and enjoyed by 93,290,068 people (and counting). Instead, it might be pertinent to talk about Will Smith’s forebear in the art of Oscar Night subversion- one Marlon Brando.
Long before Mr. Smith had so much as Fresh-Princed his first Bel-Air, Brando was making his own kind of ruckus at the 1973 Academy Awards; he refused his Best Actor Oscar for The Godfather on the grounds of poor film industry treatment of Native Americans, instead sending Indian activist Sacheen Littlefeather to read a statement on his behalf. Naturally, the great and good of Hollywood were scandalised; John Wayne tried to attack Littlefeather as she came offstage, whilst later in the ceremony, Clint Eastwood presented the award for Best Picture on “on behalf of all the cowboys shot in John Ford Westerns over the years”. The Academy, meanwhile, demonstrated their disgust by nominating Brando for another Best Actor Oscar in 1974. The upset, it seems, was palpable.
You might wonder why I’m telling you this. After all, both the 1973 and 2022 ceremonies were documented well enough for you to form your own opinion on where to draw the line between personal protest and public diplomacy. Nothing is so simple as to declare that someone played ‘celebrity’ correctly, whilst someone else did not. The fact remains, however, that Brando’s outré episode launched his somewhat inscrutable career into unimpeachable territory, yet Smith’s own dance of sensationalism ended with his resignation from the Academy and a sheepish apology to just about everybody under the sun. What, then, should we take away from these two titans of terror? In a word…authenticity.
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“Wait a minute,” you say. “Look how they massacred my boy! What says ‘authenticity’ more than Mr Smith’s feral jaunt into near-gratuitous abuse?” Good question. Besides, why has his stand against the powers-that-be elicited moral panic, whilst Brando’s own stunt became iconic? The answer, of course, lies not in the context of the act, nor in its outcome, but the nature of the ‘slapper’ themself. That is to say that Brando had the distinction of being Brando, whilst Will Smith…didn’t.
Now, that’s an easy way out of proceedings, and won’t much help anyone looking to navigate the harsh world of corporate communications. The sensibility, however, remains; Marlon Brando and Will Smith are two men, who, fifty years apart, possess personas which – real or not- have firmly embedded them in the annals of pop culture. What’s more, the success or failure of their actions depends solely on their ability to live up to these personas. Let’s examine the cases in point:
I could write reams on Brando’s weirdness. It’s been chronicled fastidiously by people with way too much time on their hands, but there remains many a strange and disquieting afternoon to be had sifting through the back catalogue of Brando biographies just to find the prerequisite chapters on the Godfather’s most unconventional habits. To name but a few: Brando uses human scalps as love-tokens. Brando catches frogs and eats them, simply because he is hungry. Brando uses mind-control to banish pain during circumcision. There are hours of fun to be had inside the Marlon-microcosm; the man who could’a been a contender was so completely established as Tinseltown Oddball Number One by the time of his 1973 Oscars no-show, that leaving a petrified Native American girl to pick up the flack for his failure to attend seemed almost run of the mill. That this Grand High Lord of the Bizarre became even more unhinged in the years following the ceremony served to rehabilitate the stunt in the eyes of his actorly compatriots; by 2002, a cash-strapped Brando was offering secret acting classes involving dwarves, a Samoan wrestling squad, and a homeless man he’d discovered sitting in a dumpster outside the studio. My point? Brando’s brand was so-off kilter that if he’d attended the Academy Awards in-person, spent forty minutes coughing up a hairball before being carried out on the back of a weeping Al Pacino, we’d all have gotten over it pretty quickly.
In 1973 when Marlon Brando won an Oscar for Best Actor for The Godfather (1972), he boycotted the show and sent a Native American woman named Sacheen Littlefeather in his place. Sacheen was blacklisted from Hollywood and was the target of a massive media smear campaign. pic.twitter.com/iHtvuNYK3N
— GZA (@TheRealGZA) March 24, 2020
Admittedly, Brando never slapped anyone- if he had, perhaps he’d have been a Hollywood pariah à la Will Smith. Then again, Marlon Brando didn’t keep company with a man named Jazzy Jeff. Nor was he one of the 12 songwriters it took to compose Smith’s 1997 magnum opus ‘Gettin’ Jiggy With It’. Brando wouldn’t get up and dance the Carlton if you paid him. Hell, Brando wouldn’t even know what the Carlton was- he’s too busy chewing the heads off innocent amphibians. Will Smith, however, seemed made of gentler stuff – America’s alien-fighting fun uncle, a box office sure-thing with a semi-normal family to boot. Which is what made his attack on Chris Rock all the more jarring; no-one wants to see the Fresh Prince -a perennial teenager sent to live with his aunt and uncle in Bel-Air after just “one little fight”- act like he’d beat you to a pulp simply because you looked at his wife the wrong way.
There’s a message in here for all of us, then. And not a particularly nice one at that. The truth is, of course, that once you create your persona, you have to stick with it. This applies to both Hollywood and business; everybody prefers it when they know what they’re getting. If you promise people authenticity, follow through. Anyone who needs communications to make things happen (read: all of you) must harness the persona they’ve worked so hard to create and use it to their advantage. If fifty years ago at the Oscars, Marlon had slapped John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, he’d have maintained all his worldly integrity, solely because we expected nothing less from the bizarre Mr Brando. He’d also have had a bloody nose, but such is life. My point, however, remains; be a Marlon, not a Will- there’s trust to be found in authenticity. Once you’ve discovered your brand, that personal USP, keep hold of it: at the Academy Awards (as in life), people like to work with characters that last, professionals who deliver with dependability. It all comes back to being reliable; if you do something out of character, clients and co-workers alike will wonder how much of you is ‘real’. Don’t put them in that position. Play to your strengths and communicate in a way that demonstrates a sureness about who you are and who people expect you to be.
Remember, authenticity in personal branding always pays off. Will Smith forgot that. And where’s his career now, you ask? Sleeping with the fishes.
(Author: Anna Hanlon)