In 1973, Marlon Brando declined the opportunity to accept his second Oscar, instead having a Native American actress, Sacheen Littlefeather, appear in order to protest Hollywood’s misrepresentation of Native Americans. Reasonable cause, wrong venue. So began the long decline of a once-revered show dedicated to cinematic achievements. 

When West Philadelphia native Will Smith delivered an open-fist blow to the head of comedian Chris Rock at this year’s Oscars, he exhibited just how far the ceremony has strayed from its purpose. He had taken offense at a joke Rock aimed at Smith’s spouse, Jada Pinkett Smith, who has alopecia, and decided to levy street justice in front of cameras and the in-person audience.

I took offense to this display on several levels. First, I was disappointed in this musician/actor who seemed above such a classless act. Then, as a fellow Philadelphia native, it was an embarrassment; a reinforcing of the stereotype for thuggery. The act also showed the heightened over-sensitivity that threatens to make comedy a dying art. And as a movie fan, it exhibited how far the bar has been lowered for those who participate in the Oscars ceremony.

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Earlier in the show, co-host Wanda Sykes had made the opening salvo-political when she — a gay female — made fun of the state of Florida, alleging it was anti-gay. In fact, that state had merely deemed it inappropriate for classes from kindergarten to third grade to discuss gender options. That commonwealth thought kids of that age were too immature to engage in such discourse; that it was up to parents to broach such a subject.

From the shedding of clothing over the years to the removal of overall standards that focus on the show’s mission statement, the decline of a once-prominent program has been pronounced. This year’s Oscars attracted a TV audience of fifteen million, its second lowest viewership ever. At its peak in 1998, the Oscars boasted an audience of over 55 million.

Smith’s tirade didn’t end with the physical assault. He returned to his front-row seat and leveled a barrage of vulgarities at Rock, adding a very foul tasting icing to an already sunken cake.

The Oscars … is an aging relic that has lost its compass. Brando’s “statement” may have started the decline, but it now surely points to an impending death.

When he returned to the stage later in the show to claim his award for Best Actor in “King Richard,” he emitted crocodile tears as he apologized to the Motion Picture Academy and others, but not to Rock. Rock, to his credit, later refused to press charges with the Los Angeles police department. This week, Smith stepped down from the academy, with his future in the group unclear. 

Driven as he was to protect his wife from perceived verbal abuse, it would have been much better if Smith had confronted Rock after the show. Their differences could have been settled accordingly and privately. But the fact that he thought nothing of taking action during the show spoke volumes not only about his character, but about the very ceremony that has so deteriorated over the years.

The Oscars is 93 years old. It is an aging relic that has lost its compass. Brando’s “statement” may have started the decline, but it now surely points to an impending death.

Jeff Hurvitz is a freelance writer and Philadelphia native.

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