The following is my contribution to the 31 Days of Oscar blogathon, being co-hosted by the blogs Paula’s Cinema Club, Outspoken & Freckled, and Once Upon a Screen on Feb. 23-25, 2018. Click on the above banner, and read a variety of bloggers’ takes on the history of the Academy Awards!
At last year’s Academy Awards ceremony, Bonnie and Clyde co-stars and Best Picture Oscar presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway made Oscar history — of the worst kind.
Beatty opened the envelope containing what he thought was the Best Picture Oscar winner, looked at it, thought something seemed wrong, and passed it over to Dunaway to see if she agreed. Instead, Dunaway immediately blurted out that the Best Picture Oscar winner was La La Land. Unfortunately, the duo had been given the card for Best Actress Oscar (Emma Stone), which was why Beatty had been suspicious. The La La Land crew was already on stage accepting the Oscar by the time that the Oscar show’s producer got up to announce that the real winner was Moonlight. Er, sorry about that, guys! (Click here to read The Hollywood Reporter’s complete account of the debacle.)
Unfortunately, this is only the most recent error that has plagued the live Oscar broadcast. If I was to list them all, this blog would run as long as…well, an Oscar telecast.
So I established two rules to limit myself on this blog. The first is that I limited my list to what I consider the top 10 most notorious Oscar bloopers. Secondly, I decided that potshots at individual hosts and bad production numbers are too easy, so I allowed myself only one of each.
Following are 10 of Oscar’s most notorious goofs. Enjoy!
Will Rogers and the wrong Frank, 1934
Will Rogers, vaudeville comedian-cowboy and one of the most popular entertainers of his era, hosted the 1934 Oscar ceremony and was responsible for what The Academy Awards: The Unofficial History calls “one of the most famously humiliating scenes in Academy Awards history.” Announcing the winner for Best Director, Rogers ad-libbed, “Well, well, well, what do you know? I’ve watched this young man for a long time. Saw him come up from the bottom, and I mean the bottom. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. Come up and get it, Frank!”
Frank Capra, nominated for Lady for a Day, stood up and made his way to the stage, but the spotlight settled on the real winner, Frank Lloyd (shown above with Rogers), who had directed Cavalcade. Capra described getting back to his seat as “the longest crawl in history.”
Hattie McDaniel and back-slapping Hollywood, 1940
The 12th Academy Awards presentation was held at The Ambassador Hotel’s Cocoanut Grove nightclub (later to serve as the backdrop for another moment in Oscar infamy — see below). Hattie McDaniel was nominated as Best Supporting Actress for her role as Mammy in 1939’s box-office smash Gone with the Wind, which she eventually won (the first African-American actress to do so).
All of this is sullied by the fact that when McDaniel arrived at the ceremony, she was escorted, not to the Gone With the Wind table — where producer David O. Selznick sat with Olivia de Havilland and his two Oscar-nominated leads, Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable — but to a small table set against a far wall, where she took a seat with her escort, F.P. Yober, and her white agent, William Meiklejohn. With the hotel’s strict no-blacks policy, Selznick had to call in a special favor just to have McDaniel allowed into the building at all. (It was not officially integrated until 1959.)
Fortunately, McDaniel, the daughter of two former slaves, gave a gracious speech about her win: “I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything I may be able to do in the future. I sincerely hope that I shall always be a credit to my race and the motion picture industry.”
Jerry Lewis and the under-running Oscar ceremony, 1959
Jerry Lewis, a three-time Oscar host, landed that job for the first time in 1956 and returned in 1959 as the final member of a rotation of six hosts (the others being Mort Sahl, Tony Randall, Bob Hope, David Niven and Laurence Olivier). But that third and — perhaps not coincidentally — final time, Lewis encountered a situation that no Oscar host before or since has faced: a ceremony at which the final award was presented 20 minutes ahead of schedule and the show actually ran short.
With all of the evening’s winners and presenters gathered together onstage, Lewis, a celebrated improviser, did his best to kill time, encouraging Lionel Newman’s orchestra to perform several reprises of “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” during which many onstage paired off and began dancing with one another — among them, Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood, and Bob Hope and Zsa Zsa Gabor.
At one point, Lewis’ former comedy partner, Dean Martin, strolled past the podium and helped himself to an extra Oscar, prompting Lewis to crack, “And they said that Dean and I wouldn’t be on the same stage again!” Lewis roasted a competing show’s poor ratings, grabbed a baton and began conducting the orchestra, and even attempted to play the trumpet before, after about five minutes, NBC put Lewis out of his misery by cutting to a short film.
The non-appearance of Marlon Brando, 1973
When Roger Moore and Liv Ullman read the name of 1972’s Best Actor Oscar winner — Marlon Brando for The Godfather — neither presenter parted their lips in a smile. Their gaze fell upon Sacheen Littlefeather, a dark-haired woman in Apache dress. Moore extended the award to Littlefeather, who waved it away with an open palm. She set down a letter on the podium, introduced herself, and said:
“I’m representing Marlon Brando this evening and he has asked me to tell you…that he very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award. And the reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry –“
The crowd booed. Littlefeather looked down and said, “Excuse me.” Others in the audience began to clap, cheering her on. She continued only briefly, to “beg” that her appearance was not an intrusion and say that they would “meet with love and generosity” in the future.
Even as she was cheered by Native Americans for taking a civil rights stand, false stories soon spread claiming that she was not a real Native American, that she had rented her buckskin Oscar dress, and that she was just a wanna-be opportunistically trying to ride Brando’s coattails. “If [Brando] had something to say,” actor John Wayne groused dismissively, “he should have appeared that night and stated his views instead of taking some little unknown girl and dressing her up in an Indian outfit.” Littlefeather later said about the incident: “It goes back to the time of the Romans: If you didn’t like the message, you kill the messenger.”
David Niven and the streaker, 1974
Just as David Niven was about to announce 1974’s Best Picture Oscar winner, Robert Opel — a conceptual artist, photographer, and gay-rights actvist — ran out naked from stage left, waving a two-fingered peace sign.
Niven, to his credit, kept his aplomb and quipped, “Well, ladies and gentlemen, that was almost bound to happen. But isn’t it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?”
Elizabeth Taylor, who was supposed to join Niven on stage at the time that Opel appeared, later asked Niven how he came up with such a clever one-liner on the spot. Niven replied that before the show, he tried to think of all of the potentially disastrous things that could happen on stage. Streaking was a national craze at that time, so Niven thought of his quip and kept it stored in his mind that evening, where he later got to use it.
A producer does not win over old-school hearts and minds, 1975
Producers Peter Davis and Bert Schneider won 1975’s Best Documentary Oscar for the Warner Bros. release Hearts and Minds, a searing look at the Vietnam War at a time when it was still raging. Davis’ acceptance speech was low-key, mostly thanking his family and his movie colleagues. Schneider’s speech? Not so much.
After stating, “It’s ironic that we’re here at a time just before Vietnam is about to be liberated,” Schneider then read aloud a telegram from North Vietnamese diplomat Dinh Ba Thi:
“Please transmit to all our friends in America our recognition of all that they have done on behalf of peace and for the application of the Paris Accords on Vietnam. These actions serve the legitimate interest of the American people and the Vietnamese people. Greetings of friendship to all the American people.”
After that, all hell broke loose backstage. Presenter Frank Sinatra confronted Schneider and threatened to deck him, with John Wayne (honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award earlier that night) joining in. Bob Hope pinned Howard W. Koch, the show’s producer, to a wall, screaming for him to disavow the statement. Then Shirley MacLaine and her brother Warren Beatty leapt into the fray. “Don’t you dare!” MacLaine shouted at the frazzled producer, caught in the midst of a Hollywood culture war.
As the stars squabbled, phone calls and telegrams began reaching CBS. One came from a retired Army Colonel, who bemoaned the “55,000 dead young Americans in defense of freedom and millions of Vietnamese fighting for freedom,” then concluded with “demand withdrawal of award.” Hope grabbed the telegram, scribbling a message for Frank Sinatra to read onstage.
When Sinatra emerged, he stiffly read Hope’s disclaimer. “The Academy is saying we are not responsible for any political utterances on this program and we are sorry that had to take place.” Which provoked more outrage from his liberal costars. Warren Beatty mockingly commented, “Thank you, Frank, you old Republican!” while MacLaine hissed that “You didn’t ask me!” about the statement. MacLaine later retook the stage, encouraging viewers to see Hearts and Minds (a particularly gracious gesture, since it defeated MacLaine’s own documentary, The Other Half of the Sky).
Eventually, Warner Bros. executives tried defusing the controversy with apologetic press conferences. While Francis Ford Coppola defended Schneider’s statement, Shirley Maclaine tossed off a Hope-like one-liner to reporters: “Bob Hope is so mad at me, he’s going to bomb Encino.”
Saigon fell within a matter of weeks, but with this controversy, TV viewers got a close-up look at Hollywood’s old guard versus its new guard.
The non-appearance of Woody Allen, 1978
In 1978, the white-hot sci-fi fantasy Star Wars was figured by the general public to be a shoo-in for the Best Picture Oscar. To nearly everyone’s surprise, Woody Allen’s intimate comedy Annie Hall won that statuette, as well as Oscars for Best Screenplay (Allen and Marshall Brickman), Best Director (Allen), and Best Actress (Diane Keaton).
(The wins were all the more surprising, considering the movie’s potshots at the laid-back L.A. lifestyle and their self-congratulatory award shows. Allen in the movie: “They’re always giving out awards! Best Fascist Dictator, Adolf Hitler!”)
So where was Allen during the ceremony? Where he always was on Monday nights: Playing clarinet at Michael’s Pub in New York City. Unlike Marlon Brando, Allen had no political agenda to burnish. As he made clear in Annie Hall, he just didn’t like award shows.
Despite his movies having received 53 nominations and 12 wins, the only time Allen has ever appeared at the Oscar ceremony was in 2002, in a tribute to his beloved New York City after the 9/11 disaster.
Rob Lowe and Snow White, 1989
Making his very first appearance as Oscar presentation host in 1990 (he would go on to host eight more times), Billy Crystal walked onto the stage amid rapturous applause. Crystal responded, “Is that for me, or are you just glad I’m not Snow White?”
Crystal was referring to the previous year’s Oscar opening number, which set a new standard for sheer kitsch. Produced by Allan Carr (Grease, Grease 2, Can’t Stop the Music), and arranged and conducted by Marvin Hamlisch, it began with veteran Hollywood columnist Army Archerd nonchalantly introducing Snow White (played by 22-year-old newcomer Eileen Bowman). Snow went out among the audience, serenading the mostly-shocked celebrities and shaking their hands. Eventually she made her way back to the stage, which had been transformed into the old Cocoanut Grove nightclub, where host Merv Griffin insisted that its “every night is exciting” (for everyone except for Hattie McDaniel, of course — see above).
Griffin hailed some veteran performers who were appearing on the stage, among them Cyd Charisse and Vincent Price. But the topper came when Griffin introduced Snow to Rob Lowe, after which the duo performed a pastiche of the song “Proud Mary” (“Rollin’, rollin’, keep the cameras rolling!”). The production number rattled on for another five minutes, eventually killing Allan Carr’s career for good.
The Walt Disney Co., which then had no stake in ABC (the network that broadcast the ceremony), was furious over the unauthorized use of its copyrighted version of Snow White and filed a lawsuit against the Academy. And 17 Hollywood heavyweights — among them Paul Newman, Gregory Peck, Julie Andrews, and Billy Wilder — signed an open letter deriding the telecast as “an embarrassment to both the Academy and the entire motion picture industry.”
In retrospect, nobody was happier to look back and laugh at the campy number than Lowe and Bowman. Click here and here to read their respective accounts of the disaster.
Billy Crystal and Hal Roach, 1992
Crystal: “At the [1992 ceremony], I introduced [veteran movie producer] Hal Roach from the stage. It was his 100th birthday. He wasn’t supposed to speak, only wave. But he started speaking, holding himself up by the seat in front of him. You could barely hear him. It went on and on. You could feel people getting restless. Lines were racing through my head and I thought, ‘How do you get out of this?’ [After Roach finished,] I hit on a line and just looked at the audience and said: ‘It’s only fitting, he got his start in silent films!’ It got a big cheer. For me, I could look at that one little moment and say, ‘I was okay then. I was a good comedian that night.’”
John Travolta and Adele Dazeem, er, Idina Menzel, 2014 and 2015
In 2014, John Travolta introduced singer Idina Menzel’s performance of the Oscar-nominated song “Let It Go” (from the Disney cartoon Frozen). Only Travolta called her “Adele Dazeem” with a weird accent. (Click here to read Travolta’s mea culpa of the incident, in which he strangely tries to blame the whole thing on Goldie Hawn.)
The following year’s Oscar presentation tried to let Menzel have her revenge, as she came on-stage and introduced Travolta as “Glom Gazingo.” Travolta took the jibe good-naturedly — except that he couldn’t stop touching Menzel’s face. (Try to explain that one to us, John!)
So there you have 10 of Oscar’s most embarrassing moments. I suggest that for this year’s Oscar presentation, they bring on all of the celebrities listed above who are still alive, and make an opening number out of it.