In the 85 years of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences' Award of Merit, we've had some wonderful moments in terms of winners. This is not a reflection of said moments. Rather, it's a reflection of those rather odd moments, or worse, moments of sheer self-importance, that have made the Oscars at times into a sad, silly spectacle. It seems that bad Oscar moments are relegated to one of two categories: bad acceptance speeches or bad production numbers.
I look upon our Eighteen Worst Oscar Moments as varying in degrees, from the grotesque to the bizarre. Sometimes, the people involved simply did not appear to understand how strange it all looked. Other times, they knew perfectly, and makes it all the more horrifying.
This little retrospective isn't about winners per se: I'm not going into whether Person or Film A should have won/lost to Person or Film B. Rather, it is a fond look back at those moments where the phrase "avert your eyes" would have been better than "the envelope, please".
51st Academy Awards
18.) Laurence Olivier Sees Stars (1979)
Bad Oscar Speeches, Part 1.
Sir Larry is one of the great thespians of the age. He has defined classic stage and screen acting, a true actor's actor. It therefore made sense to vote an Honorary Oscar to Lord Olivier for his body of work (in particular for bringing his beloved Shakespeare to popular attention).
The award was not in question. Rather, it is his speech that tries so hard to be poetic but that in the end sounds in turns both confused and nonsensical. It started out all right, with him describing the Oscar as a beautiful star in the firmament of America's generosity, dazzling him a little. So far, so good. Then it shifts into a halting, slightly incoherent rhapsody about "the euphoria that happens to so many of us at the first breath of the majestic glow of a new tomorrow." Then he goes on about the solace that is charging his soul, that lends him such a splendid part on this glorious occasion.
It all sounds very nice, but it also shows that when one has a voice like Laurence Olivier (who at the time was best known to the viewing audience as either the voice of Polaroid commercials or in a few years as Zeus in Clash of the Titans) one can utter nonsense and make it sound grand. It certainly convinced Jon Voight, whose reaction to it puts a smiling coda on that shimmering light of America's firmament that breathes new life into the generous euphoria of the solace in tomorrow's soul...
46th Academy Awards
17.) Presenting A New
Academy Member (1974)
There has always been speculation that the streaking incident, where a man ran across the Oscar stage completely naked, was staged as a publicity stunt. If it was, the woman following David Niven, Elizabeth Taylor, wasn't let in on the joke. Before announcing the nominees a flustered Taylor said that the event really upset her (never mind the number of men she'd seen naked). Then, being the slightly bawdy broad that she was, she quickly added, "I think I'm jealous."
Niven was there to introduce Taylor, who would then announce that year's Best Picture. In the middle of Niven's intro one Robert Opel ran behind him with no clothes, flashing a peace sign as he dashed behind the Brit. The camera that was on Niven was a medium shot: angled in such a way that he was shot from the waist up. Therefore, when Opel ran behind him it was done so quickly that you could not really see everything (though both the audience and the orchestra could, with the latter breaking into Sunny Side Up).
Niven, in what has to be one of the Best Oscar moments, then quipped, "Isn't it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings." I don't think the streaking was staged. The Academy is a pretty staid group, and something like that wouldn't fit in to their M.O. Sadly, Opel lost more than his fifteen minutes of fame: a mere five years later, Opel was murdered in his San Francisco sex shop, victim of a robbery. It is a sad and tawdry end to a comical tail.
45th Academy Awards
16.) Light As A Littlefeather (1973)
I can't call this a bad Oscar speech, because given the bizarre and almost unfair position Sacheen Littlefeather was placed in, she gave quite an eloquent speech...much more eloquent than Marlon Brando's rather pompous and bloated (no pun intended) manifesto he'd thrust on her a day or two prior and expected her to take television viewer's time with.
Marlon Brando had made a spectacular comeback in The Godfather, and he was the prohibitive front-runner for Best Actor. However, Brando had developed a passion for Native American rights, and he figured THIS was the perfect setting to send a message. However, as my one-sided nemesis Richard Roeper put it, what (the conditions of Native Americans) has to do with Brando winning a trophy for playing a gangster has never been explained.
It's a bad moment for the following reasons; it opened the floodgates for stars hijacking the Oscars to promote their own pet causes (be it AIDS-infected Haitians, Tibet, Zionist hoodlums, the Iraq Intervention, what have you), which in turn showed them as sanctimonious fools so elevated from the hoi polloi that is too stupid to realize just how all-knowing the stars are (but don't mind taking their money for the crappy films they make). It also ended the practice of having proxies accept awards on people's behalf. Well, maybe that isn't such a bad thing (cuts down on speeches). Finally, whatever the motive, the lot of Native Americans has still not improved (casinos notwithstanding), which makes this moment a failure if it was meant to elevate their circumstances.
72nd Academy Awards
15.) Less "Who's the Man" and More "Where's the Man..." (2000)
2000 was just a bad year for the Oscars, plagued by one bizarre occurrence after another. First, the Oscar ballots were literally lost in the mail. 4/5th of ballots (all the ones going to California-based members) were piled under third-class junk mail (there's more than poetry in that coincidence), thus forcing the U.S. Postal Service to rush additional ballot delivery (next time, try UPS). Next, the Oscar statues themselves were stolen, only to be found in the garbage by Willie Fulgear (a name tinged with irony), who discovered boxes containing 52 of the missing Oscar while searching for discarded items to use for tinkering. "I've got more Oscars than any of the movie stars," Mr. Fulgear quipped. The Academy invited him as a special guest, which was the least they could do for Mr. Fulgear.
Perhaps it was fitting that after stolen Oscars and missing ballots, we would then conclude this trifecta with a disastrous musical medley, which was capped off by Isaac Hayes' performance of his Oscar-winning Theme From 'Shaft'. In their efforts to be spectacular, Hayes was to emerge from fog to his brilliant song. However, there was so much fog used that Hayes became obscured, making it almost appear as if a disembodied voice was singing. No one could see him through the fog. Billy Crystal in mock-horror called out immediately afterwards, "Oh my God! We lost Isaac Hayes! First the ballots, then the statues, and now Isaac Hayes!"
83rd Academy Awards
14.) Franco My Dear,
I Don't Give A Damn (2010)
It SEEMED like a good idea at the time. In an effort to bring up ratings, the Academy opted for two new hot (and more importantly, YOUNG) stars: 32-year-old James Franco (also a nominee that year), and 28-year-old Anne Hathaway. I don't doubt that Franco and Hathaway are talented ACTORS, and they were certainly in on the joke. One of their first quips was after Franco complimented Hathaway's dress and beauty, she said that Franco looked 'very appealing to a younger demographic as well'. If given the right mix, their youthful irreverence and genuine talent might have made the show more breezy and fun.
However, as the show continued it became clear that only one was mentally there. Throughout the telecast Franco seemed curiously disengaged, lethargic, even at times unsure of where exactly he was. Speculation began to emerge that our favorite thespian/student/soap opera villain/Renaissance man had taken a ride on that Pineapple Express during the show. I was watching with a few friends at what is laughing called my Big Oscar Bash, and most of them flat-out asked me if James Franco was high. How they expected ME to know whether James Franco was using the wacky tobaky I'll never figure out. It's not as if he's ever asked me to come over to his house. I know I'm Hispanic, but that's a bit too much.
While Franco was a little too laid-back for the gig, Hathaway appeared to try to overcompensate by being manic to where one figured she was auditioning for a Prozac commercial in the 'before' side. She was trying her best, but she was trying too hard. The mismatch was not a disaster as has been reported, but I expect neither will have their Oscar hosting appear in any Kennedy Center Honors tribute film.
71st Academy Awards
13.) Benigni There (1998)
Bad Oscar Speeches Part II.
I don't want to hear any whining about Life Is Beautiful being a terrible film or Roberto Benigni being one of the worst choices for Best Actor (beating out Saving Private Ryan's Tom Hanks, Gods and Monsters' Ian McKellen, and American History X's Edward Norton...and Nick Nolte too). Back then, the world (particularly Americans) were taken by Life Is Beautiful's whimsy, its charm, and its joie de vivre's star and director. In short, most everyone thought it was all so cute. It is only since Benigni's win that the backlash against sentimentalizing the Holocaust has picked up steam. In fairness, I have not seen Life Is Beautiful since its debut, so I'm in no position to argue its merits or lack thereof. Not even the 'dignity' of the Academy Awards (or the subject matter really) however, was enough to keep the ever-ebullient Benigni under control.
Let us turn now to our tiny ball of Italian energy. While most people might think his overenthusiastic reaction was when he won Best Actor, his infamous "seat-jumping" (which predates Tom Cruise's Oprah couch meltdown) was when he (or more correctly, Italy) won Best Foreign Language Film. Sophia Loren simply said, "ROBERTO!" and the Italian answer to Jerry Lewis leapt, not to his feet, but onto the back of a seat (using Billy Bob Thornton's head for balance). Walking a few seat-backs forward (it's a brave man who will walk all over Steven Spielberg), he kept cheering both the audience and himself. Finally bunny-hopping to the stage, he butchered what English he knew before leaving, and America figured we'd seen the last of Roberto Benigni. Oh, contraire...
Again, you have only yourselves to blame. You encouraged him. You all thought his movie was cute and precious and lovely...a Holocaust comedy. It's really all y'all's fault. Stop blaming the Italian nut and turn those fingers towards yourselves...
70th Academy Awards
12.) Drown and Drink (1997)
Bad Oscar Speeches Part III.
James Cameron has never been a shrinking violet. He certainly has talent (Terminator 2: Judgment Day is one of the greatest action/sci-fi films ever made, and certainly among the greatest sequels in film history). Therefore, when his turd of a film Titanic (which I lovingly call Trashtanic) won a record-tying 11 Academy Awards out of its record-tying 14 nominations (losing only the Best Lead and Supporting Actress categories along with Best Make-Up...to which I will always be grateful to Men in Black for) Cameron had every cause to crow over those who didn't take him seriously.
However, in his exuberance at now finding himself a recipient of an award that such lousy directors as Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Donen, Charlie Chaplin, King Vidor, Erich Von Stroheim, Ernst Lubitch, Stanley Kubrick, Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, or Cecil B. DeMille never won, he forgot that with great power, comes great responsibility. Upon winning his Best Director, he concluded his speech by quoting from the non-nominated Leonardo DiCaprio's Jack Dawson, "I'm the KING of the world."
It's not when he won Best Picture that he uttered that ode to his own vainglory. When he went up a second time for that award, it then turned James Cameron from merely a show-off into basically an out-of-touch, insensitive bastard. He asked the audience to observe a moment of silence for all those who died on the Titanic. If he had stopped THERE, closing with a gentle 'good night', it would have been classy. Instead, our raging megalomaniac could not go gentle into that good night. Having his moment of silence observed, he called out "Now let's go party till dawn". Somehow, the inappropriateness of boozing it up and dancing after recognizing the deaths of thousands of men, women, and children escaped Cameron.
71st Academy Awards
11.) Un-American Activities (1998)
This time, it's not the recipient who was the embarrassment, it was the audience. Elia Kazan had been voted an Honorary Oscar for his body of work. The announcement was barely out when howls of protest emerged. I don't think people were objecting to the honor because he made lousy movies. Far from it: Kazan's work as a director brought not only some of the greatest films made but also the Method style of acting. Stars such as James Dean, Warren Beatty, and Marlon Brando owed their careers to Kazan (as did their disciples Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, and Edward Norton among others). He was influential to such giants as Martin Scorsese.
It wasn't because he made lousy movies...it was because he was seen as a lousy human being. Forty years earlier he had given the House Un-American Activities Committee the names of people he worked with who were or had been members of the Communist Party. It was an ugly time in Hollywood: the blacklist ruined careers and lives. Kazan's act was seen as betrayal at the least, down and out evil and opportunistic at the worst. Nearly half a century had passed and he had still not been forgiven for being a 'friendly witness'. The fact that the names he gave were already known to HUAC was either lost or irrelevant: he had sold out 'innocent' people to save his own skin and career. You could not give a guy a prize for that. He wasn't being given a prize for that, but such things are unimportant.
In all that time the wounds had still not healed. People who were clearly not affected by the blacklist had not forgiven someone who had never injured them personally, just their sense of justice. When a tottering ninety-year-old Kazan took to the stage, the audience showed their division. Some, like Lynn Redgrave, Beatty, and Kathy Bates gave him a standing ovation. Others, such as Holly Hunter, Ed Harris, and Nick Nolte showed their displeasure by sitting down and withholding their applause. They had been asked to do so as a protest against his actions in the Red Scare era. A third group, led by Steven Spielberg, applauded but did not stand. Personally I find the third group the most cowardly: at least those who showed their displeasure by not applauding made their feelings to the 'stool-pigeon' known.
If one goes by the work, Kazan merited the award. Their silent act of protest did not heal the wounds of the blacklist. It only intensified them. Kazan was too pugnacious to give them what the blacklisted victims and their sympathizers wanted: an apology for giving names to a group who already had them. I can understand the lingering anger and hatred the Blacklist caused to those whose careers were ruined while others like Kazan flourished. I cannot say that one was a direct result of the other, but given that today it is worse to be a Republican than it is to be a Communist in Hollywood, perhaps it is time for us to move on. Picking on old wounds never allows for healing.
67th Academy Awards
10.) Stupid Hosting Tricks (1995)
Oprah...Uma...Uma...Oprah. That little 'running gag' has become the bane of Kennedy Center Honoree David Letterman (who, ironically, should be the bane of the Kennedy Center Honors themselves, but I digress). Letterman's hosting of the Academy Awards has become notorious as a disaster. The jokes not only fell flat (Oprah...Uma...) but by the time he hauled Tom Hanks on stage for a Stupid Pet Trick (after giving us a Top Ten List) the Academy Awards had turned into a Late Show in Primetime Special.
Letterman, like Franco, appeared to not be interested in being there. In Steve Pond's well-researched book The Big Show, he observed that Letterman didn't do much rehearsing. Letterman didn't take to the stage until three days before the ceremony, and then things went badly. Letterman wanted rim shots for his jokes, the Late Show and Academy production crews were not working in tandem, and in rehearsal Letterman slipped into a Late Show mindset, treating the show as one of his own rather than a one-night special event. If he'd had Farah Fawcett there, dear GOD...
At the rehearsal, Keanu Reeves, there to present Best Picture nominee Pulp Fiction, asked Academy Awards head writer Bruce Vilanch what Letterman was like. Pressing for more info, Reeves asked Vilanch if Letterman was going to do his Late Show schtick. An incredulous Reeves kept saying, "No," when told more and more about Letterman's plans for the Oscars. When finally told Letterman was going to do a Stupid Pet Trick, a horrified Reeves responded angry (according to Pond, who had been granted rare access to rehearsals for The Big Show), "No! He can't! Whatever happened to restraint and decorum?"
When Keanu Reeves (never perceived as the smartest man in the room) realizes that a Stupid Pet Trick would ruin the Academy Awards 'restraint and decorum' but David Letterman doesn't... Both The Late Show and Letterman's reputation have never fully recovered from this debacle (Kennedy Center Honor notwithstanding).
Well, that wraps up our first Worst Oscar Moments List (fitting for April Fool's Day). Next time (hopefully), the Top Nine Worst Oscar Moments.