After a protracted, numbing awards season, this Sunday's Oscar broadcast promises the drama of two ex-spouses battling for Best Picture and Best Director. But will Kathryn Bigelow versus James Cameron really have the spectacle of some of the Academy Awards' most outrageous moments?
What Hanoi Jane Didn't Say
The golden decade of Oscar scandal and self-importance is undoubtedly the 1970s — the era of streakers and Sacheen Littlefeather. Sometimes, though, what wasn't said made for the bigger shock. When Walter Matthau announced Jane Fonda as the winner for Best Actress for Klute during the 1972 broadcast, many expected a political screed. Sitting next to date Donald Sutherland, her Klute co-star and co-organizer of the anti–Vietnam War road show FTA (Fuck the Army) Tour, Fonda strode onstage, smiled, and bowed. There was no mention of the Viet Cong in her simple speech, which concluded, after a dramatic pause, “There's a great deal to say, and I'm not going to say it tonight. I would just like to really thank you very much.”
Oscar Intifada, Plus Bimbos!
Winning Best Supporting Actress at the 1978 ceremony, Fonda's Julia co-star, Vanessa Redgrave, didn't know when to clam up. Redgrave's support for the PLO — including funding and narrating the 1977 documentary The Palestinian — made her the target of the Jewish Defense League, which made good on its weeks-long pledge to demonstrate at the awards. According to Mason Wiley and Damien Bona's breezy Inside Oscar: The Unofficial History of the Academy Awards, Redgrave arrived at the ceremony with several bodyguards, who were among the few African-Americans in attendance — a point decried by another protest group, Blacks in Media Broadcasting Organization (BIMBO). Receiving her statue from John Travolta, Redgrave congratulated the audience: “I think you should be very proud that, in the last few weeks, you've stood firm and you have refused to be intimidated by the threats of a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums” — remarks met with gasps and boos. The response had no effect on the actress, who continued to discuss the “struggle against fascism and oppression” and Nixon and McCarthy. Presenting the Best Writing Award much later in the show, Paddy Chayefsky indulged in some grandstanding of his own: “I would like to say … that I'm sick and tired of people exploiting the Academy Awards for the propagation of their own personal propaganda.”
Who's the Cat That Won't Cop Out?
When propaganda wasn't being propagated, insane musical numbers were. During the same Oscar ceremony that saw Fonda win for Klute, Isaac Hayes, wearing a “shirt” made entirely of gold chains, was pushed out onstage in an illuminated organ to lip-synch “Theme from Shaft.” As Black Moses emerged from a funky, Cocteau-ish, glory-holed passageway with assorted grooving limbs sticking through apertures, smoke machines activated and a camera zoomed in on some serious maxiskirted rump-shaking. A multiracial, coed throng of dancers — think Shindig! as choreographed by Huey P. Newton — clapped, shimmied, and gyrated around the bald Stax man, who, when accepting the Oscar for Best Song, extended most of his gratitude to his granny.
Making Sidney Poitier Proud
Hayes may have been outdone in 2006, when Three 6 Mafia's performance of Best Song winner “It's Hard out Here for a Pimp” from Hustle and Flow ushered in the year of the bizarre country-ghetto fantasia, complete with krumping, a ho fashion-show, and cast member and vocalist Taraji P. Henson thinking she was on American Idol.
Musical numbers in the '80s displayed their own singular stripe of crazy. Singing the nominated “For Your Eyes Only” from the James Bond film of the same name in 1982, Sheena Easton made her entrance by emerging from an intergalactic vehicle, surrounded by 007 villains — Dr. No, Oddjob, Blofeld (with a toy cat), and Jaws — plus a bevy of astrodancers. A Bond surrogate arrived onstage in a white Lotus Esprit, setting off explosions and green laser beams. Easton, now packing heat, finished the number before lifting off into outer space with the spy who loved her.
Mary, Keep on Burning
Yet the nadir (apex?) of Oscar outré is the disastrous opening number of the 1989 broadcast, created by Allan Carr, the proudly out, obese, caftan-wearing producer of Grease, Grease 2, and the 1980 disco dud Can't Stop the Music. As Robert Hofler explains in his new book on Carr, Party Animals, the producer, inspired by Beach Blanket Babylon, paired a helium-voiced Snow White (played by Eileen Bowman) with a tone-deaf Rob Lowe in a cracked version of “Proud Mary.”
But that was only part of this deranged Mary's vision: Merv Griffin, singing “I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts” in a Cockney accent, would introduce the Disney character to the Brat Packer on a set made to look like the Cocoanut Grove, where Tinseltown geriatrics (some barely mobile) like Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, Dorothy Lamour, and Alice Faye were trotted out onstage, competing with dancing tables.
After the broadcast, Disney threatened a lawsuit for copyright infringement and irreparably damaging their beloved princess. Additionally, Hollywood eminences such as Paul Newman, Gregory Peck, and Billy Wilder sent a letter to the Academy calling the show “an embarrassment to both the Academy and the entire motion picture industry.” Let's hope for similar shameless exhibitions of bad taste this year.