End of an Era

High, low Oscar moments mark decade

The great Oscar moments of the ’90s range from the truly hilarious to the deeply moving. The highlight (and low lights) of the show live on in the memory long after everyone’s forgotten who won what and when.

For instance, Jack Palance may have won his supporting actor Oscar for “City Slickers,” but audiences remember more clearly that he punctuated his acceptance speech with a series of one-armed push-ups.

Expect the unexpected

Every year the always lengthy ceremonies include at least a surprise or two. And the past decade has been no exception. You didn’t have to be there — but it helped, since not every memorable moment of the past 10 years was visible on camera. So say director Jeff Margolis and producer Gil Cates, who officiated the show for most of the decade, and Oscar historian Damien Bona, co-author of “Inside Oscar: The Unoffocial History of the Academy Awards” (Ballantine Books).

There is certainly consensus that the ’90s was the decade during which Billy Crystal joined the pantheon of great Oscar hosts, alongside Bob Hope and Johnny Carson. He got the festivities off to a great start when, for the 1992 ceremonies, he entered as the masked Hannibal Lecter from “Silence of the Lambs” and then topped himself a few years later by digitally inserting himself into all five nominated films.

In sharp contrast, according to Bona, David Letterman’s hosting of the Oscars is “is the low point against whom all Oscar hosts are now measured,” comparing it to the infamous “Snow White” opening-dance sequence at the 1989 Oscars. “What Letterman showed is that if you host the Oscars, you can’t think of yourself as more important than the show,” Bona says.

Live from around the globe

The decade got off to a memorable start with live feeds from around the globe that Cates contends were a much harder task than it looked. “That was quite a complicated show to put together and to get on the air,” says Cates of the telecast, which ventured as far off as Australia, Russia, Japan and a celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Oscar went into orbit when Steven Spielberg was presented the Thalberg award. His Oscar was “floating weightlessly aboard the space ship Columbia” as the commander and crew congratulated Spielberg for his daring and imagination, Cates says.

Politics sometimes rears its head at the ceremonies, though not as prominently as back in the ’70s when Vanessa Redgrave made her impassioned pro-Palestinian speech and Marlon Brando refused his award through a spokeswoman named Sacheen Littlefeather, protesting the ill treatment of American Indians in motion pictures.

Politics ’90s style

While there was nothing that dramatic in the ’90s, a couple of presenters used the podium to address their favorite personal causes. In this decade, Bona recalled Richard Gere’s impassioned plea on behalf of the exiled Dalai Lama.

And last year, even before the Oscar ceremonies, there was a great deal of controversy surrounding the bestowal of an honorary lifetime Oscar to director Elia Kazan, who had been a friendly witness in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s. While the director refused to fan the flames, deliberately sidestepping the issue in his acceptance speech, producer Cates made sure his cameras scanned the audience to capture their reactions, which ranged from standing ovations to people sitting on their hands.

There have been some genuinely moving moments that have gone beyond the self-congratulatory. Bona cites Tom Hanks’ heartfelt 1994 Oscar acceptance speech for “Philadelphia,” on behalf of all those who have been touched by the AIDS epidemic. During the same speech he inadvertently “outed” one of his former high school teachers, an incident that became the basis for the fictional film “In & Out.”

Heavy on emotion

For Margolis, he says the 1996 telecast was heavy on emotion, beginning with the Oscar for documentary short, “One Survivor Remembers,” the story of Gerthe Weisman, who joined the filmmaker onstage and stayed on to deliver “one of the most moving moments I can remember on any Oscar telecast”– and one for which he wisely waived the 45-second speaking limit.

That same year, Kirk Douglas received a lifetime achievement Oscar and bravely showed up for rehearsals and the ceremony despite a crippling stroke suffered a few months pervious. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house, says Margolis, whose camera zeroed in on Douglas’ family, including son Michael with tears of pride and sadness streaming down his face.

“It’s a reaction shot that will live in my mind forever,” Margolis adds.

The drama reached a crescendo when the year’s surprise guest, Christopher Reeve, was wheeled onstage to introduce a series of film clips on how Hollywood has dealt with serious issues. It was his first appearance since being paralyzed in a horse-riding accident.

In addition to Hanks’ eloquent Oscar acceptance, Cates mentions the young Anna Paquin (supporting actress winner for “The Piano”) “hyperventilating with joy” and unable to speak for a couple of minutes after receiving her ’94 award. Another moment that stands out for Cates was special Oscar recipient Stanley Donen’s deft, impromptu soft-shoe in 1998, truly one of Oscar’s classiest moments in the ’90s.

The ol’ switcheroo

Oscar upsets also make for memorable viewing. The ’90s provided two truly unexpected winners, according to Bona, both in the supporting actress category: Marisa Tomei for “My Cousin Vinny” in 1993 and, especially, Juliette Binoche’s win for “The English Patient,” upsetting the overwhelming 1997 fave Lauren Bacall (“The Mirror Has Two Faces”).

Among the top performance highlights of the decade Margolis mentions Bruce Springsteen singing the Oscar-winning “Streets of Philadelphia” at the 1994 ceremony. “It was magical. Springsteen was one of the first breakthrough rock and roll artists to perform one of the five nominated songs,” he says.

Before that, however, Madonna had performed an Oscar-nominated song from “Dick Tracy” in 1991. Margolis recalls that, despite intensive rehearsals and extensive experience on music awards shows, Madonna was extremely nervous and was visibly shaking on camera when she started to sing. “As soon as she got into the song she was great but for that one moment. … There was something very humanizing about it,” he says.

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