First Oscar ceremony is held at the Hollywood Roosevelt’s Blossom Room, three months after the winners are announced in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ official publication. Only one speech is given: It’s from then-Warners production chief Darryl Zanuck, who dedicated the special award to “The Jazz Singer” to Sam Warner.
The Acad honors Fredric March for his lead perf in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” — a widely expected victory — but, as the ceremony ends, AMPAS prexy Conrad Nagel calls up one of March’s fellow nominees: “The Champ” star Wallace Beery. A review of the votes during the ceremony had discovered that Beery was in a “statistical” tie with March. Oscar rules were later changed to only allow “exact” ties to be recognized — perhaps the most notable being the 1968 draw of Katharine Hepburn and Barbra Streisand.
“In Old Chicago” thesp Alice Brady wins the supporting actress Oscar, but doesn’t attend due to a broken ankle. A mystery man accepts the trophy on her behalf, though the actress hadn’t designated anyone to do so. The Acad gives Brady a replacement laurel two weeks later in a small ceremony; her “proxy” and the purloined Oscar are never located.
Greer Garson, winner for “Mrs. Miniver,” delivers a speech that lasts in Acad lore as the “longest” — with some recalling her droning on for over an hour — in reality it ran a little over five minutes. But the timing of the presentation — she received her Oscar around 1 a.m., 5½ half hours after the ceremony started — likely inflated its length in the memories of those who attended the fete.
The Oscars are telecast for the first time. NBC carries the show, which is mounted bicoastally (part of the ceremony is held at Hollywood’s RKO Pantages Theater, the other at the NBC Century Theater in New York). Acad prexy Charles Brackett sold the Peacock web rights to the show for $100,000; the network informed attendees to dress with the cameras in mind (pale colors, no bright whites).
A terse “Thank you … very much” is all the Academy gets out of Alfred Hitchcock when he accepts the Thalberg honorary award after years of being snubbed. (The Master, in fact, was nominated five times, including for 1940 picture winner “Rebecca.”)
Hepburn and Streisand tie for actress. Streisand, a winner for her debut in “Funny Girl,” mildly scandalizes the Academy by appearing in see-through pajama-pant attire, but thesp’s greeting to her new trophy is priceless: “Hello, gorgeous!”
Charlie Chaplin — who had been in self-imposed exile from Hollywood for 20 years due to the reception his political views received in the Joseph McCarthy era — returns to Hollywood to accept an honorary laurel at ceremony’s end. Jack Lemmon hands him his trademark bowler hat and cane, and the erstwhile Little Tramp finds that “Words are so futile, so feeble.”
Marlon Brando dispatches “Native American Affirmative Image Committee” president Sacheen Littlefeather to refuse his “Godfather” actor Oscar while taking Hollywood to task for its portrayal of her people before a stunned audience. (It is later discovered Littlefeather is an actress named Maria Cruz with no such activist affiliation.)
A streaker runs across the stage behind presenter David Niven, flashing the peace sign, but he’s not fast enough for NBC’s cameras, which spare the TV audience a full Monty. As the man was carried away by security, the British thesp remarked that “the only laugh that man will probably ever get is for stripping and showing off his shortcomings.”
The Oscarcast is roiled by competing views on the Vietnam War when “Hearts and Minds” producer Bert Schneider, the docu feature winner, reads a telegram with “greetings of friendship” from the Viet Cong during his acceptance speech, sparking host Bob Hope’s ire. He writes a response that he requests be read during the show — Frank Sinatra obliges. After saying the Academy is “very sorry” for the “political references,” Hope’s statement receives a mixed response from the audience.
Vanessa Redgrave, supporting actress winner for “Julia” and a pro-Palestinian activist, uses her acceptance speech to criticize “Zionist hoodlums,” her description of Jewish Defense League members protesting her presence at the awards (the British actress was burned in effigy outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion). Her own speech draws booing from several in the audience and an on-air admonition from scribe Paddy Chayefsky, who notes that the thesp’s win “does not require a proclamation and a simple ‘Thank you’ would have sufficed.”
John Wayne, who had undergone open-heart surgery earlier in the year, strides onto the Oscarcast stage looking gaunt but in good spirits. Wayne, who presented the picture Oscar, compared himself to the award: “Oscar first came to the Hollywood scene in 1928 — so did I. We’re both a little weather-beaten but we’re still here and plan to be around a whole lot longer.” Wayne died two months later from cancer.
Sally Field, after her second actress win (for “Places in the Heart”), delivers her infamous (and much mocked) burst of naked emotion, telling the Academy — and Hollywood — that she “can’t deny the fact you like me. Right now, you like me!”
Cher, who isn’t a nominee for her acclaimed turn in the drama “Mask,” shows herself to be a good sport and agrees to present the supporting actor Oscar. She lets her wardrobe do the talking for her, as she attends in an eye-popping, midriff-baring ensemble that some liken to a cockatoo’s plumage. “As you can see I did receive my Academy booklet on how to dress like a serious actress,” she cracks.
An actress portraying Snow White, dancing Copacabana furniture and Rob Lowe covering “Proud Mary” while doing a bit of bump-and-grind with the faux princess opened the Allan Carr-produced spectacle that had been promised as a revitalization of the Oscarcast but ended up being the most maligned. (A Disney lawsuit over the use of the Snow White character in such an unseemly production number seemed like adding insult to injury.)
Supporting actor winner Jack Palance gets down on the Oscar stage too perform a few one-armed pushups during his acceptance, giving a host Billy Crystal a marathon’s worth of material for a running joke spun off his “City Slickers” co-star’s impromptu display of virility.
The apotheosis of Oscar presenter politics: Thesps Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon make a plea for HIV-infected Haitian refugees imprisoned by the U.S. government at Guantanamo Bay. Richard Gere, a Buddhist, asks the audience to send “love and truth and kind of sanity to” Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in a call for the world to pressure China over its alleged human rights abuses in Tibet.
David Letterman’s ill-fated turn as Oscarcast host is marked by the Stupid Pet Trick humor of a tail-chasing dog (with an assist from the night’s actor winner, Tom Hanks) and the way the given names of nominee Uma Thurman and past nominee Oprah Winfrey sound in succession.
Almost a year after his paralyzing accident, Christopher Reeve makes a surprise appearance on the Oscarcast stage to exhort his Hollywood colleagues to make movies that tackle social issues. “Hollywood needs to do more. … Let’s continue to take risks,” he says in a speech that moved the audience to tears.
Cuba Gooding Jr. is a human dynamo as he accepts the Oscar for his supporting performance in “Jerry Maguire,” bounding around the stage (and steamrolling the orchestra’s attempt to play him offstage) as he shouted out his love to “everyone involved with this!”
Italian filmmaker Roberto Benigni, a multiple nominee for his tale of hope and comedy amid the Holocaust, “Life Is Beautiful,” sets a new Oscarcast benchmark for exuberance. Upon winning the foreign-language pic Oscar, he leaps on top of the auditorium seats and strides over the heads of the audience to the stage. Later, as he accepts a second Oscar for actor, he exults, “I want to become Jupiter and kidnap you all and lie down with you in the firmament and make love to everybody!”
Elia Kazan’s lifetime achievement Oscar would divide the Academy, and irked many in Hollywood still outraged over the 1950s blacklist of artists spawned by hearings held by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Kazan named names; that killed careers. Groups of protestors gathered outside the Oscar venue while some of Hollywood’s elite inside refused to acknowlege Kazan with applause.
Documentarian Michael Moore, a winner for “Bowling for Columbine,” brings his fellow nominees onstage and then proceeds to lash out at “fictitious” President Bush over a “fictitious war” that had just been launched in Iraq, drawing a mix of applause and boos from the audience.
(Source: “Inside Oscar: The Unofficial History of the Academy Awards” by Mason Wiley and Damien Bona)