When he took the Oscar producing gig in 1989, Allan Carr promised to turn a stagnant and stale broadcast into what he called “the antithesis of tacky.”
He came up a bit short, presiding instead over one of the most notorious Oscar ceremonies of all time.
Carr, the late producer of “Grease” who had a reputation for hosting expensive parties and creating lavish production numbers, promised to wow the crowd with a splashy salute to Hollywood, kicking off with an onstage set of Grauman’s Chinese Theater and the Cocoanut Grove.
But the number’s mish-mash of dancing tables, chorus lines and Carmen Miranda-inspired costumes was overshadowed by an inexplicable duet of “Proud Mary” sung by Rob Lowe and Snow White (Eileen Bowman).
And the “antithesis of tacky” didn’t end there. Bob Hope and Lucille Ball (making her final Oscar appearance) got a rousing ovation before introducing another production number called “Breakout Superstars of Tomorrow,” where the likes of Matt Lattanzi and Patrick O’Neal Jr. danced to a song called “I Want to Be an Oscar Winner.”
There were actually inspired moments of class: James Stewart and Kim Novak reunited, Sean Connery and Michael Caine presenting an award, with a surprise appearance by Roger Moore; and a funny routine in which Billy Crystal did his version of a tap dance.
But the damage was done. Though Carr’s intention may have been to bring “Grease”-like Broadway color to Oscar night, the event ended up looking like a Golden Globe ceremony — from the Pia Zadora days. Variety declared, “The 1989 Oscars looked like they needed more rehearsal.”
Ironically, the ratings did go up that year, and Carr got raves from former President Ronald Reagan, who called the next day to congratulate him. But the Walt Disney Co. was not amused: It filed a copyright infringement suit (dropped when the Acad apologized). “It wasn’t the songs so much, it was her singing,” Disney spokesman Erwin Okun said.
After a storm of protest from its members, the Academy set up a special committee to bring refinement back to the program. The next year, Gil Cates produced, with Crystal as host, and the current format for Oscarcasts was born.