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Moments That Changed the Course of Oscar

When people talk about memorable Oscar moments, they usually mention the streaker, Sacheen Littlefeather, Sally Field, or Cuba Gooding Jr. But there is another gauge for Academy Awards events: significant moments that helped shape the awards DNA that we see today. Many of these moments occurred off-camera, but their effect is long-lasting.

Darryl F. Zanuck
The first ceremony was held May 16, 1929, at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, three months after winners had been announced. Like high-school graduates getting diplomas, winners silently went to the stage, accepted the trophy, then sat down; honorable mentions did the same, receiving certificates. Warner Bros. was given an award for “The Jazz Singer,” the only talkie honored. Accepting the trophy, Zanuck did something radical: He said a few words of praise for the WB team. And thus the acceptance speech was born.

The ceremony was first broadcast March 19, 1953, on NBC. The Variety review the next day noted the “remarkable self-control” of audience members who didn’t wave at the camera. Host Bob Hope quoted Jack Warner’s description of a television as “the piece of furniture that stares back at you.” The audience was 34 million, according to Time magazine, and the telecast brought the show to viewers in ways that radio and newsreel clips could only hint at. The TV deal became crucial to AMPAS scheduling and its economy.

There was a tie
Katharine Hepburn and Barbra Streisand tied for lead actress for their 1968 films “The Lion in Winter” and “Funny Girl.” In Oscar history, there have been six ties, and this was the third; it drove home the fact that the voting tallies on Oscars can be very close. The late Hollywood publicist Julian Myers said he filled out his 1968 ballot and planned to hand-deliver it on the last day of voting. But he got stuck in traffic and missed the deadline. Myers winked, “I voted for one of those two women, and I will never tell anybody who. But if I had delivered the ballot on time, only one of them would have won.” The ties and Myers anecdote are reminders that every vote counts, an idea that boosts the adrenaline and the fear level of every awards strategist.

In 1984, the Supreme Court ruled that VCRs were acceptable for home use. The studios had fought them, saying home-taping was a violation of copyright. But studios eventually realized they could make money off the new invention. And around 1988, a few indies realized that screener cassettes were a cheaper and more effective way of getting their movies seen by voters. The major studios soon copied the indies, and the following year, voters were flooded with cassettes (and eventually DVDs). The unspoken irony is that film-industry workers now see most of the awards contenders without setting foot in a movie house.

A little reality check
Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” was scheduled for November 2009, but Paramount announced the movie would be pushed to February 2010. Oscar pundits flooded the internet with speculation that the movie must be a clunker. But Par’s Brad Grey shrugged that the economic crisis had caused the studio to rethink its release schedule, and the new date worked better. It turned out to be a smart decision: The film was a popular and critical success, and earned nearly $300 million worldwide. It was a reminder to Oscar pundits that awards are not always the first consideration: The bottom line will always be the bottom line.

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