If people remember anything about the Oscars on March 29, 1989, it’s the Rob Lowe-Snow White duet; their “Proud Mary” has taken on mythic proportions. But to viewers at the time, it was hardly the low point. Variety reviewer Tony Scott wrote of the show: “The tech credits were dismal. The script needed considerable tightening and refinement. Most humor was flat or pointless.”
Filmmaker Joseph L. Mankiewicz griped to Variety that the show was “amateur night.” He was one of 17 individuals who wrote a letter to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences saying, “The 61st Academy Awards show was an embarrassment to both the Academy and the entire motion picture industry,” and urging AMPAS president Richard Kahn and the board to ensure it didn’t happen again. Among other signatories: Julie Andrews, Stanley Donen, William Friedkin, Sidney Lumet, Paul Newman, Gregory Peck, Billy Wilder and Fred Zinnemann.
A week earlier, on March 22, Variety reported that Oscarcast producer Allan Carr had vowed at the nominees luncheon, “I promise, it’s not going to be boring.” The almost-saving grace: The show marked the first time presenters said, “And the Oscar goes to …” rather than “The winner is …” Carr and AMPAS declared that there are no winners and losers with Oscar. It was also the last time the show did not have a host — until 2019.
Carr, hot off the success of the film “Grease,” vowed the Oscar show would be “the most elegant production ever on television.” To ensure that, there were lots of old-time stars, top designers, 6 million flowers, 11 sets (including elaborate re-creations of the Cocoanut Grove and Grauman’s Chinese Theater) and “enough fabric to cover one side of the Empire State Building,” Variety reported. Carr also predicted “the most glamorous, most fun and the shortest Academy Awards in recent times.” (It actually ran 200 minutes.)
In his review, Scott noted that one of the innovations was “a new hosting concept,” with awards presented by individuals, couples (such as James Stewart-Kim Novak, Dudley Moore-Bo Derek, Lucille Ball-Bob Hope) and even trios.
While the show was generally panned, it had supporters. Columnist Army Archerd reported that Ronald Reagan phoned Carr to tell him how much he and Nancy enjoyed the show. And Jennifer Jones, Oscar-winning actress and widow of producer David O. Selznick, wrote Carr a letter saying, “In my opinion, you produced the ‘Gone With the Wind’ of Oscar shows.”
Following the show, Disney filed a copyright infringement lawsuit for use of the Snow White image without clearance. As Variety reported at the time, “Because the Academy did something kinda Dopey, Disney sure is Grumpy.”
The suit was eventually withdrawn after an Academy apology.