Oscar's Checkered Past

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

Even today's Oscar extravaganzas seem tame when compared to the spectacles of yesterday

by Alicia Potter
Source: Archive Photos

Sacheen Littlefeather accepts Marlon Brando's Best Actor Oscar.

Source: Archive Photos

Though she's brought joy to many during her film career, actress Shirley MacLaine has been known to cause brother Warren Beatty some discomfort.

Oscar was in big trouble. The year was 1952, and talk swirled on the backlots and in the boardrooms that the Academy Awards were on their last legs. The problem? Money. The studio system was crumbling, and a much-hoopla'd invention called television was keeping Americans in their living rooms and out of the movie theaters. Could Oscar pull through? The Academy had only one choice: Make peace with the enemy.

That year, a desperate RCA shelled out $100,000 to obtain the rights to televise the broadcast on its network, NBC. Not everyone agreed this was a good idea. "Television?" cracked Bob Hope. "That's where old movies go when they die."

But in true Hollywood tradition, the show went on. And Oscar survived. That first televised ceremony teemed with the usual upsets and surprises. Shirley Booth trumped both Joan Crawford and Bette Davis in the Best Actress category for her luminous performance in Come Back, Little Sheba. An absent John Ford made history with a fourth Best Director nod. More important, however, the night set a precedent: it ran too long.

Historical Histrionics

Indeed, with the first Oscar telecast, movie buffs no longer had to wait for the morning's edition to hit the doorstep to learn who won, who lost and who wore what. In essence, they were there.

And stars being stars, the actors were well aware of their new, expanded audience. Not surprisingly, once Oscar befriended television, the acceptance speeches got a little longer, the fashion a little more outlandish, and the drama a little more dramatic. Of course, this made everything a little more fun.

It didn't take long before the evening began to push the boundaries of taste. Take 1958's production number. Audiences at home raised their eyebrows at a randy rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside," by Rock Hudson and Mae West. At song's end, Hudson slyly implied he was quite a man by purring, "King-sized," as he offered West a cigarette; to this she saucily quipped, "It's not the men in your life, it's the life in your men." Then the two exchanged an uncomfortably long, unmistakably passionate smooch.

Podium as Pulpit

Not all of the televised controversy would be so lighthearted. From the '60s onward, Oscar's podium became a political pulpit. Jane Fonda, one of the staunchest political activists in Hollywood history, prompted groans with every appearance. For her first ceremony as an Oscar nominee in 1970 for They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, the mink-swathed star climbed from her limousine and greeted the crowd with a Black Panther salute. Nearly 10 years later, when she won a Best Actress nod for Coming Home, she began her acceptance speech in sign language in honor of the deaf.

The hearing impaired were also recognized at the 1977 ceremony. As Debby Boone crooned her Oscar-nominated ballad, "You Light Up My Life," 11 fresh-faced "deaf" students signed beside her. But the production number proved more infuriating than inspiring. The next day, the papers reported that the kids weren't deaf at all, and worse, their "signing" was mumbo-jumbo.

But even this faux pas would be easily eclipsed that year by the controversy surrounding Vanessa Redgrave and her Best Supporting Actress win. When Redgrave accepted her statuette for her gripping portrayal of a Nazi fighter in Julia, she gave a lengthy speech/diatribe. At one point, the British actress thanked the Academy for recognizing her despite "the threats of a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums." The crowd gasped; some booed. Later, Paddy Chayefsky chastised her to much applause: "I am sick and tired of people exploiting the Academy Awards for the propagation of their own personal propaganda."

And that was just the politics inside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Outside, some 200 Palestinians rallied in support of Redgrave for her work on the documentary The Palestinians, while about 20 members of the Jewish Defense League burned her in effigy, carrying signs proclaiming "Vanessa Is a Murderer."

Pretty hard to top. But still most memorable in the lore of Oscar controversy is Marlon Brando's "acceptance speech" in 1973 for The Godfather. In his place, he sent a Native American woman, Sacheen Littlefeather, dressed in white buckskin and leather headdress, to read a speech blasting Hollywood for its treatment of Native Americans in film. Amidst awkward silence, and then disgruntled murmurs, the tiny woman finished Brando's rant. The controversy, however, wasn't over. Later, Littlefeather was discovered to be an actress masquerading as an Apache.

Thanks But No Thanks

Other speeches, though less politically charged, were equally embarrassing. In 1979, Shirley MacLaine opted to use her time at the podium to cheer up her sibling, Warren Beatty, who had lost out for Heaven Can Wait. "I want to take this opportunity to say how proud I am of my little brother... Just imagine what you could accomplish if you tried celibacy!" The cameras then panned to the renowned lothario slumped uncomfortably in his seat, next to his equally uncomfortable date, Diane Keaton.

But Beatty had pulled a similar stunt several years before. In 1976, he addressed Oscar's television viewers: "We want to thank all of you for watching us congratulate ourselves tonight." Indeed, such Oscar backlash came into vogue in the '70s, with many stars shunning the awards for making art competitive and commercial. Among the most noted no-shows and naysayers are George C. Scott, Woody Allen, John Wayne, Dustin Hoffman, and Meryl Streep.

Hoffman not only skipped the ceremony for his nominations in 1969 (Midnight Cowboy) and 1974 (Lenny), but also had this to say to a TV interviewer: "[The awards] are obscene, dirty and grotesque, no better than a beauty contest." Five years later, the diminutive star showed a change of heart; he strode up to the podium he once cursed and accepted his Best Actor Oscar for Kramer vs. Kramer. He even gave a goofy acceptance speech: "I'd like to thank my mother and father for not practicing birth control," he gushed.

Best, er, Costumes

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Oscars shifted from political platform to fashion extravaganza. Hands down, Cher remains unbeatable for her 1985 appearance in a beaded, barely-there gown (can one even qualify it as a gown?), complete with towering, feather-festooned headdress. But let's not forget 1973. That year, a peace-sign-waving hippie bounded on stage for the cameras dressed in . . . absolutely nothing.

The 1990s were, thankfully, a decade of taste; the thank-yous, yes, continue to be long-winded, but the circus atmosphere has been kept to three rings. While everyone loves to complain about the excess, such staidness is almost a little disappointing.

Crossing Our Fingers

Still, the Oscars have always been a big event, a suspense-heady evening of sequins, surprises, and sometimes, less than sportsmanlike behavior. And with the advent of TV, this big event became a Big Event; after all, movies are inherently about drama and spectacle. Let's hope this year, as America sits glued to the tube, Oscar gives us a little of both.

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