Home > Vulture News > Snow White Speaks: Eileen Bowman Breaks Silence About Taking Part In The Most Ridiculed Opening Number In Oscar History

Snow White Speaks: Eileen Bowman Breaks Silence About Taking Part In The Most Ridiculed Opening Number In Oscar History

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For any up and coming actress the chance to make a splashy debut as the star of a song and dance routine at the Academy Awards sounds like a dream come true. For Eileen Bowman that became a reality when she was chosen to play Snow White at the 61st Academy Awards on March 21, 1989. The dream quickly turned into a nightmare when the opening was critically savaged and became the subject of such vitriol that  Paul Newman, Gregory Peck, Julie Andrews and Billy Wilder signed an open letter that said:

It is neither fitting nor acceptable that the best work in motion pictures be acknowledged in such a demeaning fashion.

The over the top negative reaction was a backlash against the telecast’s producer Alan Carr‘s attempt to bring a camp gay sensibility to the ceremonies.

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The number began with Snow White entering the auditorium and greeting the mortified celebrities in the audience, most of whom turned their heads in order to be passed over. The crimes against the Academy that followed included Merv Griffin singing “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts’ while Carmen Miranda look-a-likes wearing fruit covered headgear performed alongside nightclub tables come to life. This was followed by a procession of aged movie stars, including Cyd Charisse quickly executing dance moves and just as quickly exiting the stage.

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rob_lowe_snow_white_oscars_1989_duet_proud_maryThe climax was Snow White’s duet of “Proud Mary” with a severely out of tune Rob Lowe. Adding to the cheese factor, was the change of lyrics from, “Rollin’ on the river,”  to, “Keep those camera’s rollin.” At the end of production number which went on for over 15 minutes, Lily Tomlin emerged from a gigantic reproduction of Grauman’s Chinese Theater (pictured above) and ad libbed the line:

More than a billion and a half people just watched that. And at this very moment they’re trying to make sense of it.

Now 24 years later, Bowman, who signed a gag order after participating in the much maligned opening number, finally broke her silence and spoke to The Hollywood Reporter. Posted below is her account of the bizarre experience she had taking part in the 61st Academy Awards:

I’ve never spoken publicly at length about this. I basically fell off the turnip truck from San Diego and landed in L.A. I went for what I thought was an audition for Beach Blanket Babylon at the Beverly Hills Hotel; they gave me 15 pages of music to learn. I auditioned, andsnow-white-jpg_191834 [director Steve Silver] said, “We want to see if you fit into the dress.” There was a Snow White outfit and a hairstylist and makeup person. I got dressed and made up, and they said, “Now we’re going to go somewhere.” There was another girl there, too. So you have a Mercedes with two Snow Whites in the back, and we were told, “Close your eyes, you can’t see where we’re going.”

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Our first stop was Allan Carr’s house. I remember his swimming pool had pink water in it. He had a 30-foot Oscar outside his door and auditioned us in a robe. The other girl and I looked at each other thinking, “What is happening?”

marvin_hamlishOur next stop was Marvin Hamlisch’s office. We were told to hold hands and walk down the street so people would go, “Ooooh.” We auditioned and were whisked back to the hotel. In the elevator, Steve Silver asked me, “How are you with famous people?” I thought, “Well, they’re like anybody else.” He said, “You got the job.” I said, “Oh, great!” He said, “Do you know what this is for?” I said, “Beach Blanket Babylon!” And he said: “No, honey. This is for the Oscars.”

I rehearsed for a week and a half. It was my first AFTRA job, and I was paid scale, $350 a week. They brought Rob Lowe in to be my Prince Charming. He was wonderful. He could see where things were headed at the dress rehearsal and took me aside and warned: “You need to be careful. There are sharks in the water, and you have to be really careful who you work with after this.” He had never sung before and was kind of insecure about that, so we bonded.

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Our rehearsals were on the Fox lot, and they were closed. I mean, like Fort Knox. And the producers knew exactly what they had in me. I wasn’t asking questions. They came up to me daily and said, “You should be paying us for this.”

bob_mackieI remember Bob Mackie said, “Why am I making a Snow White outfit?” I fainted once during a fitting because I hadn’t eaten. I woke up, and Bob was going, “Honey, are you all right?” He gave me juice. My dress was bought for $23,000 by someone involved with the production who was buried in it. It was a man. I’m leaving it at that.

The show itself looked like a gay bar mitzvah. Middle America must have been like: “What is going on? There are dancing tables, there’s Snow White singing with Rob Lowe, there’s Merv Griffin with people with coconuts on their head!”

I was told not to go to Robin Williams in the audience because God knows what he would do. But running down that aisle, all I could see were the back of heads, and I was thinking, “I’ll just go to Kevin Kline!” But they were sitting one row apart, and I accidentally went up to Robin. I was like: “Abort! Abort!” Martin Landau grabbed my hand with both of his, and he just looked at me; he was precious. Tom Hanks was wonderful. But all these poor people were like, “What the hell are you doing?” That number was 15 minutes long from start to end, and I remember looking at Rob Lowe, going, “It’s finally over!”
glenn_close_1989_oscarsBackstage, my bodyguard whisked me to my room. I ran into Glenn Close. She said, “Well, hi, Snow White.” I went: “I can die now. I just ran into Glenn Close’s bust.”

olivia_newton_john_oscars_1989I was immediately told that they wanted me to go as Snow White to the Governors Ball with Rob Lowe. That’s when I put my foot down. I said: “I’m not going to be your little doll dressed as Snow White at the Governors Ball.” I went to my dressing table and was taking my costume off, and there was Olivia Newton-John using my blush — which I still have. She was my idol, and she turned to me and said: “How did you ever do that? How did you ever get out there in front of that many people and do that?”

After that, I showed up at my sister’s in L.A. to say goodbye, and she was like: “You’re crazy. Do you know how many people would pay for this opportunity?” I said, “Let ‘em.” I went home to my own bed in San Diego and woke up to a lawyer at my door at 8 o’clock in the morning with a folder full of papers that I had to sign. One of those was the gag order. I thought I had done something wrong, so I was scared not to do what they asked of me. I signed a piece of paper saying 13 years — I don’t know why that was the number they chose. [An Academy lawyer doesn't remember any such action.]

I remember sitting in my condo after being served the papers, watching the news — and the Snow White number was all that was on the news. I had no idea. My phone never stopped ringing. It was awful. All I can say is what Rob Lowe said, “Never trust a man in a caftan.”

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