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VULTURE DROPPINGS: Weird And Wacky Oscar Moments

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According to producers, Bill Mechanic and Adam Schenkman, the motto for this year’s Academy Awards telecast is, “expect the unexpected.” That may be wishful thinking, seeing as Hollywood’s annual excuse to pat itself on the back is, if anything, predictable. Unless they mean the kind of surprise created by an awkward host, a celebrity disgruntled about a political issue, or a jaw dropping opening number featuring Rob Lowe and Snow White. Those are all actual examples from Oscar history. If any of the above happens at this year’s ceremony (although I highly doubt Sandra Bullock is going to talk about health care reform if she wins for Best Actress) you can’t say you didn’t see it coming.

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Marlon Brando’s Best Actor Acceptance Speech for The Godfather via Sacheen Littlefeather, 1972

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From the beginning of his career Marlon Brando flouted expectations with his choice of roles and personal style. None of his actions proved more eccentric than his decision to have a woman who identified herself as Sacheen Littlefeather take to the stage when he won the award for Best Actor in 1972 for his iconic portrayal of a mob boss in The Godfather.

Brando wanted to make a statement about the ongoing seige at Wounded Knee and the insensitive portrayal of Native Americans in television and movies. He gave Ms. Littlefeather a 15 page speech, which she was forced to truncate when the producer of the telcast threatened to physically remove her from the stage. She gave a shortened version of the message on air detailing the reasons Brando refused to accept the award, but read the whole speech to the press afterwards. An excerpt was printed in the New York Times on March 30, 1973. One part of it read:

Perhaps at this moment you are saying to yourself what the hell has all this got to do with the Academy Awards? Why is this woman standing up here, ruining our evening, invading our lives with things that don’t concern us, and that we don’t care about? Wasting our time and money and intruding in our homes. I think the answer to those unspoken questions is that the motion picture community has been as responsible as any for degrading the Indian and making a mockery of his character, describing his as savage, hostile and evil.

Not surprisingly, acceptance by proxy was banned following the incident. The woman who had filled in for Brando (whose birth name was Maria Cruz) used the media attention to jumpstart a short lived acting career during which time she also posed for Playboy magazine.

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Vanessa Redgrave’s Best Actress Acceptance Speech for Julia, 1977

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Vanessa Redgrave‘s 1973 speech in which she commended the Academy for not giving in to protesters who had gathered outside the building to demonstrate against the movie Julia; a historical account of playwright Lillian Hellman‘s efforts to help a friend distribute money to the anti-fascist cause in Nazi Germany. In the speech she infamously referred to the protesters as:

a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums.

The speech received a mixed reaction and later in the Awards ceremony, screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky (Network) used his time on stage to criticize Redgrave’s speech. He said:

Before I get on to the writing awards, there’s a little matter I’d like to tidy up – at least if I expect to live with myself tomorrow morning. I would like to say, personal opinion, of course, that I’m sick and tired of people exploiting the Academy Awards for the propagation of their own personal propaganda. I would like to suggest to Miss Redgrave that her winning an Academy Award is not a pivotal moment in history, does not require a proclamation and a simple ‘Thank you’ would have sufficed.

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Allan Carr’s Campy Reinvention of the 1989 Ceremony

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The Academy’s decision to hire Allan Carr to liven up the Academy Awards ceremony in 1989, was the result of his career successes which included organizing well executed ad campaigns for Saturday Night Fever and Grease in addition to producing the Broadway musical La Cage Aux Folles (later remade as The Birdcage). In the recently published Carr biography, Party Animals: A History of Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll, Robert Hofler details the adamantly out producer’s intentions for the show. He writes:

Allan tried to reinvent the Oscars through camp comedy.

The reinvention included the addition of several key elements that have been staples of the telecast ever since. He was the first to focus on the red carpet arrivals of the celebrities and he changed the wording of, “And the winner is,” to, “And the Award Goes To.” Unfortunately, Carr’s everything but the kitchen approach to producing also included pairing a high pitched Snow White with Rob Lowe for a duet of “Proud Mary” in a musical opening number that reached heights of camp that left most viewers scratching their heads.

The show was critically savaged, although the disastrous reception it received, seems in retrospect, overrated and probably had more than a little to do with the undeniably gay sensibility that the adamantly out and proud Carr brought to the awards. Even though many consider the show the worst in Oscar history, there are also advocates of over the top show starters of the kind Carr created for the 1989 awards. Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales explained his love of elaborate Oscar openings to Variety in 1999, He said:

I adore them. I loved the year when Teri Garr danced and sang from the wing of a plane.

Opening Of The 58th Academy Awards Featuring Teri Garr:

Teri Garr’s post-mortem Tonight Show appearance:

When Garr was asked in the same interview about her thoughts on the opening (from the 58th awards ceremony) she said she thought she’d never live it down, before adding:

But then there was Rob Lowe.

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Madonna’s Performance of the Oscar Nominated Stephen Sondheim Song “Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)” from Dick Tracy, 1991

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Madonna was at the height of her career in 1990. She mounted the hugely successful Blonde Ambition Tour, starred as herself in the critically acclaimed and financially successful documentary Truth Or Dare for Miramax films and nabbed a role in the summer blockbuster Dick Tracy. Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim composed the score and songs featured in the movie. His work challenged even the most talented singers with soaring multi-octave chord changes. When one of the songs from the film was nominated for Best Song, Madonna, who was never known for being the most talented vocalist, was asked to take on the challenge of executing a Sondheim tune in front of millions at the 1991 Oscars ceremony. In his tell all book, Life with my Sister Madonna, Christopher Ciccone recalls how frightened she was before the performance:

Anytime she has to appear on television she becomes a basketcase. In fact I felt awful for her when I saw her hands shaking in a trembling televised performance of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)” from Dick Tracy at the 1991 Academy Awards. There were no screaming fans and she — who always hated not moving while she performed — had to stand still while she sang. Had she been singing to an audience of fans she wouldn’t have been at all nervous. But this time she was performing in front of an auditorium full of established actors and actresses, a group of people to which she didn’t really belong, who didn’t respect her as an actress but whose respect she desperately wanted to win. Hence her fit of nerves.

The performance stretched Madonna’s Marilyn Monroe/Jean Harlow imitation to its conceivable limit. It’s probably no coincidence that she changed her image yet again, soon after.

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