When more than a billion viewers around the world tune in to see Australian star Hugh Jackman host the 81st Academy Awards on Feb. 22, they will see some of the biggest superstars strut their stuff, but they won’t see everything. On this glitzy night where every minute is meticulously planned and scripted, the unpredictable still frequently happens. And what Oscar history has shown is that what comes across on the home screen is often not the whole picture.
In more than eight decades of awards, the Motion Picture Academy has struggled to keep the lid on the scandals and backstage drama. Sometimes they can — mostly they can’t — because they’re dealing, after all, with some of the biggest egos in the world.
But the times they are a changing’. This year oscar.com will stream a continuous backstage video of the event, although you can bet that if it gets too unruly the Academy will turn off the power. Or if Mickey Rourke should win for The Wrestler, much of his acceptance speech might have to be bleeped.
I’d like to take you back in Oscar time — before the era of ubiquitous streaming video and YouTube immortality. In l973, Marlon Brando sent an odd stand-in to collect his Oscar. As producers looked on in horror, an actress named Maria Cruz, dressed in high-fashion Indian regalia, introduced herself as Sacheen Littlefeather and stepped on stage to pick up Brando’s well-deserved Oscar for The Godfather. To add insult to injury, she castigated Hollywood for its treatment of Native Americans.
Of course, the world has changed since then, even in Hollywood. Security may be tight now, but this wasn’t always the case. In l974, astonished viewers saw a streaker race across the stage, startling even the unflappable host David Niven. But the British star recovered his cool and viewing the retreating naked interloper, observed wittily that the audacious runner was “displaying his shortcomings.”
In l974, producer Bert Schneider was hissed and booed at by the audience when he won for his Vietnam documentary Hearts and Minds. After he read a telegram thanking the Vietnam delegation for taking part in the Paris peace talks, there was bedlam backstage. Frank Sinatra apologized for Schneider’s comments, much to the chagrin of other Academy members, including his old Rat Pack chum Shirley MacLaine. The hisses and boos were repeated in l978 when Vanessa Redgrave won a “Best Actress” Oscar for Julia. When she rose to accept her Oscar she referred to the “Zionist hooligans” outside. This was followed by more hisses and boos as several big names walked out.
According to Steve Pond, author of The Big Show: High Times and Dirty Dealings Backstage at the Academy Awards, Madonna was almost banned from the Oscars. In l991, shortly before she took the stage to sing a song nominated for the movie Dick Tracy, the blonde bombshell, who showed up for rehearsal in night gown and slippers, unleashed a foul-mouthed tirade after learning that the pop-up microphone she’d ordered wasn’t anywhere in sight.
Barbra Streisand has a reputation for hating public appearances, but she agreed to show up for the l973 Oscars show when she was nominated for The Way We Were. She spent the entire show hidden backstage. (Glenda Jackson won for A Touch of Class.)
It’s common knowledge that if winners’ speeches carry on too long they will be drowned out by music. This year, producer Laurence Mark will monitor the event with a stopwatch. The award for the longest and most boring acceptance speech goes to Warren Beatty, who, with his prestigious Irving Thalberg Award in 2000, went on for a brain-numbing six minutes.
In l997, Courtney Love, the widow of late rocker Kurt Cobain, said she hated the jokes written for her by Carrie Fisher and planned to read some poetry instead. She was talked out of that very bad idea but then forgot her assignment: to name the Oscar winner for “Best Makeup.”
In 2000, Whitney Houston was supposed to sing “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz and “The Way We Were” from the award-winning film of the same name. But at rehearsals she was in such bad shape that she was told to stay home.
As someone who attends all the awards ceremonies, I would say the Golden Globes awards are much more fun than the Oscars. You can sip champagne during the show and let your hair down. There’s no booze at the Oscars, although many stars like to pop out during commercial breaks to grab a quick drink, booze is banned backstage. When Julia Roberts won her Oscar for Erin Brockovich in 2001, the wobbly-at-the-knees star was so overcome, she almost collapsed. Her pal Kevin Spacey called for a glass of champagne to help revive her but was told, there was only water. “Get me some champagne,” thundered Spacey. And the backstage rule was broken for the first time.
My favorite Oscar moment was never shown on TV. In l972, I sat down with the legendary Charlie Chaplin at the Beverly Hilton Hotel ball. The Great Clown finally received an honorary Oscar after being persona non grata in Hollywood for many years because of his perceived left-wing politics. The tearful Chaplin sat with his wife, Oona, holding the statuette in his hands and said, “I never thought I’d ever live to see this.” Oh, what I would have given for a cell phone camera that night.