The Oscars don’t command the TV audience they once did. Even so, around 20 million viewers still tune in to Hollywood’s annual festival of self-congratulation to bask in the dimly reflected glow of the beautiful people’s big night out, the red-carpet triumphs and disasters, the teary jubilation of the winners, the million-dollar rictus grins of the losers. The glitz, the glam, the glorious no-expense-spared tackiness of it all.
But the Academy Awards has much more to offer than that. The true joy of the Oscars, like weddings and children’s TV shows featuring wild animals, stems from the impromptu, the unexpected, the unprecedented and the just plain weird. From wardrobe malfunctions to botched speeches, the train-wreck musical numbers, and the pampered multi-millionaires in $10,000 tuxedos acting like five-year-olds who missed out on nap time, the telecasts offer no shortage of memorable Oscar moments.
No one knows what delights this year’s ceremony holds, but the time has come to salute more unrehearsed delights and to more gussied-up rich folks making heels of themselves. Viva memorable Oscar moments!
The Slap Heard Around the World (2023)
“Jada, I love you. G.I. Jane 2, can’t wait to see it.” Not even Chris Rock would describe his jibe at Pinkett Smith as his best material, nor his most tasteful given her struggle with hair loss from alopecia. Still, Will Smith seemed to find it hilarious – right up to the moment he strode manfully onto the Oscars stage and smacked Rock full force in the kisser, of course.
Moonlight: So, Nada? (2023)
The evening’s big moment had arrived: the Oscar for Best Picture. Hollywood royalty Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway – Bonnie and Clyde, together again! – prepare to announce the winner. Beatty opens the envelope, reads the card, and pauses. He goes to say something, then looks down at the card again…
…and pauses again. The star-studded crowd laughs. That old kidder Warren! Dunaway gives him a playful nudge. He looks at the card again, then shows it to her. Dunaway doesn’t hesitate. “And the winner is – La La Land!” The audience erupts, the La La Land contingent makes their jubilant way to the stage, and then…
Blame for the biggest snafu in Oscar history, the announcement of La La Land as winner instead of the far superior Moonlight, does not rest with Beatty or Dunaway, despite host Jimmy Kimmel instantly shoving them under the bus. It rests squarely with PricewaterhouseCoopers accountant Brian Cullinan who handed Beatty the wrong envelope – a duplicate of Emma Stone’s win for Best Actress – on his way to the podium. What could possibly have distracted Cullinan from his most important duty of the evening?
He was chatting on his phone, a lesson to us all.
Kidman’s Viral Clap (2017)
Looking as if she’d somehow forgotten how to clap, Kidman’s bizarre hand-flapping at the 2017 ceremony caused a minor internet sensation. Apparently, her impersonation of a hungry seal asking for a fish was due to a hugely expensive borrowed ring she feared might get damaged if she banged her hands together in the traditional manner. How she avoids shattered fingers when showing her appreciation sans bling is anyone’s guess.
Streak of Peace (1974)
In the most naked memorable Oscar moment, just as Elizabeth Taylor joined host David Niven on stage to present the Best Picture Award, a mustachioed young man sprinted past them in his birthday suit, flashing a peace sign and much else. “Well, ladies and gentlemen, that was almost bound to happen,” quipped Niven. “But isn’t it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?”
“That man” was photographer and gallery owner Robert Opel, a lifelong LGBTQ activist who later ran for office under the slogan “Not just another crooked D-ck,” a reference to disgraced President Richard Nixon (and absolutely nothing else).
A champion of such controversial artists as Tom of Finland and Robert Mapplethorpe, Opel died in 1979 during a robbery at his San Francisco studio, shot and killed by the intruders. Rumor persists that Oscars producer Jack Haley, Jr. staged Opel’s infamous appearance as a publicity stunt.
Brando’s No-show (1973)
In protest at Hollywood’s historic treatment of Native Americans, Marlon Brando declined his Best Actor Oscar for The Godfather, entreating 26-year-old actress and civil rights activist Sacheen Littlefeather to refuse it, graciously, on his behalf.
From the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Littlefeather delivered a short speech condemning the film industry’s portrayal of Native Americans, ending by saying, “I beg at this time that I have not intruded upon this evening and that in the future, our hearts and our understandings will meet with love and generosity. Thank you on behalf of Marlon Brando.”
The speech had added resonance given the ongoing occupation of the South Dakota town of Wounded Knee, seized by supporters of the American Indian Movement in February 1973. Even as Littlefeather spoke, AIM members faced an armed stand-off with U.S. Marshalls. Her words met boos and catcalls from some, but cheers and applause from others.
Shortly before her death in 2022, Littlefeather revealed that her presence so enraged cowboy star John Wayne it took six security guards to restrain him from physically attacking her.
Jack Palance Gets Down (1992)
After accepting his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for City Slickers, 73-year-old Western icon Palance, best known as baleful gunfighter Jack Wilson in 1953’s Shane, dropped to the floor and gave the astonished audience an impromptu ten, a number of them one-handed. Your move, Tom Hanks.
McDaniel in the Lions Den (1939)
Hattie McDaniel made history as the first African American to win an Oscar, picking up the Best Supporting Actress award for her role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind. The Academy marked the auspicious occasion by – hang onto those pearls! – actually letting McDaniel attend the ceremony.
Naturally, they seated her well away from the other cast members at the back of the venue, out of sight of the press and anyone else of a “sensitive” disposition. Sigh.
Sacha Baron Cohen/Ryan Seacrest Dust-up (2012)
Dressed in full Dictator regalia, the Borat star and notorious provocateur got escorted off the red carpet after dumping the ashes of deceased despot Kim Jon Il over Seacrest’s nice new suit.
Hitch Keeps it Brief (1968)
Never officially honored with a Best Director Oscar, Alfred Hitchcock made his feelings clear about his Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, a too-little-too-late consolation prize traditionally awarded to the criminally overlooked. His record-breaking acceptance speech, a curt “Thank you,” lasted less time than it takes most recipients to clear their throat.
Bjork Gives Oscar the Bird (2001)
Of all the outlandish getups that have graced the Oscar red carpet, none has ruffled more feathers than Bjork’s swan – especially when it laid an oversized egg.
Created by Macedonian designer Marjan Pejoski, the fabulous avian ensemble made the Icelandic singer-actor, nominated for Best Original Song (“I’ve Seen it All” from Dancer in the Dark), look like a ventriloquist losing a death match with her dummy.
John Travolta meets “Adele Dazeem” (2014)
Perhaps suffering some kind of fever, Travolta mangled Frozen star Idina Menzel‘s name so badly he might as well have introduced her as Miss Incontinentia Posterior. Travolta later blamed the wording on the card, which spelled out Menzel’s name phonetically, presumably to avoid just such a screw-up.
Matt Stone and Trey Parker go J-Lo (2015)
Goosing Oscar’s strict dress code and po-faced self-importance, the South Park honchos staged a red-carpet tribute to style icon Jennifer Lopez and her famously revealing frocks. They then sat through the ceremony tripping on LSD, which, hopefully, made the ceremony more exciting.
Margaret O’Brien’s AWOL Oscar (1944)
Only seven years old at the time, O’Brien won 1944’s Juvenile Oscar for Outstanding Child Performer of the Year. Sometime later, noticing Oscar looked a little grubby, O’Brien entrusted him to the family maid for a clean. When the maid failed to return the statuette after three days, O’Brien’s mother fired her – then abruptly dropped dead.
The maid disappeared, taking the Oscar with her. Its whereabouts remained a mystery for years until the maid herself died and O’Brien’s children found it among her possessions. Reasoning it must be a fake (the Academy had given O’Brien a replacement award years earlier), they sold it to an antique dealer who, recognizing it as the genuine article, put it up for auction. Luckily, the Academy has strict rules on such things and stepped in to nix the sale. O’Brien and her Oscar were finally reunited in 1995.
Ultimate Cher-Wear (1986)
Feeling the Academy didn’t take her seriously as an actress, having snubbed her outstanding performance as Eric Stoltz’ mom in the movie Mask, Cher retaliated in characteristic style. Her outrageous Vampira-goes-Vegas getup, a belly-button-baring FU to the Oscar brass, completely stole the show. Two years later, she won Best Actress for Moonstruck.
Jennifer Lawrence Takes a Tumble (2013)
Who can forget Lawrence, giddy with excitement, tripping lightly up the steps of the Kodak Theater to collect her well-earned Best Actress award for Silver Linings Playbook. Then tripping heavily over her voluminous skirt and falling into a flailing heap of taffeta and lace.
Naturally, when she made the podium, Lawrence got a standing ovation – the irony of which did not escape the 22-year-old actress. “You guys are just standing up because you feel bad that I fell,” she said. “That’s really embarrassing, but thank you.”
Glenn Close Shakes Her Thing (2021)
Yes, this really happened. After correctly identifying the DC go-go classic in a trivia quiz segment, the 74-year-old multiple Oscar-nominee leapt to her feet to give a booty-shaking masterclass. Spike Lee, in whose 1988 movie School Daze the track first made waves, later dubbed Close “My sista.” For a performer of Close’s caliber, just another day’s twerk.
Sharon Stone Tees it Up (1996)
Taking the opposite tack to Cher and Bjork, Stone caused a red-carpet furor by turning up in a plain black tee from The Gap. An affront to the show’s glam legacy to some, a bold act of defiance to others, Shirtgate owed more to necessity than design. On the advice of Basic Instinct costume designer Ellen Mirojnick, Stone donned the offending item at the last minute after a FedEx driver accidentally drove over her gown in his truck.
In an adorable footnote, Stone’s mom had to darn a hole in the shirt’s armpit before she left for the show.
Katherine Hepburn/Barbara Streisand Throw-Down (1969)
Unable to choose between Hepburn’s turn in The Lion in Winter and Streisand’s performance in Funny Girl (her screen debut), the Academy took the unprecedented step of giving them both a Best Actress Oscar.
Streisand showed up to collect, cooing “Hello gorgeous” as she lifted the statue. Hepburn stayed home, but not to snub Babs. In a career spanning 50-odd years, Hepburn declined to accept any of her record-breaking four Oscars in person. “Prizes are nothing,” she explained. “My prize is my work.”
Easy to say when you’ve got four Academy Awards adorning your downstairs loo.
The Hunt for Robert Rich (1957)
When screenwriter Robert Rich failed to show up to collect his Best Motion Picture Story Oscar for The Brave One, the Academy spent several days trying to track him down, a well-intentioned but fruitless quest since Rich didn’t exist.
Banned screenwriter Dalton Trumbo wrote The Brave One and created Rich to shine a light on the House Un-American Activities Committee witch hunts and the Hollywood blacklist.
Joan and Bette Feud (1963)
Screen divas Joan Crawford and Bette Davis had one of the bitterest and most prolonged rivalries in Hollywood history, a feud that reached its zenith when they co-starred in macabre “hagsploitation” thriller Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and only Davis received a Best Actress Oscar nod.
Incensed, Crawford vowed to upstage her nemesis by whatever means possible. While actively campaigning against Davis, she hit on the breathtakingly devious scheme of persuading Ann Bancroft to let her accept the award on her behalf should she win instead of Davis. As Crawford well knew, Bancroft had a Broadway commitment that ruled out an Oscar night appearance.
Sure enough, Davis lost the Oscar to Bancroft and could only watch in cold fury as Crawford swept imperiously onto the stage to accept the award as if she’d won it herself.