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‘And the winner is…?’: Oscar’s top 10 shocks

February 26, 2011

Bare-faced cheek: Niv sees the funny side as a chap in his birthday suit joins 74’s Oscar party

Love it or loathe it, it’s the Academy Awards again on Sunday night. Will The King’s Speech reign supreme or will The Social Network connect most with voters? Who knows and – you may ask – who cares? Indeed, when it comes down to it, aside from observing the silver screen’s glitterati all in one place at once and checking out what they’re all wearing, why do we actually watch the Oscars? I’ll tell you why, for exactly the same reason we watch any major sporting or news event – in case anything exciting, nay surprising, happens.

Yes, folks, we’re talking Oscar shocks. But what do I mean by that? Small-scale family drama Ordinary People beating Raging ‘the greatest movie of the ’80s’ Bull to Best Picture in ’81? No, the Academy always goes for the emotionally satisfying over the emotionally challenging. Halle Berry and Denzel Washington being named Best Actor and Actress on the same night in ’02? Nah, it was simply ‘their’ time. Crash, well, crashing Brokeback Mountain‘s party back in ’05? Definitely not – I mean, be fair, were the conservative-with-a-small-‘c’ Academy ever going to give Best Picture to a flick about gay cowboys?

Nopes, you see, I’m talking the big, proper – sometimes surreal, often downright weird – surprises the Oscars have given us down through the decades that truly make the whole farago worthwhile. So, if you’ll take your seats, my very welcome VIP guests, this is my top 10 run-down…

(Oh, and do CLICK on the entry titles for video clips of the moments themselves – they’re well worth it)


10. The Oscars that almost weren’t (1967)

So, where better to start a countdown of Oscar shocks than with the one that very nearly trumped all the others? Yes, but for a last-minute intervention, the 39th Academy Awards may have proved the most memorable Oscars of all – by not actually happening. Just like anywhere else, Hollywood in the late ’60s and ’70s was a politically energised place, with its annual big night out far from immune (see the next entry on the list) – and thanks to the attempts of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), 1967’s show is a prime example. AFTRA – a union of performers and broadcasters – aimed to hold a strike that would smartly/ cynically (delete as appropriate) coincide with the ceremony, ensuring its members couldn’t broadcast it. In the end, just three hours before the thing was due to air, whatever dispute the organisation had with the Academy was settled. Perhaps fittingly, one of the big winners on the night was Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (1966) – a movie most memorable for its characters arguing with and shouting at each other throughout.


9. ‘Zionist hoodlums’ (1978)

As referred to above, Oscar has certainly known its fair share of protest speeches – award winners taking the opportunity to sprinkle those that have rewarded them with the ultimate honour in their profession not just (or even not all) with thanks, but with a harangue on their favourite political bête noire. Take for instance the wonderfully talented British actress Vanessa Redgrave, who when picking up her Best Supporting Actress stauette for Julia in 1978 (and in perhaps the most memorable Oscar ‘rant’) applauded the Academy for not being intimidated by “a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums, whose behavior is an insult to the stature of Jews all over the world, and to their great and heroic record of struggle against facism and oppression.” Why did she say this? Well, that year’s Oscars had been picketed by members of the Jewish Defence League, burning effigies of Redgrave, in protest to her backing Palestine’s cause and, in turn, to the Academy for nominating her for an award (she’d narrated a pro-Palestine documentary the same year). So did Vanessa get the last laugh? Well, she got cheers but boos too – and a ticking off for her behaviour from Julia‘s writer later on in the night. Hollywood rebels, eh?


8. WTF? (1986)

Ah, Oscar frocks. It’s fair to say there’s definitely been some howlers down through the years. Who could forget Bjork’s totally surreal swan-dress in ’01 0r Gwyneth Paltrow’s revealing grey goth get-up in ’02? One year Diane Keaton came dressed in a Charlie Chaplin-inspired suit with tails. No, really. But the one that takes the biscuit for me is the, well… thing that the inimitable Cher wore in ’86 when she presented the Best Supporting Actor Oscar to Don Ameche. Quite frankly, the moment in which she sweeps on-stage looking like some sort of crow-dominatrix channelling Tina Turner in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) and gives the award to the old-school, amiably conservative Ameche for his role in the gentle geriatric sci-fi drama Cocoon (1985) is simply the Oscars at its ill-fitting, awkwardly brilliant best (or worst, depending on your opinion). Sonny’s (once) other half actually won the Best Actress statuette two years later for Moonstruck (1987), but don’t worry she looked less ridiculous then. Well, slightly. She merely wore a highly slinky number that was way more naughty nightee than glammed-up night-out.


7. ‘It’s a tie!’ (1969)

1969. It was the end of the ’60s, the end of a dream really; the innocence of hippiedom had arguably collapsed and been replaced by… what? The Doors were right, the times were ‘strange days’, indeed. And strange, it’s probably fair to say, sum up the Oscars held that year. Oddly, the Academy hadn’t nominated 2001: A Space Odyssey, Rosemary’s Baby, Bullit, Planet Of The Apes or The Odd Couple for ’68’s Best Picture, instead preferring the likes of Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo And Juliet and Paul Newman’s directorial debut Rachel, Rachel. And winning that prize on the night was not the outstanding historical drama The Lion In Winter, but stomping, escapist musical from another age Oliver! (admittedly, I love it). But things get stranger still, for there wasn’t a Best Actress award dished out that year – there were two. To the surprise of presenter Ingrid Bergman – and, frankly, everyone else – the result was a tie. Perhaps predictably, the imperious Katharine Hepburn won for her role in The Lion In Winter, but so too did newcomer Barbra Streisand for musical Funny Girl. And still it gets better. Like for all four of her Oscar wins, Hepburn didn’t actually turn up and, on the way to the stage, Barb managed to slip on the flared leg of her sheer, tuxedo-style trouser-suit. Classic stuff, indeed.


6. An X-rated film wins Best Picture (1970)

So one year later at the Oscars and, well, the whole thing still very much mirrored the randomness, confusion, anger and chaos of the time. Take, for example, the five nominees for that year’s – or 1969’s – Best Picture: traditional historical epic Anne Of The Thousand Days; hugely popular comic, but revisionist western Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid; Barbra Streisand’s follow-up to Funny Girl (1968), the old-fashioned, rather out-of-date Hello, Dolly!; French-language, Algerian-made, Greek political thriller Z; and the X-rated gritty, brilliant New York-set drama Midnight Cowboy. Now, clearly the safe choice for the Academy would have been to give the award to either Anne Of The Thousand Days or – probably the public’s choice – Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. Did they, though? Did they hell… they gave it to the X-rated flick. Yes, not only did the unfalteringly frank, homosexual- and homeless-themed Midnight Cowboy become the first film to be nominated for an Oscar with the least universal – and, arguably, most damning – film certificate possible, it also became the only one with that rating to land the big one (in actual fact, the X-rating no longer exists; its equivalent in the US today is the equally reviled NC-17).  Not just that, but this upset ensured that the only ever X-rated movie to win Best Picture came just one year after the only ever G- (or U-) rated movie, Oliver!, achieved the same thing. Now that’s what you call an Oscar one-two.


5. The ‘greatest film ever made’ doesn’t win Best Picture (1942)

Since 1962, Orson Welles’ awesome Citizen Kane (1941) has topped highbrow film magazine Sight & Sound‘s decennial Top 10 best movies list every single time. It topped the 1998 poll of the 100 greatest flicks published by the American Film Institute (AFI), as well as polls held by eight other notable movie organisations and magazines around the world. Of any film you care to name then, Citizen Kane may have the most legitimate claim as the ‘greatest ever made’. And yet, at the 1942 Oscars How Green Was My Valley, a film about Welsh coalminers (yes, seriously), won Best Picture. Ah, you may say, like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Kane for some bizarre reason wasn’t nominated? But it was. And when truly outstanding flicks have been, they’ve usually gone on to win – Gone With The Wind (1939); Casablanca (1942); The Godfather Parts I (1972) and II (1974); One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975); Schindler’s List (1993) etc. So why didn’t Kane? Well, the flick is actually a dark parody of pre-war US tycoon and press baron William Randolph Hearst, who was so dismayed at the film he effectively killed its chances of making a profit and threatened Academy members if they gave it any awards – it was nominated for nine (including for Director and Actor) and won only for its screenplay. Apparently, even the ceremony’s audience booed every time its name was mentioned. How Green Was My Valley? Pah, how lucky was that movie, more like.


4. ‘A goddamn meat parade’ (1971)

In 1971 there was only one guy who was ever going to win the Best Actor Oscar. He was was the barnstorming thespian George C Scott, who in Patton (1970), the biopic of the infamous WWII US general, delivered arguably the best performance nominated for that award for several years. But he wasn’t a happy bunny – and, even if the world probably wouldn’t have, the Academy should have guessed what would happen. Nine years before, Scott had been nominated in the Supporting category for his role in The Hustler (1961), a move that hadn’t impressed him much – he’d sent a note to the Academy that said ‘No thanks’. Perhaps thankfully, he didn’t win that time. But, inevitably, he did for Patton. And not only didn’t he turn up, he also became the first person ever to reject an Oscar (the film’s producer Frank J McCarthy accepted it on the night; Scott had said he didn’t attend because he was watching an ice hockey game). But there are two accounts from Scott explaining his decision. The first quotes him as saying: “The whole thing is a goddamn meat parade. I don’t want any part of it”. In the second, from a 1986 interview, he states: “The [Oscar] ceremonies are a two-hour meat parade, a public display with contrived suspense for economic reasons. There is no question you get pumped up by the recognition. Then a self-loathing sets in when you realize you’re enjoying it.” You must admit, he may have a point there.


3. Chariots beats Raiders (1982)

Now, in choosing an outrageous David-beats-Goliath win at the Academy Awards, the Oscar-versed among you may have suggested Driving Miss Daisy‘s ‘out-of-nowhere’ Best Picture win in 1990 over Born On The Fourth Of July, Dead Poets Society, Field Of Dreams and My Left Foot. After all, that quartet were all critically-acclaimed, big hits. Yet, Daisy actually was too – it ended up the eighth biggest flick at the US box-office in its year and, before the Oscars, won every award in sight.  So, instead I’m going with Chariots Of Fire’s denial of Indy’s first escapade, Raiders Of The Lost Ark – the latter being Spielberg’s ginormously popular blockbuster, of course, the former being a tiny Brit drama about two runners at the 1924 Olympics. Erm, right. Chariots had no awards momentum (it hadn’t won at the Golden Globes or anything else). Moreover, it’s rather amazing the Academy had even heard of – let alone seen – it to choose it over Raiders and the other Best Picture nominees that year (including Katharine Hepburn and the Fondas in On Golden Pond and Warren Beatty’s epic Reds, which denied Chariots the usual double-whammy of Best Director too). You see, before the noms were announced Chariots had made $8m in the US; Raiders $188m. As the Yanks like to say, you do the math.


2. The streaker (1974)

This moment, quite wonderfully, was voted Oscar’s best ever in 2001. It’s not hard to understand why. The first ever recorded ‘streak’ was in London as far back as 1799, but it only really came to prominence, it seems, thanks to Californian students in the early 1970s disrobing and showing their all in public for the hell of it. By the time of the ’74 Oscars, the fad had spread to major public events on both sides of the pond, especially sports matches. At its height, even Snoopy streaked in a Peanuts, er, strip. However, the Oscars streak wasn’t quite the surprise many understandably assumed it was – it was actually pre-arranged in conjunction with the ceremony’s TV producer. Talk about embracing the flesh. The moment was magic, though. Just as urbane host David Niven was about to introduce Best Picture presenter Elizabeth Taylor, appearing in-shot behind him was the moustachioed photographer Robert Opel flashing a V-sign for ‘Peace’ (as well as his bits). Quite magnificently – and although not impromptu, as he knew what was going to happen – Niven quipped: “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?”. Trust Niv not to make a big deal about such a little thing.


1. Huh, that’s not Marlon Brando…? (1973)

So, this is Oscar’s biggest shock, eh – the one that leaves all the others behind mouthing an obscenity like Samuel L Jackson for missing out on the top prize? Yes, and it’s one as golden as the little feller on his plinth himself. As – I think it’s fair to say – I’ve pointed out, the years from the mid-’60s through to the mid-’70s were among the craziest and most entertaining at the Academy Awards (they rewarded some damn good films back then too, of course) and this moment in particular brilliantly sums up that period for the Oscars. The epic masterpiece that was The Godfather (1972) was adored by the public, lauded by the critics and awarded three Oscars by the Academy. Two of them were for Picture and Screenplay; the other for its lead, the legendary Marlon Brando in his iconic performance as Don Vito Corleone. But Brando decided to do ‘a George C Scott’ and didn’t accept his award. And what happened, following the funky pairing of Roger Moore and Liv Ullman announcing he’d won, was a diminutive young woman in Native American dress walked up to the stage and gestured to Moore she wouldn’t take the Oscar.

She went on to explain the absent Brando’s reasons for his no-show and non-acceptance: apparently it was a protest against Hollywood and US TV’s depiction of Native Americans and, especially, against the recent incident in South Dakota town Wounded Knee, which had been cordoned off by the FBI after being occupied by the American Indian Movement (AIM). To say the ceremony’s attendees were stunned by what was happening in front of them is an understatement – boos and applause both rang out – and that’s to say nothing for the reaction around the world. Unquestionably, the event did much to secure Brando a bizarre reputation in the public consciousness – later incidents, not least those on the set of the film Apocalypse Now (1979) would only fuel it further. Always a great talent, but without a doubt an eccentric individual. Shortly afterwards, it also emerged that the woman who had turned up on the night in his stead, named Sacheen Littlefeather, although a committed Native American activist, was also an actress and the winner of the ‘Miss American Vampire’ contest in 1970.

But, you may ask, given she hadn’t taken it, what happened to the Oscar? Well, the truth is that Roger Moore hung to it. According to his autobiography, the former 007 smoothly exited the venue still holding it and, arriving back at his hotel, mused on whether to give it to his pal Michael Caine, owing to the latter being nominated for it that year and, presumably unlike Marlon, only too happy to receive it. Eventually some charlies turned up the following morning and took it away in an armoured car – but not before Rog’s young daughter (as well as the crowds outside the venue) had assumed he’d won it himself. Yes, it’s just so unlikely and wonderful a tale, it must be true – and, like all the other great Oscar shocks listed here, I can assure you, peeps, it most definitely is.

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