The Oscars’ 7 Wildest Moments Revealed, From Feuding Sisters to The Slap
The Oscars have always been a battleground of sorts. In recent years, the ceremony has become a public event arbitrating issues of race, gender, and privilege in cinema and society. But throughout its 94-year history, the Academy Awards mediated some very different battles. There have been attempts to square petty power plays, wars with the Academy itself, and even attempts to take down a gay Oscars producer.
“The red carpet runs through contested turf,” Michael Schulman opens his new tome on the awards, Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears (out Feb 21). It’s a mammoth history chronicling close to a century of wild conflicts and petty disputes that has seen the ceremony transform from a quiet industry dinner to an elite spectacle of celebrity and status.
Here, we pick the most haywire stories retold in Oscar Wars:
A lifelong feud begins between sisters (1942)
Before there was Bette Davis vs. Joan Crawford, there was Olivia de Havilland vs. sister Joan Fontaine. It’s a history that would make Ryan Murphy salivate in its petty public performances and backstage shade — with an Oscars ceremony its nadir. The two sisters destined “to be anything but rivals” found themselves each vying for the Best Actress Oscar in 1942, neither a previous winner but each now determined to win the little gold man. The press even crowned it the “Battle of the Sisters.” On the night, Fontaine nabbed the statuette and with it, ensured a lifetime of wrath and resentment from her sister. “The feud followed them to their obituaries,” Schulman writes. When de Havilland, 97, was told of her sister’s death, the exchange with her granddaughter went: “‘Oh, how are you this morning?’ I said, ‘Your sister died.’ ‘Oh, and what are your plans for this Sunday?’”
At war with the Academy (1957)
In 1957, the Best Motion Picture Story Oscar was awarded to Robert Rich. But there wasn’t a Rich there to collect it. In Oscar Wars, Schulman explains that Rich was actually a pseudonym for Dalton Trumbo, a successful screenwriter who became public enemy number one for the House Un-American Activities Committee. He was named as a communist, blacklisted, and thrown in prison — even after he had secretly helped pen another award-winning screenplay, Roman Holiday. Still, Trumbo took great pleasure knowing that the Academy had awarded an Oscar to an apparent American traitor and wanted to exact some petty vengeance. When Kirk Douglas helped end the blacklist against Trumbo by asking he write the Spartacus screenplay, Trumbo set about stitching a larger allegory about McCarthy-era America in it. He even added a scene to the script that echoed the Oscars night of 1957. The film eventually won four Oscars. John F. Kennedy even attended a film screening thanks to brother Teddy’s recommendation. Kennedy apparently asked about Trumbo’s name listed in the credits, saying, “Do you think he’s Irish? I hope so.” In later years, the Academy made amends and issued Trumbo with a belated Oscar for Roman Holiday.
Generational battlelines (1970)
The 1970s were perhaps the wildest decade of the Academy Awards yet. A naked streaker. George C. Scott publicly rejecting the ceremony as a “meat parade.” Vanessa Redgrave using her acceptance speech to launch into a tirade against “Zionist hoodlums.” But it was the 1970 ceremony that saw a real generational fracture play out in moviemaking. The so-called “New Hollywood” won the war against the old guard by bringing sex and anti-establishment sensibility to the ceremony — and taking home the big gongs. When Midnight Cowboy, an X-rated film about the friendship between a sex worker and con man, won Best Picture it showed “for the first time, the counterculture had won.” Schulman writes how old Hollywood, represented at the ceremony by stars like Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra, and Mickey Rooney, were soon sent “out to pasture” by the Academy, as it rewrote the rules for Academy membership. The new order was in effect, with a generational split seeing the bygone studio star system symbolically broken at the most public and symbolic of movie-making events, and a new era begin.
Fighting for justice (1973)
Throughout the same decade, the Oscars continued inflaming anger in some Americans who were disillusioned by powerful institutions like the moviemaking business. This meant “the ceremony [was] upended by one sideshow after another.” In 1973, Marlon Brando sent Apache activist Sacheen Littlefeather to reject his Best Actor Award for The Godfather, a daring gesture that was widely ridiculed. (The story goes that John Wayne had to be restrained by six men from rushing the stage and attacking Littlefeather.) It did, however, begin an earnest trajectory of acceptance speeches taking on political causes, one more readily embraced given the platform and public exposure afforded. However, in recent times, this story has been tinged by two competing and revisionist narratives. The Academy formally apologized to Littlefeather in 2022, recognizing the appalling treatment she received at the 1973 ceremony. Elsewhere, after Littlefeather’s death the same year, her two estranged sisters claimed she was never Native American and instead an ethic fraud who lived a lifetime of lying and deception.
At war with a gay producer (1989)
1989 was the year when the Oscars got a musical makeover — and earned the moniker “The Worst Oscars Ever.” Allan Carr, the flamboyant producer of Grease and Can’t Stop the Music, was finally given his lifelong wish to produce an Oscars ceremony. “I want to bring glamor back to the awards,” he reportedly told friends. But his camp imagination soon ran way too wild and his efforts to rechannel bygone allure bordered on the carnivalesque. There were lavish musical numbers, including a segment with the Brat Pack of the ’80s such as Christian Slater and Ricki Lake. But not before a painful and prolonged Disney-inspired number. The tortured 11-minute segment featured Rob Lowe singing and dancing with Snow White to “Proud Mary.” The backlash was unrelenting. Disney threatened to sue for unauthorized use of a Disney princess. (Schulman says the Snow White dancer was served by a lawyer the day after the ceremony with documents forbidding her from talking to press for 13 years.) The Academy itself quickly convened to review the carnage. “Carr had committed multiple Hollywood sins: he’d been too self-aggrandizing, too tacky, too gay,” Schulman writes. For his efforts, Carr was soon kicked out of Hollywood and left with a career in tatters.
Pushing the wrong envelope (2017)
Against the backdrop of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign and the start of a grim Trump presidency, films Moonlight and La La Land vied for top pick at the 2017 Academy Awards. The studios behind each lobbied hard with strong, if belated reviews and some last-minute buzz shoring up hope that Moonlight might actually win Best Picture — a gesture seen as an important corrective to the glaring absence of people of color nominated in acting roles. As is well-known, Faye Dunaway read the wrong envelope and announced that La La Land had won the award, only for La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz to correct the record and confirm Moonlight as the winner. The fallout was huge. One side of social media exploded with speculation on the exact sequence of events, while another side suggested it was all a prank, nodding to the charged racial politics behind the awards. Schulman leans into the minutiae of the night to retell how the exact episode unfolded. This all leads to when the PwC “accountant” accidentally hands over the Best Actress envelope for the Best Picture category. It’s no surprise to hear that Dunaway quickly “headed for the hills” after the blunder.
The Slap (2022)
The slap is burned deep into popular memory, not only for violating the elevated decorum of the Oscars but coming so soon after the envelope foray. Infamously, Will Smith assaulted host Chris Rock after Rock delivered a distasteful punchline aimed at Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. Confusion reigned at the Dolby Theatre, as some registered it as a skit of sorts while others saw it as a wildly violent act. While the moment was shocking — not least because Smith was later to win the Best Actor Award — it was some of the behind-the-scenes antics that beggar belief. Schulman recounts how at the Vanity Fair Oscar party, Smith danced to his hit “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” while waving his new gold statuette. “In a matter of hours, he had assaulted someone [and] ripped his soul open while winning an Oscar. Had we witnessed a psychic breakdown?” It’s a bewildering anecdote to a night, in one highly tense and fraught ceremony, some say is symbolic of race, masculinity, and trauma.
Elliot Page on How His Acting Career Impacted His Gender Dysphoria
- Complicated Perception