The Academy Awards have been around for nearly a century — and in that time they’ve evolved into an endlessly fascinating Petri dish of self-congratulatory pomposity and live-event chaos. Usually, the show goes off without a hitch. Yet not even the most seasoned, demanding television producer can stand firm against the combined forces of Hollywood egos and benign, indifferent happenstance. Will Smith’s shocking decision to storm the stage and smack Chris Rock at the 94th Oscars last night may be the most outrageous moment the Oscars have ever produced…but it’s certainly not the only one. In honor of the insanity we all secretly (or maybe not-so-secretly) crave from Hollywood’s biggest night, here’s a rundown of the 10 most surreal, eye-popping, and scandalous moments in Academy Awards history.
Sure there’s maybe some serious recency bias at play here, but it truly feels that in the Oscars’ 94-year history there has never been a moment like Will Smith storming the stage and slapping Chris Rock in the face. The act in and of itself was stunning enough: one A-lister unexpectedly assaulting another A-lister on international television. It simultaneously felt incredibly real and like a bizarre comedy bit. But as reality settled in, so did the context, which only heightened the outrageousness of it all. Smith wasn’t just defending his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, over a joke about her alopecia; this beef appeared to have history, going back to cracks Rock made about Pinkett Smith at the 2016 Oscars. And then there was the fact that Smith was still on the precipice of winning Best Actor for King Richard. When his name was called, Smith gave a rambling, teary speech where he apologized to pretty much everyone except Rock, and closed by saying, “I hope the Academy invites me back.”
VIA JAPANESE TELEVISION: The uncensored exchange between Will Smith and Chris Rock pic.twitter.com/j0Z184ZyXa
— Timothy Burke (@bubbaprog) March 28, 2022
It’s the kind of mistake that haunts all awards show producers (and Steve Harvey) — announcing the wrong winner for the night’s biggest prize. Poor Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway: Having been handed the wrong envelope for Best Picture at the 2017 Oscars, the Bonnie and Clyde duo incorrectly proclaimed La La Land the winner, prompting the musical’s producers to take the stage and speechify for about two minutes. Then the mistake was corrected, and suddenly, Moonlight was declared the real winner. The tableau of stunned celebrity faces in the audience — none better than the quizzical look of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson — said it all. And on top of the fact that Moonlight was a far more deserving winner, the moment also served as some long-awaited comeuppance for everyone who believed Jack Parlance incorrectly read Marisa Tomei’s name when she (deservedly) won Best Supporting Actress for My Cousin Vinny in 1992.
In comedy, timing is everything — and really, you gotta hand it to Robert Opel for the way he executed his butt-naked stage bomb at the 1974 Oscars. It began with celebrated British actor David Niven, waxing about the power of cinema and preparing to introduce that year’s Best Picture presenter, Elizabeth Taylor. Just after Niven proclaimed Taylor “a very important contributor to world entertainment,” Opel ran out on stage, flashing his whole body and a peace sign, as the crowd shrieked and gasped. Niven, to his credit, not only took the incident in stride but came up with the perfect one-liner on the spot: “Fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life will be by stripping off his shirt and showing his shortcomings.”
The Kiss and the Conspicuously Absent Director
Only the Academy Awards could make an emotionally devastating movie like The Pianist synonymous with extreme cringe. To start, there’s Adrien Brody’s impromptu and wildly inappropriate decision to greet Halle Berry with a kiss after she announced him the winner of the Best Actor Oscar. (To be fair, this actually wasn’t even the worst thing Brody did in 2003 — a couple months later he donned fake dreads and used a wildly inappropriate Jamaican patois to introduce Sean Paul on Saturday Night Live). And then there’s Roman Polanski’s win for Best Director for the same film. Polanski, of course, wasn’t on-hand to accept the prize because had he stepped foot in the United States, he would’ve been promptly arrested for allegedly drugging and raping a 13-year-old in 1977. While the filmmaker’s win has certainly drawn more scrutiny in the post-#MeToo landscape, equally stomach-churning is watching Hollywood offer Polanski a wild round of applause, with the likes of Martin Scorsese and Meryl Streep even taking part in a standing ovation.
The Cantankerous “Cowboys”
Plenty of Oscar winners have used the show’s soapbox to get a political point across (a few more are below), but few feel more bold than Marlon Brando’s decision to ask Native American civil rights activist Sacheen Littlefeather to appear in his place when he won Best Actor in 1973 for The Godfather. Not only did Littlefeather decline the award on Brando’s behalf, but used his speech time to speak out against the depiction of Native Americans in film and TV, and express support for the American Indian Movement’s occupation of Wounded Knee. (Brando had written a whole 15-page speech for the occasion, too, which was published the next day in The New York Times.) Littlefeather’s moment in the spotlight drew a mix of cheers and boos, and she later claimed that none other than on-camera cowboy John Wayne was itching to storm the stage and remove her himself; thankfully, he was ultimately restrained by security guards. Later in the ceremony, Clint Eastwood tried a little counterprotest himself, quipping, “I don’t know if I should present this award on behalf of all the cowboys shot in all the John Ford westerns over the years.”
Boos from a crowd are one thing, but a literal effigy of Vanessa Redgrave was burned the night she won Best Supporting Actress for playing a member of the Nazi resistance in the 1977 film Julia. The protest against Redgrave was organized by the Jewish Defense League — a radical group that preaches, per the Southern Poverty Law Center, a “violent form of anti-Arab, Jewish nationalism” — which objected to a documentary Redgrave had produced and narrated, The Palestinian. During her speech, Redgrave fired back at the JDL and others who’d tried to derail her career over The Palestinian, saying to Academy voters, “You should be very proud that in the lat few weeks you have stood firm and you have refused to be intimidated by the threats of 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 fascism and oppression.” While Redgrave received some applause, there were plenty of boos, too. Later in the show, Paddy Chayefsky made a rather condescending remark, telling Redgrave her win didn’t “require a proclamation and a simple ‘Thank you’ would’ve sufficed.”
It’s simultaneously not surprising, and still kind of shocking, how blood-thirsty and flag-wavey much of America was while George Bush and his administration cooked up reasons to invade Iraq in 2003. There’s maybe no better example of this rampant, unchecked patriotism than the vicious reaction to Michael Moore’s speech at the 2003 Oscars after Bowling for Columbine won Best Documentary. It’s hard not to think Moore at least somewhat relished the jeers that rained down on him as he derided the “fictitious” 2000 election and the “fictitious” president who was “sending us to war for fictitious reasons… We are against this war, Mr. Bush. Shame on you, Mr. Bush!”
Sure, based on his career alone, Elia Kazan was most certainly deserving of the honorary Oscar he received at the 71st Academy Awards in 1999. But for many, the prize was a grave insult: Back in 1952, Kazan testified to the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which was investigating Communist influence in Hollywood at the time, and saved his own career by selling out others. About 250 demonstrators protested Kazan’s honorary Oscar outside the Academy Awards that night; inside, the director received a fairly warm reception, though plenty refrained from cheering, including Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, and Nick Nolte, whom the cameras captured in the crowd, sitting stone-faced and silent.
The Wickedly Talented…
John Travolta has a great shaggy dog explanation involving a page stuck in an elevator, Goldie Hawn, and some poor phonetic spelling for how he came to introduce Idina Menzel as “Adele Dazeem” at the 2014 Oscars. But really the “how” or “why” feel frivolous in the face of such pure camp. It’s not just the name flub, either — it’s the way Travolta confidently skips into his mistake by declaring her, with a little kick in his voice, “The wickedly talented Adele Dazeem.” Credit to Menzel, too, for still singing the hell out of the Frozen hit, “Let It Go,” right after. Plus she did get some revenge at the Oscars the following year when she introduced Travolta as “Glom Gazingo.”
The Career Ender
Big Oscar moments tend to make careers, but in the case of producer Allan Carr, the 1989 Oscars were arguably his downfall. At the time, Carr seemed like a natural fit to helm the 61st Academy Awards: He was a seasoned and celebrated producer of hit films and Broadway plays, and even an expert party panner (Truman Capote tapped him to organize one of his famous black-tie events). But Carr’s Oscars went south the second the show started. The notorious opening number featured Rob Lowe delivering an over-the-top song-and-dance routine with Snow White, the whole thing centered around a version of “Proud Mary” re-worked to be a celebration of the movies with the head-slapping refrain, “Rolling, rolling, keep the cameras rolling.” Yikes.