Oscars’ 10 Most Unforgettable Moments

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Tonight is the night when Hollywood allows the rest of the world to peek into its party while it pats itself on the back.  Statuettes are handed out, gushy speeches are made, and most importantly, the stars get to pose for paparazzi while displaying their expensive jewelry, revealing gowns, and their physical endowments – and often their plastic surgery.  Most of the hoorah is pretty silly (at least in my opinion).  But occasionally something happens that makes the pomp and ceremony worthwhile.  And since everyone else is doing it, here’s longitudes‘ own list of the Academy Awards’ unforgettable moments, from “The Trip” to “The Tramp.”  Some are funny; some are curious, embarrassing, and poignant.  But they’re all memorable:

10. “THE TRIP.”  The first Academy Awards ceremony to be televised was in 1952.  The Best Supporting Actress award went to B-movie mainstay Gloria Grahame (for whom I earlier devoted an entire blog post).  Nobody expected Grahame to win for her small role in the Kirk Douglas movie The Bad and the Beautiful, least of all the actress herself.  But Hollywood legend has her tripping while she walked down the aisle to accept her trophy from Edmund Gwenn and Bob Hope.  The press later accused her of being drunk.  I don’t know.  I’ve seen the clip on “YouTube,” and although she looked a little unsteady, possibly from all the TV lights, I didn’t see her stumble.  If she was drunk, she played it safe, for her acceptance speech consisted of four words: “Thank you very much.”

9. “THE DUKE.”  John Wayne had handed out Academy Awards a number of times, but he didn’t win one until 1969 for his role as “Rooster Cogburn” in the original True Grit.  He gave a short, classy speech, mentioning that if he had known he’d win the coveted statue, “I’d have put that patch on 30 years earlier.”  Despite his very right-leaning politics in liberal Hollywood, Wayne beat out more talented actors like Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight.  Did he deserve the Oscar?  Does it matter?  The award was as much for his impact on film history as anything else.  And it was touching to see the big man wiping away a couple tears.

8. “THE PUSHUPS.”  Jack Palance had a long history in film, going back to the 1950 Elia Kazan-directed Panic in the Streets.  He usually had supporting roles as a tough guy.  In 1991 he won Best Supporting Actor for his role in the comedy-western City Slickers.  When he accepted his award, the 73-year-old Palance looked down at his much shorter costar Billy Crystal and said “I crap bigger than him.”  He then got down on the floor and did one-handed pushups.  It was a funny moment that provided Crystal with a running gag for the rest of the show: “Palance just bungee-jumped off the Hollywood sign” and “He fathered all the children in a production number,” etc. (NOTE: somehow, a myth went “viral” that it was the indomitable Kirk Douglas who did the pushups.  No, folks, it was Palance.)

7.  “THE ICEBREAKER.”  The first African-American to win an Academy Award wasn’t Sidney Poitier for the 1963 film Lilies of the Field.  It was Hattie McDaniel, who won 23 years earlier for her role as “Mammy” in the classic Gone With the Wind.  She gave a tearful speech, and her award was testament to how progressive Hollywood was compared to the rest of the country.  But even Hollywood had a ways to go.  McDaniel emphasized she hoped to be a “credit to my race.”  And after her speech, she returned to a segregated table.

6. “THE POSE.”  Last year one of the presenters was luscious-lipped, long-legged Angelina Jolie.  A regular to the red carpet, Jolie forgot she was off the carpet when she presented the award for Best Screenwriter.  She awkwardly planted her left hand on her hip and thrust her naked right leg through her split gown.  This after lip-locking her own brother ten years earlier.  The Descendants’ screewnwriter Jim Rash, thinking quickly, did a hilarious imitation of Jolie when he reached the podium to share the screenwriter award.

5.  “THE CRUSADER.” In 1973 Marlon Brando won Best Actor for his unforgettable portrayal of Mafia boss “Don Corleone” in The Godfather.  One of the most gifted of American actors, and perhaps the most influential of the last 60 years, Brando was heavily involved in securing rights for Native Americans by 1973.  He used the Academy Awards to make a statement.  Rather than accepting his award himself, Brando sent a young American Indian Movement member, Sacheen Littlefeather, to deliver his 15-page speech.  She was booed when she tried to protest against television’s negative portrayal of Indians. (She later read Brando’s manifesto to the press backstage.)  The incident prompted the Academy to prohibit proxy acceptance of Oscars.  Littlefeather later posed for Playboy.

4.  “THE MILITANT.”  Brando may have at least had a point, but Vanessa Redgrave’s stab at “Zionist hoodlums” picketing outside the 1977 awards was pointless and embarrassing.  Like Brando, Redgrave was (and is) enormously talented.  But she was also politically controversial, immersing herself in causes for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).  So it’s not surprising she injected politics in her acceptance speech for Best Actress for her role in Julia. Screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky later admonished her that “her winning an Academy Award is not a pivotal moment in history” and a “simple ‘thank you’ would have sufficed.”

3.  “THE GRATITUDE.”  Louise Fletcher won Best Actress for her role as “Nurse Ratched” in the 1975 film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Until that time, Fletcher was fairly unknown, having appeared in some minor television and film roles over 10 years earlier.  As Nurse Ratched, she was one of the most cold-blooded characters in film history.  But her acceptance speech was one of the most tearful, when she used sign language to acknowledge her parents, who were deaf.  Ten years later deaf actress Marlee Matlin won Best Actress for her role in Children of a Lesser God.

2.  “THE STREAKER.”  David Niven was onstage at the 46th Academy Awards in 1974 when a streaker struck.  At that time, streaking – or running naked through a public place – was all the rage.  Niven was introducing a presenter when one Robert Opel jogged naked across the stage behind Niven and flashed the peace sign.  Fortunately for “Oscar,” the television cameras only caught a glimpse of Opel’s pubic hair.  Quick-witted Niven, in classic British understatement, remarked that “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?”  His quip was so perfect that some have suggested the streaking was planned.  After all, it is Hollywood, isn’t it?

1. ” THE TRAMP.”  For my money, the most memorable Oscar moment was legendary Charlie Chaplin receiving an Honorary Oscar in 1972.  Chaplin wrote, produced, directed, edited, scored, and starred in movies beginning in 1914.  His most famous screen character was “The Little Tramp.”  In 1940 he made a movie, The Great Dictator, that satirized Adolf Hitler.  But in 1952 he had to exile himself to Switzerland due to the McCarthy-era witchhunts in the U.S.  Twenty years later he finally returned to the states to accept the award for his “humor and humanity” and received a 12-minute standing ovation.  It was a powerful moment that may never be equaled.  Hollywood remakes and sequels are never as good as the original.  Chaplin was an original.

The Girl With the Novocaine Lip

When I was a kid in the ‘60s there was a science-fiction horror show called THE OUTER LIMITS (Stephen King has since called it “the best show of its kind ever on TV”).  One of the episodes was entitled “The Guests.”  It was about a drifter who stumbles into an old Victorian house where the residents never grow old.  If they try to leave, they age rapidly and turn to dust.  One of the “guests” is a Norma Desmond-like silent film actress who pathetically clings to the idea she’s still a star.  In one particular scene, she slithers over to the drifter, gives him a peck on the lips, and says, “I had to do that.  It was my madcap heart.”  There’s a slight pause.  Then, “’My Madcap Heart’ was the name of my first bad picture.  Did you think I was sincere?”  At that moment I became smitten with Gloria Grahame.

Going back a few more years, to the late ‘40s and ‘50s: a style of film emerged in Hollywood that is today called “film noir” (“noir” being French for “dark”).  These films were much more downbeat and cynical than the buoyant adventures, musicals, and romances that proliferated until the end of WW2.  They were B&W crime pictures that usually featured a hard-boiled detective and a tough, sassy “dame.”  The cameras made heavy use of shadows, cigarette smoke, rain-soaked city streets, and train yards.  Most film noirs were low-budget ‘B’ movies featuring actors generally unrecognized today except by hardcore film buffs.  A few ‘A’ movies included DOUBLE INDEMNITY (Barbara Stanwyck), THE BIG SLEEP (Bogart and Bacall), and TOUCH OF EVIL (Orson Welles).  If you’ve ever seen Leslie Nielsen in the hilarious NAKED GUN series, well, film noir is what those comedies are spoofing.

Mention the name Gloria Grahame to any male film noir buff and he’ll hyperventilate and gush “Ahhh yes…the girl with the novocaine lip!”  Grahame is today considered one of the queens of film noir.  She only made about eight noirs, but they are some of the best and most beloved of the genre.  Grahame was somewhat ahead of her time.  Her looks and acting had a sleaziness closer to today’s femme fatales.  There was always a hint of the forbidden about her.  I’ll put it bluntly: she oozed sex.

She also made a number of movies outside of film noir.  Her most visible roles were as town flirt Violet Bick in the Christmas classic IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE starring Jimmy Stewart; and as plucky Ado Annie Carnes in the film version of OKLAHOMA!  The last-named was made in 1955 and is responsible for driving Grahame’s movie career to a halt.  Not so much because she was tone deaf, couldn’t sing, and was miscast in a family musical, but because her truculent behavior (she crushed the cowboy hat of a co-star) pissed off everyone on the set.  The word went out that Grahame was “difficult,” and producers and directors stayed away.

But there were a couple other reasons her career dried up.  One was her boisterous private life.  She had four stormy marriages and divorces.  She is also rumored to have slept with her 14-year-old stepson (they later married and had two kids – after he turned 21!).  She also had a series of surgeries on her mouth and chin to make herself look sexier – long before plastic surgery became fashionable.  During one operation in Germany, the doctor accidentally severed a nerve, rendering her upper lip immobile and earning her the sobriquet that titles this essay.  Needless to say, Hollywood distanced itself even further from her.

In the ‘60s and early ‘70s Grahame popped up occasionally on popular television shows – like THE OUTER LIMITS – usually portraying a washed-up actress or conniving stepmother.  She had some cameo film roles in the ‘70s, as well as leading roles in drive-in exploitation trash with titles like MAMA’S DIRTY GIRLS and MANSION OF THE DOOMED.  She also did a lot of stage work (her first love).  Grahame died in 1981 from complications due to breast cancer.

November 28 (tomorrow) is her birthday, and Turner Classic Movies (TCM) is honoring her by showing a bunch of her movies.  So those of you unfamiliar with Gloria Grahame, and who can access TCM, can see why longitudes is making such a fuss.  If you can only see a few movies, on TCM or elsewhere, I recommend CROSSFIRE (Robert Mitchum), IN A LONELY PLACE (Humphrey Bogart), and THE BIG HEAT (Glenn Ford and Lee Marvin).  All three are not only excellent examples of film noir, but my girlfriend Gloria is at her absolute best.  I’ll allow you to feast your eyes for a while.  Just don’t get too close.