5. David Letterman’s Awkward Hosting (1995)
And now onto an entirely different kind of train-wreck. Asking “The Late Show” host David Letterman to compere the Oscars probably seemed like a good idea at the time – he was a well known face, and could certainly handle the strain of high-profile live presenting. No-one really thought about the match in terms of style, though. Letterman’s dry, sardonic humor fell flat with the audience and raised barely a titter.
His opening joke “Oprah, Uma, Uma, Oprah” has been described in some places as “infamous”, so noticeable was the tumbleweed effect (If you don’t get it, the whole point is that Uma Thurman and Oprah Winfrey both have unusual first names…yup, that’s the whole joke). And introducing politically-minded actors Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon with “Pay attention, I’m sure they’re pissed off about something” didn’t help either. Amazingly, he’s never been back although he has used it as the basis of many skits and jokes.
4. The Madness of Roberto Benigni (1999)
Now, the passionate Italians could certainly teach the rest of us something about celebrating in style. Robert Benigni won two Oscars for “Life is Beautiful” in 1999 – Best Foreign Language Picture (collected as Director) and Best Actor. His exuberance was part endearing, part embarrassing as he climbed over seats to get to the stage, balancing on Steven Spielberg, and flung his arms around Sophia Loren. And that was only for the Foreign Language award. By the time he got to Best Actor, he was calmer but no less passionate, pouring out half-Italian, half-English expressions of gratitude and telling the audience that he wished he was like Jupiter, so that he could “make-a love to you all in the firmament”.
Although well received on the night, his unlikely win against seminal performances like Ed Norton’s (“American History X”) and Tom Hanks (“Saving Private Ryan”) and his uncouth manner of acceptance brought general disapproval, and his next few film projects were flops. As with Bjork, I suspect that the only ones actually embarrassed were the staid Academy judges.
3. Jennifer Lawrence’s Fall (2013)
And now the most talked-about moment of this year’s ceremony – Jennifer Lawrence’s trip on her way to the podium. The Best Actress winner was wearing a stunning but somewhat cumbersome Dior gown and fell on the stairs. She recovered quickly and told the audience they were only giving her a standing ovation because they felt sorry for her. When asked what had happened by press, she responded “What do you mean what happened? Look at my dress! I tried to walk up stairs in this dress. And they wax the stairs.” Well, that’ll be a lesson for next year’s nominees….!
2. A Cheeky Stage Invasion (1974)
From far too much clothing to not nearly enough – here’s the moment when David Niven was interrupted in his introduction to Elizabeth Taylor by a naked man running by, later named as Robert Opal. It’s a shocking moment, but if you watch the footage of the night, David Niven seems barely perturbed. And his cool comment moments later seemed almost planned (“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?”).
For that reason and a few others, many involved in that year’s show believe it was set up by the Producer as a stunt. Niven apparently wrote down his quip during rehearsals, suggesting either some kind of psychic ability or prior knowledge. Robert Opal went on to streak again at a party for Rudolf Nureyev and then opened an art gallery, specializing in male gay art. Sadly, his life was cut short during a robbery at the gallery in July 1979.
1. The Worst Opening Number Ever (1989)
Many of these embarrassing moments have had people tutting or shaking their heads, but only one has prompted an open letter from 17 Hollywood actors deriding it as “an embarrassment to both the Academy and the entire motion picture industry.” It’s the universally-derided worst opening number of all time and it involved Sno White, Rob Lowe and some coconuts.
It’s hard to find full videos of the 15-minute sequence, as I assume someone at the Academy has been on a kind of Stalinist purge of them, but this version is only mildly dubbed and you can get some idea of the horror of the moment.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what makes this so terrible – is it the squeaky-voiced Snow White? The nauseating reworking of “I only have eyes for you” (“We only have stars for you”, backed by people in star costume)? Maybe the random insertion of “I’ve got a lovely bunch of coconuts” in there? Most people would point the finger at Rob Lowe’s off-key singing, but that’s only a small part of what appears to be a horror show unfolding on stage.
The results were swift and catastrophic – there was that open letter, signed by Paul Newman, Gregory Peck, Julie Andrews and Billy Wilder among others. Then Disney slapped a lawsuit on ABC for using the Snow White character without permission. And young actress Eileen Bowman (who played Snow White) was served a 13-year gagging order and never worked in Hollywood again.
Needless to say, elaborate opening numbers were off the agenda for a long time after that…