Oscars’ biggest controversies, from the slap to the Best Picture mix-up

Oscars’ biggest controversies, from the slap to the Best Picture mix-up

The Oscars’ biggest controversies, scandals, and WTF moments

More like the Academy Awk-wards, am I right? We look back at an award-worthy collection of the Academy’s 90-plus years of awkwardness both on-camera and behind the scenes.

Lester Fabian Brathwaite

The Oscars. Hollywood’s biggest night. A time to celebrate the best of the best. And, occasionally, be the source of a little controversy (like not giving an award to Annette Bening, but you know, we carry on).

Bening’s glaring losses notwithstanding (though, lest we forget, twice to Hilary Swank), the Academy Awards have been full of WTF moments, both onstage and behind-the-scenes — from shady Oscar campaigns and comically bad musical numbers to a grown-ass naked man and, of course, the great Moonlight-ing of 2017 and what will forever be known simply as “The Slap.”

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Reed Saxon/AP/Shutterstock (6569406a) Rob Lowe Snow White Actor Rob Lowe croons a tune to Snow White during the opening number for the 61st Academy Awards presentation in Los Angeles. What are TV viewers seeking from their annual Oscar fix? The same thing they want from movies: drama, comedy, sex, slapstick, glamour and romance. This year’s Oscarcast airs, at 8 p.m. EST on ABC Oscars-Impossible Dream, Los Angeles, USA; (Original Caption) 04/02/1974-Hollywood, CA- Moments after the Best Actor award presentation at the 46th Academy Awards ceremonies, a male streaker ran nude before a TV audience of 76 million people; he was seen on TV only above the waist and behind David Niven who said “That was bound to happen.” Next to appear on stage (not shown) was presenter Elizabeth Taylor, who laughinlgly found it not too hard an act to follow.; HOLLYWOOD, CA – FEBRUARY 26: Detail shot as ‘La La Land’ producer Jordan Horowitz holds up the winner card reading actual Best Picture winner ‘Moonlight’ onstage during the 89th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on February 26, 2017 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Credit: Reed Saxon/AP/Shutterstock; Bettmann Archive; Kevin Winter/Getty

These moments may be silly, uncomfortable, or could have changed the way the Oscars operate, but what’s important here is that they all managed to do the impossible: Make the Oscars interesting.

Go back and rewatch American Beauty, Being Julia, and The Kids Are All Right, then get into these memorable moments that left their marks, and sometimes more than that, on the Oscars.

Maugham’s the word

Once upon a time, Academy voters could write in nominees. That practice started with Bette Davis turning in the then-performance of the century in 1934’s Of Human Bondage.  Davis, who had fought for meatier roles to sink her salivating teeth into, burned a hole in the screen as doomed cockney waitress Mildred in this otherwise meh adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s epic novel. When she failed to nab an Oscar nomination, Hollywood went into a good old-fashioned uproar, forcing the hand of the Academy to allow write-in votes. Davis lost, but when write-in nominee Hal Mohr won for his cinematography in A Midsummer Night’s Dream the following year, the practice was discontinued forever. 

That Oscar’s gone… with the wind?

Hattie McDaniel made history as the first Black Oscar winner for her lauded, but controversial (even at the time), performance as Mammy in 1939’s Gone With the Wind. Since the hotel where the Oscars were held had a strict “no Blacks” policy, McDaniel was forced to sit at a separate table away from everyone else. McDaniel won a plaque instead of a trophy, as was custom for all supporting actor winners until 1943. When she died in 1952, McDaniel willed her Oscar to Howard University and after a mysterious, circuitous journey, it eventually got there… in 1961. But a decade later it went missing and has yet to be found. Then again, after all that Oscar’s been through, maybe it doesn’t want to be found.

A zero Chill campaign

Actors have been implementing questionable tactics when campaigning for an Oscar since Mary Pickford schmoozed her way to a win for Coquette, a performance that was widely panned, but as the Queen of Hollywood she had some sway. Chill Wills was no Mary Pickford, but he wanted that little 8.5-pound trophy just as badly. Wills was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for the John Wayne-directed The Alamo in 1961. Wills, a veteran actor and friend of Wayne, hired a publicity agent to help him snag the gold. Not a bad idea in itself, but the agent was W.S. ‘Bow-Wow’ Wojciechowicz. And Bow-Wow wagged Wills’ tail all over Hollywood, taking out one For Your Consideration ad in which every Academy member’s name appears, in alphabetical order, alongside a picture of Wills with the truly awful quote, “Win, lose or draw, you’re all my cousins and I love you all.”

Bow-Wow shoulda quit while he was behind, but the next FYC ad put Chill’s Oscar hopes on ice. The ad featured photos of everyone in the Alamo cast, surrounding good ole Chill, and pissed a lot of people off with this quote: “We of the Alamo cast are praying harder — than the real Texans prayed for their lives in the Alamo — for Chill Wills to win the Oscar as best supporting actor. Cousin Chill’s acting was great. Your Alamo cousins.” Talk about putting the “Wow” in Bow-Wow. Chill basically said, “Forget the Alamo. Remember Me!” Wayne took out an ad of his own, distancing himself as much as possible from Wills’ thirst. And Spartacus‘ Peter Ustinov won that year. 

The Hepburn, the Babs, and the Oscar tie

Katharine Hepburn won four Oscars, never bothered to show up even once to pick it up. It was no different in 1969, when Hepburn, nominated for The Lion in Winter, won her third Best Actress Oscar, and second consecutive award after 1968’s absentee win for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. But instead of presenter Ingrid Bergman accepting the Oscar on Hepburn’s behalf, she announced the winners as Hepburn and Barbra Streisand. It was the first and last exact tie in an acting category — Frederich March had beat Wallace Beery by one vote in 1932 but according to the rules at the time, that was close enough to a tie and they both received Oscars, to the chagrin of the sole other nominee, Alfred Lunt. With Hepburn being too cool for school, Babs and her sheer, sequined sailor pantsuit had the moment all to herself. And it was “gorgeous.”

An Oscar he can refuse

Marlon Brando won his second Best Actor Oscar for The Godfather, but when his name was called at the 1973 ceremony, actress and activist Sacheen Littlefeather made her way to the stage and alerted the bewildered audience that Brando would not be accepting the award due to Hollywood’s depiction of Native Americans and in light of the protests at Wounded Knee in South Dakota. Littlefeather was greeted with boos and ridicule from the audience, and she later claimed John Wayne had to be physically restrained from trying to remove her from the stage. The Academy issued an apology to Littlefeather for her mistreatment at the ceremony in 2022, just less than two months before she died at age 75. After her death, however, Littlefeather’s sister said she had been lying about her indigenous heritage, perhaps complicating an already complicated incident. 

Win, lose, or streak

America used to have a real big streaking problem, particularly in 1974, amid the height of the sexual revolution and an apparent dearth in security guards. Enter Robert Opel, running, naked as the day he was born, on stage at the ’74 Oscars, with unflappable host David Niven remarking, “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?” Opel’s shortcomings might have actually been planned, along with Niven’s remark, which would explain how a naked man snuck backstage at one of the most heavily guarded events of any given year. Opel’s story was told in 2011 by his nephew in the doc Uncle Bob, which revealed him to be a performance artist and gay rights activist who was fatally shot in 1979. 

The longest 11 minutes in history

If you think awards show opening musical numbers are bad now — Angela Bassett and the thing she did notwithstanding — strap in. It’s 1989, Rob Lowe looks the same. There’s no host (a move the Oscars has revisited time and again), and to fill time because the Oscars never go on long enough, Grease producer Allan Carr devised a couple musical numbers. The worst, among a smorgasbord of awful, featured Lowe alongside poor, never-gonna-work-in-this-town again newcomer Eileen Bowman as Snow White, Merv Griffin, and a destructive rendition of “Proud Mary” that went on for ELEVEN MINUTES. At the end of it all, Lily Tomlin strolls out and the Oscars, sadly, had just begun. 

Tomei?! No way!

Let’s just be clear: This writer believes Marisa Tomei as Mona Lisa Vito in My Cousin Vinny is one of the great comedic performances in cinematic history and it’s aged like a fine wine. Tomei’s Best Supporting Actress win, however, came as a surprise and a rumor persisted for years that it was actually a mistake. Because the Oscars hate comedy. And also because a year after her win, The Hollywood Reporter ran a story citing a rumor that Tomei had been awarded the trophy by confused presenter Jack Palance, and in 1997, film critic Rex Reed picked up the rumor, claiming Palance was drunk or stoned when he announced Tomei over the heavily favored Vanessa Redgrave in Howard’s End. Of course, those accountants from Price Waterhouse Coopers are always stationed in the wings (since 1953) in case the wrong winner is named, as we’ll soon see. Tomei, understandably, found the rumors hurtful, but she would have the last laugh, earning two more Oscar nominations for 2001’s In the Bedroom and 2008’s The Wrestler. Mona Lisa would be proud. 

There’s kissing cousins and then there’s this…

Angelina Jolie used to be wild, kids. Sure, these days she’s better known as a mother, reclusive star, and humanitarian, but during her ’90s ascent to movie stardom, we were having fun. The Hackers/Gia/Girl, Interrupted Angie Jolie was at the Golden Globes jumping into a pool with her gown still on. She was wearing Billy Bob’s blood around her neck. With her turn in 1999’s Girl, Interrupted, Jolie would win her first Oscar and go on to star in Tomb Raider, and the rest is herstory. When she won her Best Supporting Actress trophy, Jolie thanked her brother James Haven, saying she was “so in love” with him. After the ceremony, she demonstrated that love with a brief kiss on the lips, which went the 2000 version of viral. Jolie denied the kiss was anything other than “brotherly love“; meanwhile, she and Haven remain close. In 2013, Jolie won the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Oscar as a woman no one would dare interrupt. 

Blame LSD!

There was a lot happening at the 2000 Oscars. Aside from Angie Jolie being in love with her brother, we had South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone high on LSD on the red carpet, wearing derelict copies of Jennifer Lopez‘s instantly iconic Grammys dress and Gwyneth Paltrow‘s Oscars dress. Parker was nominated, along with Marc Shaiman, for “Blame Canada” from the South Park movie, Bigger, Longer, and Uncut. Parker brought Stone as his date, they dropped acid, and hit the busiest red carpet in human existence. Before that awful decision, they decided they would not address their dresses… at all. Instead, when asked about them, they would simply say, “It’s a magical night tonight.” Some of the other Oscar nominees didn’t take the duo’s flippant attitude too well, but, like, it’s the dudes from South Park. What were they expecting, reverence? The very idea of going to the Oscars on acid sounds terrifying AF, but so does coming off acid in the middle of the Oscars, which also happened to Parker and Stone. What’s worse, for Parker at least, was losing to personal nemesis Phil Collins.

Keep that Pianist in your pants, Brody

There were a few brow-raising moments at the 2003 Oscars. And nearly all of them had to do with The Pianist. Gingerly side-stepping the fact that Roman Polanski won Best Director for the film but could not attend the ceremony since he’d been in self-imposed exile from America since being accused of drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl in 1978… what the film’s star, Adrien Brody did after winning the Best Actor Oscar seems less shocking. But then again, you weren’t Halle Berry. Brody became the youngest Best Actor winner at 29 and, swept up in the moment, grabbed presenter Berry (who had won the year before), and planted a big kiss on her lips. In a 2017 appearance on Watch What Happens Live, Berry revealed what was going on in her head at the moment, namely, “What the f— is happening right now?” But having been swept up in her moment, Berry knew “the feeling of being out of your body” and “just f—ing went with it.”

How many people let this happen?

In 2012, national treasure Billy Crystal hosted the Oscars for the ninth time and it went smoothly, for the most part. Except the Blackface. Billy Crystal popularized his Sammy Davis Jr. impersonation in the ’80s on SNL. It was a different time, as they say, but 2012 was not that long ago. (Was Michelle Williams nominated for Best Actress for playing Marilyn Monroe in 2012? Yup. Is she nominated again this year while someone else is nominated for playing Marilyn Monroe? You betcha.)

So Crystal does his famous bit where he walks through the nominated pictures via CGI, and he dusts off Sammy for a Midnight in Paris bit with Justin Bieber. The criticism was swift, but perhaps comedian Paul Scheer said it best when Octavia Spencer won Best Supporting Actress for The Help. “Octavia Spencer’s win shows just how far we’ve come since Billy Crystal performed in Blackface.”

Alone yet… no, just alone

The name Bruce Broughton will long live in Academy Awards infamy. In 2014, Broughton was nominated for Best Original Song for “Alone Yet Not Alone,” from the film of the same name — a $7 million “Christian captivity narrative historical drama” that didn’t even clear a million at the box office, but somehow managed to score an Oscar nod. Huh. Turns out Broughton, a former Academy governor, had, as an executive committee member of the Academy’s music branch, made improper contact with other branch members about his unfortunately-titled song. Broughton told EW he simply “wrote some people and said, ‘Could you just take a look.’ That was literally the extent of the campaigning.” But the Academy decided it was less innocent than that and revoked Broughton’s nomination, a move it’s made only a handful of times before. Christian captivity narrative historical dramas have never been the same. 

And the Twitter goes to…

Billy Crystal’s Blackface wasn’t the end of the Oscars’ race problem: In 2015, all acting nominations went to white actors and Twitter user April Reign coined the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. In truth, the Oscars have always been so white, even when it came to parts for non-white actors. Luise Rainer, a white woman, (in)famously won Best Actress in 1938 for The Good Earth playing a Chinese farmer. And it took 74 years for Halle Berry to become the first Black woman to win Best Actress. And she’s still the only one. But the hashtag brought renewed attention to the Oscars’ long history of exclusion, eventually provoking the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to diversify its membership, though it’s perhaps too soon to tell if anything’s really changed. However, this has been a landmark year for Asian nominees, and if she wins Best Actress, Michelle Yeoh would make history. Take that, ghost of Luise Rainer!

Bonnie and Clyde strike again

Everyone just leave Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty alone. Between them they’ve given us some of the greatest cinema of the 20th century. Very much including Mommie Dearest. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of their landmark film Bonnie and Clyde, the Academy invited Beatty and Dunaway to announce the Best Picture winner. Along the way, someone messed up and gave the acting legends the wrong envelope, for Best Actress, which had gone to Emma Stone for La La Land. A confused Beatty showed Dunaway, who, being Faye Dunaway, just ran with it, announcing La La Land as the Best Picture winner. And we were well into some heartfelt acceptance speeches when those Price Waterhouse Coopers folks stormed the stage, leading to La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz dropping a bomb on the ceremony: “There’s been a mistake. Moonlight, you guys won Best Picture. This is not a joke.” It wasn’t, but if you noticed a bemused Ryan Gosling watching it all unfold from the side of the stage, you’d be excused for thinking it was. Until the 2022 ceremony, this was easily the most WTF moment at the Oscars. But then…

Between a Rock and a bad joke

Will Smith was poised to have the greatest moment of his acting career. With his third Best Actor nomination, for King Richard, the erstwhile Fresh Prince was heavily favored to win. But then the West Philadelphia (born and raised) jumped out and Smith walked up to the stage and slapped Chris Rock after the comedian made a dusty G.I. Jane joke about Smith’s wife, Jada, who had recently gone public with her battle with alopecia. Smith won that night. And lost. In a big way. The slap and his “Keep my wife’s name out your f—ing mouth!” exclamation quickly became the most talked-about moment of 2022. And we’re still talking about it. Rock debuted a stand-up special in March 2023, a year after the incident, in which he went in on the Smiths; Will Smith, banned from the ceremony for 10 years, went on an apology tour, and kinda made light of it; and 2023 host Jimmy Kimmel promised an unslappable show. The Oscars are often boring and predictable and even take themselves a little too seriously — while they need a jolt of energy, the slap wasn’t the way anyone wanted to see the ceremony’s spotlight shine brighter. It’ll be interesting to see how this will all play out in 10 years once Smith’s ban is over— barring any other incidents, of course. 

Who Leslie?

Andrea Riseborough found herself at the center of controversy after her surprise nomination for To Leslie, a little-seen film that benefited from a celeb-heavy grassroots advocacy campaign on social media and at small events around Hollywood. It’s like if Of Human Bondage had a #JusticeForBette hashtag. While Riseborough earned raves as an alcoholic Texas woman who won the lottery years ago only to squander her winnings, barely anyone saw the film. Then some above-the-title names came to Riseborough’s side, championing her performance: Cate Blanchett, Gwyneth Paltrow, Edward Norton, Charlize Theron, Amy Adams, Sarah Paulson, and Jane Fonda among them. The Academy launched an investigation into the campaign, and though Riseborough didn’t get Broughton’d, they concluded the social media campaign’s tactics “caused concern.”

Meanwhile, Riseborough’s nomination over Black actresses Viola Davis and Danielle Deadwyler revived the #OscarsSoWhite debate, as there were no Black actors nominated in the lead categories despite ample opportunity. “The film industry is abhorrently unequal in terms of opportunity,” Riseborough told The Hollywood Reporter. “I’m mindful not to speak for the experience of other people because they are better placed to speak, and I want to listen.”

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