This week’s question is inspired by this weekend’s big Hollywood to-do:
What’s your favorite Oscar memory? (And, no, you don’t have to have seen it live.)
Is there anything more dire than the Oscar’s best song performances? Year after year of bored singers playing boring ballads for a bored audience: It’s guaranteed channel flipping time. Except, that is, for 2000, when Trey Parker and Matt Stone somehow managed to sneak “Blame Canada” from the South Park movie into Oscar contention, briefly transforming the stage into a scene from their whacked-out satirical musical. Lead by Robin Williams in his most high-shtick, accent-heavy mode, it energetically channels Bigger, Longer & Uncut’s secret musical heart into a full-on stage production, complete with high-kicking Mounties and live-action quasi-approximations of the show’s foul-mouthed cartoon cast. (Williams crowing about the total abdication of parental responsibilities to the Hollywood elite didn’t hurt its satirical bite, either.) And although “Blame Canada” lost the Oscar battle to Phil Collins’ treacly Tarzan anthem “You’ll Be In My Heart,” it won the war in enduring Oscars appeal.
Theater-trained Hugh Jackman was a brilliant choice to host the 81st Academy Awards (I’d argue no one’s been better since). Though not a natural comedian, he’s a talented and effortlessly charming showboater, so his energy was channeled into a fantastic opening number that deserves its place in Oscars history. With the recession still plaguing America in early 2009, Jackman’s tongue-in-cheek medley gently ribbed Hollywood’s annual celebration of excess with “homemade” sets and props representing key moments from some of the year’s nominated films. From its defense of comic-book movies to Anne Hathaway’s show-stopping cameo as a singing Nixon, the entire song-and-dance was delightfully silly and loose, but the number forever cemented itself in my memory with its requisite shout-out to The Reader. Flanked by metallic-suited backup dancers, Jackman confesses, “I haven’t seen The Reader” while grooving like a robot to a funky techno beat. The delightfully unexpected moment of honesty called attention to the Academy’s propensity for nominating “important” films the general public couldn’t care less about. It’s a rare instance of meta-humiliation for the Oscars, but it’s not too surprising when you realize the lyrics were written by Community’s Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab.
For someone who hasn’t missed an Oscar ceremony in 21 years—I distinctly remember my first, in which my dad and I polished off a bucket of KFC and watched Forrest Gump handily demolish Pulp Fiction—I remain curiously indifferent to the actual specifics of the televised event. Which is another way of saying that I care less about the host, the presenters, the jokes, the musical numbers, the special presentations, and what everyone wears than the awards themselves. Even as the Academy regularly disappoints in their assessment of what great filmmaking really is, I remain hooked on the suspense of the moment when someone tears open an envelop and reads a name. That’s why a good surprise can really make an Oscar night feel special—and nothing surprised me more than Shakespeare In Love beating Saving Private Ryan for Best Picture. Then and now, I prefer Private Ryan to Shakespeare, and Terrence Malick’s magnificent The Thin Red Line winning instead would have been an even more momentous deviation (to say nothing of it being the actual best of the nominees). Nonetheless, Private Ryan’s victory felt so preordained—as the coronation of Best Picture so often does—that seeing something else triumph instead was a genuine shock. That it arrived at the very end of the night, when these things are usually completely wrapped up, only added to the giddy thrill of shattered expectations. Maybe anything really could happen on Oscar night, as the advertisers always insist. Almost as surprising, by the way, was Crash’s later victory over frontrunner Brokeback Mountain, but only Paul Haggis considers that a favorite moment.
As a kid, I was addicted to awards shows and telethons. So the first bona fide Oscar thrill I remember was seeing Richard Dreyfuss win for The Goodbye Girl in 1978, surprisingly stopping Woody Allen’s Annie Hall sweep, and even besting veterans like Richard Burton. I had already seen Goodbye Girl at least four times in the theater (probably as many times as my brother saw Star Wars), as I thought it was romantic and hilarious; also, I really wanted to be Quinn Cummings’ Lucy, who was about my age but lived a cool urban NYC lifestyle as opposed to my lame, wonky suburb. Dreyfuss zoomed up to the podium in an exuberant manner that proved he wasn’t portraying GG’s Elliot as much as translating him for the screen, shaking hands with Luke Skywalker himself en route. He actually pulled off the old “I didn’t prepare anything” line, and left with a quick but winning joke. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier for anyone at an awards ceremony.
It’s become commonplace to make fun of Ricky Gervais for his faux-edgy, “I don’t give a fuck” Golden Globes hosting gigs, but for my money, the most electric example of not giving a fuck about the celebrity reception as a movie-awards host goes to Chris Rock in 2005, which is why I’m so looking forward to his return performance. His opening monologue was magic—not because it was so successful, but because it was so obviously written for the audience at home, not the audience in the theater. Bruce Vilanch and company spent every year trying to please the audience actually present in L.A.—Rock knew better, and went straight for those of us on our couches, which is probably one of the reasons why his reception by Hollywood press was so cold that night. I loved it: He made fun of Jude Law to his face, called Tobey Maguire “a boy in tights,” and professed admiration for George W. Bush for reapplying for his job as president when there was a movie in every theater in America (Fahrenheit 9/11) demonstrating how terrible he was at that job. Like Jon Stewart’s outing as host, it was a classic example of a smart and honest comedian getting low marks despite doing exactly what they excel at: Being funny as hell.
I’m all about the acceptance speeches. I have my favorites, which I cannot get through without crying, but basically what I’m looking for is any indication that winning an Oscar knocked the recipient on their ass. Sure, I can appreciate the people that take the time to make a statement, but I prefer someone who exudes sheer shock and excitement. That’s why one of my favorite Oscar moments is Julia Roberts’ acceptance speech for Best Actress in 2001. I have mixed feelings about Julia Roberts, but I ate up her entire bit with conductor Bill Conti—“And sir, you’re doing a great job, but you’re so quick with that stick, so why don’t you sit, because I may never be here again.” (She hasn’t won an Oscar since.) She spends the rest of her speech just rambling like a mad person, and it’s great. She’s feeling the accomplishment and she’s not holding back. At one point she begins, “I thank you for really making me feel…” before unleashing a manic laugh and screaming, “I love it up here!” before ending with, “I love the world. I’m so happy. Thank you.” That’s the sort of excitement I like to see over the acknowledgement of a job well done.
A Beautiful Mind had a strong showing at the 2002 Oscars, but the night belonged to Halle Berry and Denzel Washington, who won Best Actress and Actor, respectively. Berry became the first black actress to ever win the prize, and she was so overcome that she showed zero cool while accepting the award. Berry’s speech clocked in at about three minutes because she wasn’t going to be rushed off the stage, noting “It’s been 74 years, I’ve got to take this time.” The actress invoked the names of legendary performers Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, and Diahann Carroll while also sharing the award with “every nameless, faceless woman of color who now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.” Say what you will about Monster’s Ball, the film that featured the role that Berry won for, but the moment remains untarnished for me for its unabashed joy. And when Washington, who was only the second black man to win Best Actor, took the stage to accept the award for his performance in Training Day (which always struck me as a consolation prize for his work in Malcolm X), he referenced Berry’s win by saying “Two birds in one night, huh?” Adding to the love fest was the fact that Sidney Poitier, who was the first black actor to pick up the Best Actor prize, was once again being recognized by the Academy, this time with an honorary award for his overall contribution to film.
I was 11 years old in March of 1982, when I watched my first Oscar ceremony. I was rooting for Chariots Of Fire, mainly because I loved the soundtrack (and the movie, which my mom had taken my older brother and me to see after hearing a story about it on the radio). Everyone in the house but me had gone to bed by the time it won Best Picture, but I was so thrilled by the moment that from then on I watched the Oscars every year—and usually by myself. That’s why, a few years later, I was sitting alone on our living room couch when Rob Lowe sang “Proud Mary” with Snow White, in an opening musical number so infamous that it almost killed off awards show song-and-dance routines forever. With no one there to share the moment with, I half-wondered if I’d dreamed it. Thank goodness the moment made such an impression on so many other Oscar-watchers that even decades later, people are still morbidly curious about the whole debacle. So now when I tune in to the Academy Awards, I don’t know what I want more: trophies for my favorites, or appalling aesthetic wreckage.
Although he’s gone down in history as one of the worst hosts in history, I have some genuine (perhaps misplaced) affection for David Letterman’s Oscar night. The show’s producers had hoped that Letterman, who had recently moved to 11:30, would be the same reliable, perennial host his mentor, Johnny Carson, had been. What they didn’t realize is that they weren’t getting the professional, appealing Letterman of the early Late Show years. They were getting the goofy, anything-goes Late Night host, who devoted his 11 years on that show mocking the very idea of entertainment. As someone who grew up on Late Night’s aggressive weirdness, I was delighted to see that familiar feeling of, “I can’t believe they’re letting Dave put this on TV,” except on a show watched by a billion people instead of a handful of insomniacs and college kids. As typified by the infamous “Uma/Oprah” joke, Letterman did what he did best—amused himself, whether or not the audience was along for the ride. He certainly wasn’t a good Oscar host (although in recent years, it’s starting to look like there’s no such thing), but his turn at the podium was at least bad in an interesting way. (It probably didn’t hurt that the awards themselves were memorable, as Forrest Gump beat out some stiff competition in Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption.)
I was at a Titanic-themed Oscars party in 1998 (shut up, I was on a date) that was held in a local indie movie theater. Everyone dressed up, got tipsy on bad champagne, and filled out their Oscar pools. It was, as seemingly every presenter joked, clearly Titanic’s night, making the whole affair even more of an overblown spectacle and a foregone conclusion than usual. Then Elliott Smith walked out on the stage alone with an oversized white suit, defiantly shaggy and greasy hair, and a battered acoustic guitar and played his achingly lovely, lonely song “Miss Misery,” that had become an unlikely hit thanks to its inclusion on the Good Will Hunting soundtrack. Strumming and singing in his feathery voice, Smith didn’t make much eye contact with the camera or crowd, but worked his way through the song as if in a hurry to be anywhere else, while the backing instrumental attempted to overwhelm the spare little song with obtrusive strings—and even a pan flute—to no avail. When it was over, Smith took a shy bow and left. I was a fan for life, and, whenever I hear the self-satisfied bombast of that stupid Titanic song (which won the Oscar, naturally), I slot “Miss Misery” back in to my mental folder of “in a perfect world” Oscar winners.
I’ll go with the moment that has given me the most extended amounts of joy: John Travolta butchering Idina Menzel’s name at the 2014 Oscars. The flub was pretty hilarious in the moment—particularly the way Travolta’s pride at nailing the “wicked-ly talented” pun transforms into abject terror at the prospect of pronouncing Menzel’s name, only to decide that saying nonsensical syllables as quickly as possible is the best way to go. But I’ve gotten infinitely more enjoyment out of rewatching and quoting the moment with my friends, each of us really trying to nail Travolta’s specific delivery of “one and only.” I firmly believe there’s never a bad time for an Adele Dazeem joke, and I can’t imagine any other 14-second clip will ever bring me as much happiness.
My most memorable Oscar moment is, perhaps not surprisingly, on the personal side. I had the honor of working with John Ridley, a screenwriter, novelist, and last—and almost certainly least—host of the poorly rated, mildly disreputable basic-cable movie review panel show. This was in 2004 and 2005 on AMC’s Movie Club With John Ridley, a relic of the pre-prestige era of AMC (back when its schedule was filled with Chuck Norris movies rather than Mad Men and Breaking Bad). It was a show that critics and audiences alike described as “short-lived” and “quickly canceled,” but many years after the show quietly exited the public sphere Ridley won a screenplay Oscar for his intense, powerful script for 12 Years A Slave. I liked Ridley a lot. He was a very smart, quick-witted, and funny guy, but we were never exactly close: I’m not even sure I ever had his email, just his assistant’s email. But I always thought it was great, so it was utterly surreal seeing a former co-worker win the most prestigious screenwriting award in existence.
Sure enough, when Ridley went up to get his Oscar, he looked exactly like he did when we worked together, whereas I now look like the poorly preserved uncle of the person I was when someone inexplicably thought I should be on television. He even had the same look of intense consternation. He seemed pissed even when winning an Academy Award, which made sense, given that he had some bad blood with 12 Years A Slave director Steve McQueen that spilled over onto the ceremony. It’d be tough to beat that particular memory, but if I were a gambling man, I would guess that Robert Siegel, who went from editing The Onion to writing Oscar-worthy (if regrettably non-nominated) scripts for The Wrestler and Big Fan, will at least be nominated for an Oscar in the years ahead (he’s got a movie about the early days of McDonald’s on the horizon that I strongly suspect will be great, and also possibly Oscar-nominated as well). I’d also like to think that a few of my A.V Club colleagues will be festooned with Oscar gold as well. I remain, as always, cautiously optimistic.
I watched the 76th Academy Awards at my aunt and uncle’s home in Maryland, on a projection screen that took up an entire wall of their basement. I was in sixth grade and already a devoted fan of the pomp and circumstance of awards ceremonies, but this time, it was special. During commercial breaks for the actual ceremony, my sister, cousins, and I also held our own Oscars. Dressed to the nines, we took turns presenting and receiving cardboard Oscar statues for our collective work on the fairytale parody movie we made on our family camcorder earlier that year, Fairytopia. I won Best Actress for my work as both Pinky The Fairy and Shakyra The Pop Star in the film, which was directed by my younger sister (who won Best Director, naturally). My excitement over the award I essentially had given myself was only intensified when Charlize Theron then won Best Actress in the actual Academy Awards. Thanks to the movie Mighty Joe Young, I was a Theron fan from a very young age. And even though I hadn’t yet seen Monster, I was delighted that the woman who I once profiled in my second grade journal had been honored with the same esteemed award as myself.
Like A.A Dowd, my Oscar-watching history is long, storied, and largely devoid of great memories involving the show itself. One thing that sticks out, though, was the first and one of the only times I won an Oscar pool. It was for the ceremony in 2002 (for movies from 2001), and the best thing about my rare Oscar pool victory that year was that I achieved it despite betting on Moulin Rouge to win Best Picture. I knew it wouldn’t; director Baz Luhrmann wasn’t even nominated for some reason, and I knew that made it pretty unlikely. But, I reasoned, picture/director splits had become more common back then (a trend that has continued since), and, moreover, I loved Moulin Rouge so, so much more than anything else nominated that year (or really, most years) that I had to place my head and my heart into some kind of alignment for my bet. Apparently, I did well enough in every other category that it worked, inspiring a lifetime of the occasional foolhardy bets, like all those times I convinced myself Amy Adams would win.
For the first ceremony after the horrific events of 9/11, the Oscars did what many other programs did in the wake of the terrorist attacks: they paid tribute to the resilience of New York City. To do so, they compiled what they described as their “love letter to New York in the movies,” which was admittedly a lovely piece of work, but the memory that stands out for me is Woody Allen’s introduction to the movie montage. Allen had—and continues to have—no particular desire to attend the Academy Awards because he believes that art is subjective. It’s a testament, then, to how much he loves New York that he was willing to take the stage at the 2002 Oscars at all, but what was even more amazing was that he delivered a few minutes of stand-up, talking about how he panicked when the Academy called him because he thought they wanted their Oscars back (“the pawn shop has been out of business for ages”), then considered that someone from the Academy had seen him give a homeless man 50 cents and wanted to give him the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. Of course, Allen’s tone gets more sentimental by the end, saying, “For New York City, I’ll do anything.” Boy, did he prove it.