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A look back at Oscar, minus the hype

What gives the Oscars such allure is the event’s longevity: It’s steeped in tradition, the ghosts of Hollywood’s studio system hovering everywhere. But the awards ceremony we’ll watch on Sunday is very different from the shows of decades past.

The telecasts from the ’50s well into the ’70s were more formal but less slick; the nominees, if they attended at all (Liz Taylor wasn’t present when she won for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”), looked either terrified or uninterested as they waited for winners to be announced.

From 1950, when the Academy Awards were hosted by the RKO Pantages Theatre, until the ceremonies outgrew the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in the late 1980s, even the most-favored nominees were seated so far back that they’d get winded as they ran up the aisles to accept their statuettes. (Perhaps that’s why speeches were often short — except for Greer Garson’s nearly one-hour thank you when she won for 1942’s “Mrs. Miniver.”)

Looking back, it’s clear that the Academy Awards had less to live up to then. And it’s rather quaint, and easy, to revisit those days now, thanks to YouTube.

Here are 10 notable clips from Oscars past.

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1 Most excruciating finale.

  • Watch here.

  • Manic host Jerry Lewis is enough to keep you on edge in any situation, but when he’s left with an unexpected 20 minutes to kill at the end of the 1959 telecast, it’s cringe-inducing. The clip shows 90 stars (Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, and Rosalind Russell among them) assembled on the stage to sing “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” That finale comes up short of the show’s programmed two-hour slot, so Lewis grabs a baton (“Lionel! Lionel!” he screeches at the conductor, Lionel Newman) and proceeds to conduct the orchestra, ordering the actors, milling about the stage, to dance. As they pair up and dance off, the camera pans the audience awkwardly rising and slowly leaving.


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2 Paddy calls out Vanessa.

  • Watch here.

  • One of the juiciest Oscar moments was Vanessa Redgrave’s 1978 acceptance speech for “Julia,” in which she praises Academy voters who “refused to be intimidated by the threats of a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums” who’d protested her nomination. But her gasp-inducing line is later upstaged when writer Paddy Chayefsky presents the best screenplay award. With a schoolmarmish tone, Chayefsky calls out Redgrave, saying, “I’m sick and tired of people exploiting the occasion of the Academy Awards for the propagation of their own personal political propaganda.” The audience cheers and the camera cuts to Marsha Mason and Neil Simon clapping, then to a wildly enthusiastic Arthur Laurents seated next to his “Turning Point” star Shirley MacLaine, who doesn’t applaud and looks quite annoyed.

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3 Niven’s quip.

  • Watch here.

  • This one never gets old. At the height of the streaking craze in 1974, cohost David Niven takes the podium to introduce presenter Elizabeth Taylor. A naked man (later identified as a photographer named Robert Opel) appears behind Niven and runs across the stage flashing a peace sign. The debonair British actor offers a bemused smile and the now legendary ad lib: “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.”

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4 Fonda’s finest.

  • Watch here.

  • It might be hard to imagine today what a genuine controversy Jane Fonda’s nomination unleashed in the weeks leading to the 1972 ceremony. Nominated for her acclaimed performance in “Klute,” there was rampant speculation that if she won, Fonda, at the height of her Vietnam-era activism, would disrupt the ceremony with an antiwar speech. When her name is called as best actress (only she and Janet Suzman are in attendance), a smiling Fonda strides to the stage in a black pantsuit, waits for the applause to fade, and announces, “There’s a great deal to say and I’m not going to say it tonight. I would just like to thank you all very much.” No winner has ever taken the high road so pointedly.

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5 Poitier’s journey.

  • Watch here.

  • Sidney Poitier, star of the small-budgeted “Lilies of the Field,” was the only one of 1963’s best actor nominees in attendance. When the 1962 best actress winner Anne Bancroft, looking youthful in a white gown with her dark hair in an updo, calls his name, a beaming Poitier, resplendent in white tie and tails, has a long walk to the stage while the orchestra plays the film’s theme song, “Amen.” The first African-American to win since Hattie McDaniel back in 1940, Poitier cites the “long journey to this moment.” He means his life and career; but he might mean Hollywood’s, too.

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6 Hello, gorgeous.

  • Watch here.

  • It’s a stunner from the moment presenter Ingrid Bergman says, “The winner. . . It’s a tie!” Katherine Hepburn, as usual, isn’t there to get her third best actress Oscar for 1968’s “The Lion in Winter.” And Barbra Streisand, 26, a first-time nominee and winner for “Funny Girl,” makes it every bit her moment. She nearly trips in her now-infamous Arnold Scaasi sequined pajama outfit. Following Anthony Harvey, who accepts for Hepburn, Streisand’s Brooklyn-accented, now-legendary greeting of “Hello, gorgeous” signals the arrival of a one-of-a-kind star.

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7 Cut to Winger.

  • Watch here.

  • Shirley MacLaine makes the most of her expected win on her fifth nomination for 1983’s “Terms of Endearment” with a speech that is heartfelt, funny, self-deprecating, and self-indulgent. She calls out to costar Jack Nicholson who, sporting shades at the height of his Nicholson-ness, grins wildly and blows her a kiss. Of the nominated actress who played her onscreen daughter, MacLaine says, “I wanted to work with the turbulent brilliance of Debra Winger,” a reference to their reported clashes on set. Seated in the audience, Winger laughs uncomfortably, covers her face, and shakes her head.

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8 Rex, Audrey, and Julie.

  • Watch here.

  • Check out the impressive list of best actor nominees for 1964: Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Anthony Quinn, Peter Sellers, and Rex Harrison. When Harrison bounds to the stage to accept the Oscar, he pulls presenter and “My Fair Lady” costar Audrey Hepburn close to him for the duration of his speech, showering her with kisses, which she indulges. The camera repeatedly cuts to a gracious Julie Andrews, who famously lost the role of Eliza Doolittle to Hepburn. Is it karma that Andrews reaps her own reward later that night? She takes home the best actress Oscar for “Mary Poppins.”

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9 Falling for Shirley.

  • Watch here.

  • The 1953 ceremony is the first to be televised, cutting back and forth between the main event at the Pantages, with Bob Hope as emcee, and a companion show in New York at the International Theatre, hosted by Conrad Nagle. Appearing on Broadway in “The Time of the Cuckoo,” 54-year-old stage star Shirley Booth is relatively unknown to movie audiences when she wins best actress for “Come Back, Little Sheba.” Her seeming ordinariness is part of her charm. She trips heading up the podium steps, and appears genuinely humbled when she says, “It’s been a long, long climb. I guess this is the peak.”

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10 Hattie in tears.

Hattie McDaniel winning the supporting actress Oscar for playing Mammy in 1939’s “Gone With the Wind” is memorable for its emotional and historic significance — she was the first African-American ever nominated, and the first to win. Her speech, reportedly written by the studio, is painful to hear. “I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry,” says the actress. “My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel.” When she leaves the stage wiping away tears, one gets the sinking feeling it’s not just from gratitude. To make it worse, according to W. Burlette Carter’s essay “Finding the Oscar,” McDaniel had to sit at “a small round table at a far, back end of the large banquet room, separated from all of the white guests.”

Loren King can be reached at loren.king@comcast.net.
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