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 two words: “Thank you.”

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.”  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.

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 Magazine.

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 PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization).  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 Dead Sea Scrolls on Tour

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Jerusalem (population 800,000) is the holy city for the three main Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  It’s located on a plateau surrounded by valleys.  If you head southeast from the city, the terrain becomes increasingly rocky and desolate.  About 21 miles (34 km) from Jerusalem, near the northwest edge of the Dead Sea – the lowest body of water on earth – is an ancient site known as Khirbet Qumran.  There are steep cliffs surrounding Qumran, with a series of small caves poked into the cliffs.  And within these caves were discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The scrolls are a collection of 972 texts that date to the first few centuries BCE (BC) and CE (AD).  Some of the texts are non-biblical, some are manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament to Christians), and they comprise the earliest known writings of Second Temple Judaism.  One scroll is an entire copy of the Book of Isaiah.  The scrolls lay hidden in darkness for 2,000 years until being discovered by a Bedouin shepherd in 1946.  Then for the next several decades they were painstakingly pieced together and eventually published.

Last Sunday I had the opportunity to view a small part of the scrolls at the Cincinnati Museum Center.  The exhibit is subtitled “Life and Faith in Ancient Times,” apropos because many of the scrolls offer clues about the type of society in which the scrolls were conceived.  Many historians think the scrolls formed the library of a long-extinct Jewish sect called the Essenes, who left the more mainstream Jewish faith to practice a more ascetic form of Judaism (although the true authors of the scrolls may never be known).

It’s hard to describe the feeling: peering into a thick glass case at ancient, torn parchment that existed before, during, and after the time of Christ.  Just gazing on a few shreds of browned goatskin, with faint but precise Hebrew (or Aramaic) lettering from the Book of Numbers: “…May the Lord make his face to shine upon you.”  It sent shivers up my spine.  Until the discovery of the scrolls, the oldest known Hebrew Bible manuscript dated to the 10th century.  So the Dead Sea Scrolls were a leap back of 1,000 years.

The Israeli Antiquities Authority is currently digitizing the Dead Sea Scrolls.  The exhibit in Cincinnati will run until April 14.  The scrolls will be rotated out in sets until then.

The Revenge of Richard III

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We seen the last of good King Richard,

Ring out the past his name lives on.

(Steely Dan from “Kings”)

He died over 500 years ago.  But it’s only now that English King Richard III’s bones have been located.

Five months ago, researchers – relying on ancient maps and eyewitness accounts – dug up a skeleton underneath a parking garage in Leicester, England.  They’d hoped that the bones would prove to be those of Richard III.  But only today did they finally reveal that radiocarbon dating, DNA testing, and visual examination of the bones confirm the skeleton is indeed that of Richard.

Richard III lived between 1452 and 1485.  He inherited the throne in 1483 after reputedly murdering his two nephews, who had been in line to succeed their father, Edward IV.  Richard served as king for only two years, meeting a grisly end at the Battle of Bosworth Field, ending the 30-year Wars of the Roses between the Houses of York and Lancaster.  It also ended the Plantagenet line of royalty and ushered in the Tudor era, whose most famous rulers were Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. 

Richard III was the last English king to die on the field of battle.  His death is considered by many historians to mark the end of the Middle Ages.  It occurred seven years before Christopher Columbus sailed under the Spanish flag for the New World.  Yes: a long, long time ago.

Had not a precocious playwright named William Shakespeare immortalized him in the play “Richard III” over a hundred years later, Richard III might have remained as obscure as his brother King Edward IV.  But many who hail from outside the British Isles, and who are sketchy on their English history, know Richard from the play.  Everyone from John Wilkes Booth to Al Pacino has portrayed him on stage or in film.  The most famous film characterization was that by Sir Laurence Olivier in 1955.

Historians hope that the excitement over the discovery of Richard’s remains will provide a reassessment of his place in history.  Thanks in large part to ole Bill Shakespeare (who relied on history sculpted by Richard’s conquerors, the Tudors), he’s not considered one of England’s more benevolent kings.  Shakespeare made him ugly, hunchbacked, and Machiavellian.  Certainly he was deformed, as his skeleton reveals severe spinal scoliosis.  But “good King” Richard’s defenders say he’s been unfairly maligned, that he was the product of a violent age, and that during his brief reign he instituted a number of significant legal reforms.

All I know is that, at this moment in history, the Richard III Society is having one helluva party.

Roll out the bones, and raise up your pitcher!