A brief history of the Oscars in viral moments they want you to forget

David Niven and streaker.
‘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?’ … David Niven and streaker. Photograph: AP

Nobody watches the Oscars to see who wins. Why would they, when the frontrunners all tend to be puddingy, little-watched middlebrow fare like The Imitation Game? No, people only watch for the cock-ups, the unexpected moments that fleetingly bring these moribund vessels of self-congratulation to life. With another ceremony about to rumble into life, let’s look at some of the most notorious moments that have gone before.

Adele Dazeem, 2014

John Travolta had one job. He just had to introduce the Grammy and Tony-winning actress Idina Menzel, there to perform the Oscar-winning song Let It Go from the Oscar-winning movie Frozen. Idina Menzel. Instead, what he said was: “Please welcome the wickedly talented, one and only Adele Dazeem”. “THANK YOU, JORN TROMOLTO!”, “Dazeem” tweeted in response.

Neil Patrick Harris’ magic trick, 2015

The one thing anyone can say about the Oscars with any degree of certainty is that they are far, far too long. If only the memo had reached Neil Patrick Harris in 2015, who kept dragging the show to a standstill in order to fastidiously explain and execute the sort of hapless magic trick that your uncle would be ashamed of.

Rob Lowe dances with Snow White, 1989

There are bad ideas, there are terrible ideas, and then there’s the decision to ask Rob Lowe to sing a rewritten version of Proud Mary with an unknown female performer dressed as Snow White. Everything about this performance was mind-shreddingly dreadful, from Snow White’s obvious nerves to Lowe’s full-throated, Nickelback-style delivery. Disney saw it and sued. Who could blame them?

David Niven and the streaker, 1974

The world was different in the 70s. Everybody streaked, and everybody expected streaking. So the fact that streaker Robert Opel tore on to the stage in the buff, flapping past David Niven during the 1974 ceremony, wasn’t a surprise. What was surprising was Niven’s skill at ad-libbing: “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?” he quipped in retaliation.

Roberto Benigni overdoes it, 1999

When Life Is Beautiful won best foreign language film, its director Roberto Benigni won the hearts of the world by clambering across the backs of the auditorium’s chairs like a terrible manchild ninny. It was cute at the time, but it emboldened him to the extent that his next film was a Pinocchio adaptation so creepy that it still has a 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Sean Penn ruins everyone’s fun, 2005

The running theme of the 2005 Oscars was that Jude Law had suddenly rocketed to ubiquity. Host Chris Rock had tremendous fun with this, until Sean Penn lumbered up on stage and growled: “Forgive my compromised sense of humour, but I did want to answer our host’s question about who Jude Law is. He’s one of our finest actors,” like some sort of tedious fun-sponge policeman.

Liza Minnelli misses out, 2014

Ellen DeGeneres’s ruse to take a star-studded selfie at the Oscars, with Meryl and Brad and Angelina and Jennifer and Bradley and Lupita, made for an instantly iconic image. But not as iconic as the one taken from behind, showing Liza Minnelli standing at the back, craning her neck, unsuccessfully trying to make it into shot. In the past, at one point or another, we have all been Liza Minnelli.

Nobody claps Jenny Beavan, 2016

She was called a “bag lady” by Stephen Fry after winning a Bafta, but worse was to come when Jenny Beavan won an Oscar for her Mad Max: Fury Road costumes – and nobody clapped her. To the home audience, at least, it looked as if an audience of white men were actively rejecting a woman for not being young and conventionally attractive.

James Franco dresses as Marilyn Monroe, 2011

Anne Hathaway and James Franco (dressed as Marilyn Monroe) at the 2011 Oscars
Anne Hathaway and James Franco (dressed as Marilyn Monroe) at the 2011 Oscars

It was a terrible decision to let James Franco present the Oscars with Anne Hathaway. As a performer, Hathaway is all commitment and pep while Franco is, well, the opposite. Really, their whole annoying stint should be here, but instead let’s just focus on the moment when Franco dressed up as Marilyn Monroe with seeming reluctance.

Louise Fletcher signs, 1976

Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest might be one of history’s greatest movie villains, but the actor who played her is responsible for perhaps the sweetest-ever Oscars moment. Upon winning the best actress award, Fletcher directly addressed her deaf parents by thanking them in sign language, a gesture that came off as both spontaneous and touching.

Jack Palance does press-ups, 1992

Palance won best supporting actor for his role in City Slickers, then put on an unexpected display of glowering machismo. Opening with “Billy Crystal? I crap bigger than him.” He then ran to the side of the stage and started doing one-armed press-ups, to wild applause. Why? Because he was the best.

Sheena Easton sings For Your Eyes Only, 1982

It’s either a testament to how bad 007 had got by 1982, or a testament to how few Bond films the Academy had watched, but Sheena Easton’s performance of that year’s Bond theme was genuinely appalling. Oddjob waddled around looking ancient. A car crawled on to the stage. A lasergun went off, then Bond murdered Jaws with a grenade and took off in a spaceship. Genuinely befuddling.

Ray Parker Jr sings Ghostbusters, 1985

The Oscars had three years to learn from the Easton mistake and yet, when it came to stage a performance of Ray Parker Jr’s blockbuster megahit Ghostbusters, it still gave every appearance of never having watched the film that birthed it. There was a forklift truck. There were three gun-toting “Ghostbusters” dressed in heavily shoulder-padded purple shellsuits. And, inexplicably, there was Dom DeLuise. Awful.

Marisa Tomei wins, 1993

In 1993, My Cousin Vinny star Tomei found herself up against Miranda Richardson, Joan Plowright, Vanessa Redgrave and Judy Davis. Her win was so unbelievable that a rumour started, suggesting that presenter Jack Palance had read the wrong winner out, and the Oscars worked hard to cover up for the mistake. The rumour has since been disproved, although it still lingers.

Bird York performs In the Deep from Crash, 2006

Soggy, overwrought ensemble drama Crash has gained a reputation as the most baffling best picture winner in Oscars history. No less baffling was the performance of Bird York’s In the Deep from the same film, which was performed in front of a burning car and several grieving dancers. Because people watch the Oscars to see harrowing scenes of despair, don’t they?

Marlon Brando’s Native American, 1973

Marlon Brando declined the Oscar he won for The Godfather, choosing instead to send a Native American campaigner named Sacheen Littlefeather to collect the award for him. She explained that his boycott was due to Hollywood’s misrepresentation of American Indians.

Dick Poop, 2015

Admittedly this happened during the nominations announcement, but it was too glorious to avoid. In the middle of the thankless task of reading out every nominee in every category, Oscar president Cheryl Boone Isaacs got mixed up and accidentally read out the name of noted cinematographer Dick Pope as “Dick Poop”. Dick Poop. Dick. Poop.

Michael Moore gets booed, 2003

Winning an Oscar for Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore protested against the invasion of Iraq by shouting: “We are against this war, Mr Bush. Shame on you, Mr Bush. Shame on you,” and found himself being loudly booed by the attendees.

Total Beauty’s racist blunder, 2016

When Whoopi Goldberg walked the red carpet – in the year of #Oscarssowhite, no less – in a dress that displayed her shoulder tattoo, it prompted website Total Beauty to tweet: “We had no idea @Oprah was #tatted, and we love it.” The outcry that followed this toe-curling mix-up then prompted a frantic apology and an offer to donate $10,000 to a charity of Oprah and Whoopi’s choosing.

Vanessa Redgrave v Paddy Chayefsky, 1974

Winning her best supporting actress Oscar for Julia, Vanessa Redgrave embarked upon a pro-Palestine speech that made allusions to “a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums”. Moments later, screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky approached the stage and said: “I would like to suggest to Miss Redgrave that her winning an Academy Award is not a pivotal moment in history, does not require a proclamation, and a simple ‘Thank you’ would have sufficed.”

We saw your boobs, 2013

Political discourse thankfully extinguished, the 2013 ceremony was largely notable for a song in which Family Guy creator turned violently tedious lounge singer Seth MacFarlane boasted about knowing what Meryl Streep’s boobs (among others) look like. Maybe we were too hard on the politics stuff.

Jennifer Lawrence falls over, 2013

Jennifer Lawrence, she’s just like us. She’s funny and refreshing and, on the occasion of the biggest professional validation available to a working actor, she’ll trip over on a step and fall to the floor in front of the entire world like a gigantic dumbass. Like you, essentially.

Adrien Brody Kisses Halle Berry, 2003

Adrien Brody’s win for The Pianist was already controversial, since that film was directed by a man who once pleaded guilty to a charge of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor. Brody’s reaction to the win, though, was to grab presenter Halle Berry and force her into a long and uncomfortable kiss. Way to be tone deaf, Brody. Really neat.

The return of John Travolta, 2015

Sent back to atone for Adele Dazeem, Travolta’s next Oscars appearance was even creepier. Watch him kiss Scarlett Johansson. Watch him grab Idina Menzel’s face with slightly too much aggression. Then go and wash immediately. Brr.

Jerry Lewis fills, 1959

Oh, to be alive in 1959. These days, the Oscars are such a procession of unending tedium that the final award always feels like it should be given to us to reward our superhuman endurance. But back in 1959, the ceremony actually finished early. Twenty minutes early in fact, which forced host Jerry Lewis to frantically fill by leading the audience in a rendition of There’s No Business Like Showbusiness. But still, 20 minutes early. The dream.

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