It's remarkable how much the Academy Awards of 20 years ago — that is to say, the ones that aired in 2002 — look like the ones of today. Many of the players are still in place: Denzel Washington, Kirsten Dunst, Nicole Kidman. But there's one significant difference between the ceremony of 2002 and any other.
It was the first Oscars to air after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
And that put a bit of a spin on an evening that may be super-serious to the nominees and those in show business, but for many of us is a chance for frothy fun (and some poking of fun at outfits). So just how did the producers of the show decide to segue from memories of a major terrorist attack into the 74th annual giving-out of gold statuettes?
Before almost anything else could happen, two minutes into the ceremony, Mr. "Top Gun" and "Mission: Impossible" took the stage at the Kodak Theater (this was the first show in the new location, now known as the Dolby Theater) solo to remind us of the importance of movies.
Tom Cruise's tribute
He recalled being 6 and (somewhat improbably) watching Stanley Kubrick's "2001." He recalled the moment he decided he wanted to become an actor. But he also spoke about the industry's existential crisis: Did movies matter any more, in the wake of what had happened the previous September?
"Should we celebrate the joy and magic that movies bring?" he asked the audience. "Dare I say it? More than ever."
And thus the Oscars were ushered into the post-9/11 era.
Fourth time for making Whoopi
Whoopi Goldberg hosted for the fourth (and so far final) time; she'd also hosted in 1994, 1996 and 1999. Shouting "Come and get me, boys!" Goldberg descended from the ceiling in a "Moulin Rouge!" style outfit and never looked back. "So much mud has been thrown this year all the nominees look Black," she told the audience.
She also made a comparison between the national tragedy the country underwent ... and Mariah Carey's movie "Glitter."
Who says old shows aren't edgy?
A visit from Woody Allen
It took that national tragedy to get director Woody Allen onstage at the Academy Awards. Famously, the four-time Oscar winner behind films like "Annie Hall" has only attended the ceremony once: In 2002. (And based on claims against him that have come to light in recent years, we don't expect to see him again.)
But in the year where the whole country decided it loved New York, Allen — who has featured the city in a starring role in many of his films — took the stage to introduce a short film that was a "love letter" to the Big Apple. It earned a standing novation.
"For New York City, I will do anything," he said. "It is a great, great movie town. It is a great romantic and exciting backdrop."
Historic wins for Black actors Pt. 1: Denzel Washington
The Oscars have been rightly dunned in recent years for a lack of attention to diverse performances (there's a reason #OscarsSoWhite went viral on social media in 2015). But in 2002 things were actually starting to look a little brighter: Not only was Goldberg the host of the ceremony, but Oscar winner Sidney Poitier was on hand for a special Academy Honorary Award.
And then the envelopes started opening, and the man who presented Poitier with his honorary Oscar, Denzel Washington, took home his second Academy Award and first one for a leading role for "Training Day." (He'd also earned a supporting actor Oscar in 1990 for "Glory.") It was the first time a Black actor had won the lead actor role since, well ... Sidney Poitier, who'd earned it in 1964 for "Lilies of the Field."
"Forty years I've been chasing Sidney, they finally give it to me and ... they give it to him the same night," Washington quipped from the stage, making Poitier roar with laughter.
Historic wins for Black actors Pt. 2: Halle Berry
But Washington wasn't the only one making history that night: Halle Berry became the first Black actress to win a leading role Oscar, for "Monster's Ball."
She became famously emotional during her speech, saying the moment was "so much bigger" than she was. She then dedicated the Oscar to "every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance."
Since then, no other Black actress has won a lead role Oscar. As she told Variety in 2020, the moment was one of her biggest "heartbreaks."
And it didn't make getting jobs easier for her later on. "Just because I won an award doesn’t mean that, magically, the next day, there was a place for me," she said. "I was just continuing to forge a way out of no way."
The Academy got animated
Oscars have been handed out for best short animation since the 1930s, but until 2002, there'd been no special category for feature-length animation. Instituting one might have seemed like a no brainer, but there were complaints and concerns: For one thing, for many years there weren't enough feature length animated films to make a category necessary. But for another, some animators worried it was a way to ensure that an animated feature would never win best picture.
But by 2002, animated features were everywhere, and more were on the way. The rule now states that unless there are eight films presented as possible nominees, there would be no award that year. (Eight films allowed for a nominee slate of three; if 12 films are submitted, the slate grows to five.)
In fact, animation technology had gotten so good by 2002 that the lead "actors" from the nominated films ("Shrek," "Monsters, Inc." and "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius") could be seen hanging out in the audience as their nominations were read.
Nathan Lane (who voiced Timon in 1994's "The Lion King") introduced the category and the nominees, then quipped, "Gosh, up until now I thought 'Monsters, Inc.' was a documentary on the Weinsteins." Ahem.
The first winner of the award left everyone green with envy, though: It was "Shrek."
Continuing love stories
Two classic love stories (including one called "Love Story") reunited their stars to help with special honors, and it was a treat seeing "The Way We Were" (1973) stars Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand hanging out again (she presented him the second Academy Honorary Award of the night).
Then we all swooned again as Ryan O'Neal and Ali MacGraw, stars of the classic 1970 film "Love Story," presented the Jean Hershold Humanitarian Award to the film's director, Arthur Hiller.
Two 'Beautiful' wins
Ron Howard made out big time in 2002, as the former child actor ("The Andy Griffith Show") turned adult actor ("Happy Days") turned beloved director won both best director and best picture for "A Beautiful Mind" — his first two Academy Awards (he shared best picture with producer Brian Grazer).
During his director acceptance speech, he revealed that his late mother, Jean, had predicted the award would happen for him with "Mind." "Well, she also made that prediction on every movie that I've directed since 1983," he added. He also gave special mention to the subject of the film, John Nash ... who was actually right there in the audience.
A 'Downton Abbey' preview for Julian Fellowes
Fans of "The Gilded Age" and "Downton Abbey" are well aware of what writer Julian Fellowes does best: upstairs/downstairs life in big estates. And the success of the Robert Altman-directed "Gosford Park" (which earned Fellowes an original screenplay Oscar) was clearly a presage for what was to come with both of those TV series.
"I want to thank the Academy ... for your tradition of kindness toward foreigners like myself," said Fellowes, who grew up in the U.K., in his acceptance speech. "I think you must be the most generous nation on earth."
Oh, you sweet-talker, you!
Couples who've gone the distance
Twenty years ago, who brought who to the ball? We're thrilled to say that Will Smith (nominated for "Ali" in 2002 and "King Richard" in 2022) and Jada Pinkett-Smith were each other's dates. They married in 1997 and are still together.
Meanwhile, Faith Hill (who performed one of the best original song nominees, "There You'll Be," from "Pearl Harbor") and Tim McGraw also ushered each other down the red carpet. They married in 1996 and are still each other's main squeeze.
Say goodbye to Hollywood (couples)
Alas, not everyone has the staying power of the Smiths or the Hill/McGraws. Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Phillippe married in 1999 and split in 2007, but on this night they were a couple set to present the best makeup award on stage.
And they did, but not without a bit of a hiccup. During the presentation, Witherspoon asked Phillippe if she could announce the winner.
"You make more than I do, go ahead," he said.
"No, it wasn’t scripted, and he didn’t tell me he was going to say that before it happened on air," Witherspoon said in 2020 during the HFPA In Conversation podcast. "So I was a little bit flummoxed in the moment, too."
Meanwhile, Uma Thurman was on hand to support her husband Ethan Hawke, who was nominated for best supporting actor for "Training Day." They married in 1998 and split in 2005.
And we'll file Kirsten Dunst and Tobey Maguire in this category, too; the pair dated briefly while making 2002's "Spider-Man" and were on hand at the ceremony to present the award for best visual effects. Neither was nominated, but Dunst is up for a best supporting actress award in 2022 for "The Power of the Dog."
A night out with the fam
We're always charmed when big stars bring their relatives to a big award show. In this case, Nicole Kidman (nominated as a best actress for "Moulin Rouge!") showed up with sister Antonia Kidman (who is a TV presenter and journalist in Australia):
And Sissy Spacek (nominated as best actress for "In the Bedroom") had two dates: her grown daughters Schuyler Fisk and Madison Fisk. (Schuyler is also in the business as an actor and musician.)
And the "There's Always One...." award goes to: Gwyneth Paltrow
Every year there's at least one outfit that gets tongues wagging; in this case, it was Gwyneth Paltrow's Calvin Klein dress with a super-sheer top.
"I chose it because I wanted to disappear that year," the Oscar-winner said on her GOOP website in 2013. "I still love the dress itself but I should have worn a bra and I should have just had simple beachy hair and less makeup. Then, it would have worked as I wanted it to — a little bit of punk at the Oscars."