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The best and worstof the Oscars

From the streaker to Jimmy Stewart's tearful tribute to Gary Cooper
/ Source: The Associated Press

In an industry built on the bedrock of hyperbole, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences can rightfully claim a number of superlatives for its annual awards.

They’re the oldest, the most famous, the most prestigious, the most influential and the most coveted of all entertainment honors.

And yes, they can also be the silliest, the most inane and the most boring.

After six decades of watching Hollywood’s yearly rite of spring, this reporter recalls the best and the worst ...

Best host: Bob Hope, unfailingly funny in 21 stints.

Worst host: David Letterman, whose New York jokes (“Oprah — Uma”) laid an egg with the Hollywood crowd (1995).

Best musical number: The oddest of couples, Mae West and Rock Hudson, singing a sexy version of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” (1958).

Worst musical number: Rob Lowe and Snow White dancing in an abysmal 1989 opening tableau.

Best backstage drama: As Olivia de Havilland came offstage after winning an Oscar for “To Each His Own” in 1947, her sister Joan Fontaine came forward to congratulate her. Olivia rebuffed her. Olivia’s publicist explained, “This goes back for years and years, ever since they were children.”

Most touching acceptance: When Louise Fletcher won as best actress for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” she ended her remarks with a sign-language message to her parents, both deaf: “I want to thank you for teaching me to have a dream.” (1976)

Shortest acceptance: Alfred Hitchcock, accepting the Thalberg award in 1968: “Thank you very much.”

Worst planning: The 1959 telecast ended with 20 minutes of airtime left. The entire cast was onstage singing “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” and host Jerry Lewis yelled, “Keep on singing!” The stars sang, then danced, and Lewis clowned for what seemed like an eternity.

Most political acceptances

  • Vanessa Redgrave’s 1978 stump speech in which she thanked the voters for not being “intimidated by a small group of Zionist hoodlums” who opposed her nomination for supporting actress in “Julia.” Unrelated to the film, Redgrave was making speeches at the time in support of the Palestinian state.
  • A woman dressed in American Indian garb took the stage in 1972 to deliver Marlon Brando’s refusal of his Oscar for “The Godfather” and read his screed about Hollywood’s depiction of Indians.
  • Claiming his award for his documentary last year, Michael Moore launched into a tirade: “Shame on you, George Bush.”

Wish I didn't say that: Accepting her 1983 award for “Places in the Heart,” Sally Field ended with, “... you like me, you LIKE me!”

Barest moment: In 1974 a streaker ran across the stage as David Niven was starting to introduce Elizabeth Taylor. Niven quipped: “Just think, the only laugh that man will probably ever get is for stripping and showing his shortcomings.”

Lowest point: After the major studios, cash-strapped by the advent of television, withdrew financial support, the Academy was forced to stage the 1949 awards in an old neighborhood movie house.

Most memorable acceptances

  • Winning as supporting actress in 1954 for “On the Waterfront,” eight-months-pregnant Eva Marie Saint burbled: “I think I may have the baby right here.”
  • Lee Marvin, best actor in 1965 for his “Cat Ballou” role as a boozing cowboy whose horse collapses under him: “I think one half of this (Oscar) belongs to some horse somewhere in the Valley.”
  • John Wayne, best actor in 1970 for the one-eyed Rooster Cogburn in “True Grit”: “Wow, if I had known that, I would have put that eye patch on 35 years earlier.”

Why, it's Kate!: Katharine Hepburn paid an unexpected visit to the 1974 awards to present the Thalberg award to her favorite producer, Lawrence Weingarten. It was her first time at the awards and she said she was happy “that I didn’t hear anyone call out, ‘It’s about time.”’ She never showed up for any of her four Oscars as best actress.

Whazzat, M'Lord?: Accepting his honorary award in 1979, Laurence Olivier delivered a flowery oration that had Jon Voigt and others in tears. But when it appeared in print, it made very little sense.

Longest ovation: Returning to Hollywood in 1972 after a long political exile, a wavering Charlie Chaplin stood alone onstage as the acclaim swept over him. “Words are so futile, so feeble,” he managed to say. Jack Lemmon handed him a derby, and the Little Tramp did his old routine, flipping it off his head with his fingers.

Fondest farwell: In 1961, Jimmy Stewart accepted an honorary award for Gary Cooper, whose absence was unexplained. It soon became apparent when Stewart began weeping as he spoke. “Aw, Coop,” he muttered, and he left the stage in tears. Less than a month later, Cooper died of cancer.