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From streakers to snubs: 10 of the Oscars most iconic moments

The Academy Awards are the FA Cup Final of the movie industry. A year’s worth of hard work comes down to a glitz and glam gathering, as the great and good of film descend on Hollywood for a rollicking night of selfie-snapping, smock appraisal, and sometimes the odd scandal. 

For all the ‘awards don’t matter’ trivialising and extraneous ethical debate, year in year out, the ceremony for the Academy Awards always throws up some of the most sure-fire water cooler moments that the calendar has to offer.

Whether they come in the form of a post-ceremony ‘did you hear what apparently happened…’ or some farce, indignity or scintillating speech that unfurls before our very eyes — something always crops up. With so much talent, ego and gold in one room it is always destined to wind up in some sort of multi-million dollar soap opera.

Below we’re looking at ten of the most iconic moments in Academy Award history, from the farcical and funny to the poignant and the damn-right insane, without further fanfare, let’s look at the winners of the best show-stealing moments in history.

10 of the Oscars most iconic moments:

Hattie McDaniel becomes the first black Oscar winner – 1940

Any time that the world’s attention is focussed on a singular event the potential for a platform for positive change is presented. What was viewed as a progressive motion in 1940 looks almost incomprehensibly shameful in retrospect. 

When Hattie McDaniel won Best Supporting Actress for her role as Mammy, a Georgian slave, in Gone With the Windshe took to the stage to collect her award and gave the following short speech: “I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry,” then McDaniel made her way to the back of the room, where she had to sit, separated from her white co-stars due to segregation laws.

A moment of sincere and frightful duality that should never be forgotten.  

Jerry Lewis maxes out his improv skills – 1959

Hosting the Oscars is a huge honour, but naturally, it is a big pressure gig. Not only are you broadcasting live, but everyone in attendance also feels like they could probably do a better job than you. Unlike sporting stadia, the reality is that sometimes they probably could. 

You can prepare all you like but nothing is certain, and that apparently includes runtime. In 1959 everybody’s speeches were inexplicably short for some reason and the ceremony finished 20 minutes early.

That left Jerry Lewis on stage with no planned material to fall back on. Thus he proceeded to freewheel and put on a run of improvised material that saved the show and went down in history. 

Alfred Hitchcock keeps it short and sweet – 1968

On one end of scale, you have the orchestra starting up as a not-so-subtle hint to the big stars that it’s time to leave the stage and on the other end of the speech spectrum you have Alfred Hitchcock.

In 1968 the legendary director took the stage for an honorary award and responded with the simple couplet of “thank you.”

Hitchcock was apparently indignant about the number of times he was snubbed for the ‘Best Director’ category, and he saw the honorary Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award as the cinematic equivalent of a ‘Most Improved’ award. Thus he gave it all the attention he thought it deserved. 

Charlie Chaplin received an honorary Oscar – 1972

Through his work, Charlie Chaplin changed the world for the better. When the west was floundering regarding the dangers of Nazi Germany he elucidated the impending human catastrophe and the need for empathy via his seminal work, which he wrote, directed, produced, composed, distributed and starred in, The Great Dictator

For 20 years, however, he was exiled from the US for alleged communist sympathies. When he was allowed re-entry in 1972 he was awarded an honorary Oscar and his acceptance was greeted by a solid 12 minute standing ovation!

He made a humble speech stating: “Words seem so futile—so feeble. I can only say thank you for the honour of inviting me here,” before donning his iconic bowler hat and cane and applause ensued once more. 

Marlon Brando refuses his award – 1973

Marlon Brando was a shoo-in for Best Actor back in 1973 for his role in The Godfather, and he took his opportunity to send out an important message. He refused to either accept or attend the awards, and in his place was the Native American activist, Sacheen Littlefeather. 

Littlefeather respectfully rejected the award on his behalf, presented Brando’s speech which was too long to read, but would later be shared with the press and she announced that his grounds for the rejection were based on “the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry.” 

This was met by a mixture of boos, applause and stunned silence by those watching on. A matter of weeks later Brando appeared on The Dick Cavett Show where he simply stated that “[the ceremony] was a marvellous opportunity for an Indian to be able to voice his opinion to 85 million people.”

The streaker of ’74 – 1974

While David Niven was on stage readying to present Elizabeth Taylor, he was interrupted by an unexpected cheer as he glanced over his shoulder to see a naked man running up behind him. It was Richard Opel and his upstaging pecker. 

As he pranced along behind Niven and then out of shot, Niven quickly quipped “”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?” 

Rob Lowe’s disastrous musical opener – 1989

The opening to the 1989 Academy Awards was like something mainlined from a berserk alternate reality. The show saw Rob Lowe joined by Snow White, played by screeching actress Eileen Bowman and descend into some sort of Disney hellscape. 

The performance was so mindbending that it caused Disney to file a lawsuit and had Julie Andrews, Paul Newman, Sidney Lumet and Gregory Peck co-signing a letter, calling it an “embarrassment” and “demeaning”.

The producer behind it all, the renowned Caftan wearing eccentric Allan Carr, was essentially ran out of Hollywood thereafter and it left Lowe to retrospectively declare, “Never trust a man in a caftan.”

Roberto Benigni is head over heels – 1999

One of the thrills of watching the Oscars is when the actor’s skills are pushed to their limits as they have to try and reticently mask their emotions both in victory and defeat.

The Italian actor-director Roberto Benigni didn’t bother with any such modesty when he picked up his third Oscar of the evening as his film Life is Beautiful won best foreign language film. 

Benigni leapt onto his chair and had to be supported upright by fellow Oscar hopeful Steven Spielberg as he threatened to lose his balance and tumble into the surrounding stars. He then bounded up to the stage like a puppy when the post is getting delivered and excitably yelled, “This is the moment of joy, and I want to kiss everybody!”

The selfie of the stars – 2014

In hindsight it is hard to know why this photo became such an all-consuming story, however, there is no denying that it was inescapable at the time. Over 37 million people viewed the snap on Ellen DeGeneres’ Twitter account alone. 

Regardless of how innocuous and trivial a selfie may seem, the snapshot is vignette of history. Two members have already fallen from grace so to speak and lord knows how it will be viewed in anther twenty years from now, but for some reason it seems certain that it simply won’t be forgotten.

The Best Picture mix-up – 2017

It was a mistake so inexplicable that many thought it was could only be explained as some sort of publicity stunt. Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty were the poor souls left with pie on their face having announced the wrong winner for the 2017 Best Picture. Still, it was PricewaterhouseCoopers accountant Brian Cullinan’s envelope mix-up that left them in a rather uncomfortable position. 

For two minutes and 34 seconds, those involved in La La Land were allowed to bask in the jubilation of their glory, until word reached the victorious producer Jordan Horowitz that there had been a mistake and Moonlight was the actual winner, and a rather subdued acceptance followed thereafter. 

Naturally apologies from the Academy were profuse, but they did little to calm the clamber of watercooler talk about the most erroneous envelope since Watergate. Long may the mayhem of the Oscars continue.