8 Cringe-Worthy Moments From The Oscars

With the 93rd Annual Academy Awards taking place tomorrow, what better time to look back on some of the fabled moments of the institution that is the Academy Awards. The thing is, we’re not talking about making history in a positive sense. These are the eight Oscar moments that, to paraphrase FDR, will live in infamy. 

The goal of any Oscar broadcast director and producer is to provide a show that gets the people talking. Back when we were in offices all the time and not quarantined at home, they called it “watercooler conversations.” The Academy Awards’ broadcast team loves nothing more than to slip into those very chats or, lately—cause a flurry of activity on social media (in the last decade or so). These Oscar moments were seismic and grabbed headlines for all the wrong reasons. 

Now, they say that there is no such thing as bad publicity. 

Yet, when one of the greatest actors that ever lived refused his Oscar—regardless of the reason—the Academy made headlines in a manner that they can never live down. We start our look at Oscars’ most infamous moments with that very incident. 

  1. Marlon Brando Rejects His “Godfather” Oscar.

On March 27, 1973, an icon, Marlon Brando, smartly discerned that there was an enormous global platform that would accompany his Best Actor victory for portraying the patriarch in The Godfather. He decided that given his passion for Native American issues and how Americans have treated those who called this land home until Europeans flooded the country with people, that platform was well worth blowing up if he could shine a light on the cause. 

Sure enough, Brando was named that year’s Best Actor.

The international forum that accompanies an Oscar win found Brando bringing awareness to the American public when he sent Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather to decline his award and issue a statement as to the reason. As Littlefeather sauntered up the stage at The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the legend’s protest of the misrepresentation of American Natives in Hollywood, as well as their living conditions across the land, got an enormous spotlight.

On that early spring evening in Los Angeles, this infamous Oscar moment was one of the earliest instances of actors getting political during their Oscar speeches. Recent victors who got political with their Oscar wins with Patricia Arquette–singling out the gender wage gap—and Leonardo DiCaprio used his victory for The Revenant to address the urgency of global climate change.

  1. A Streaker Gonna Streak.

The very next year after Brando’s headline grabber, 1974, Elizabeth Taylor was all sorts of ready to announce that year’s Best Picture. Suddenly, a gay rights activist named Robert Opel ran sans clothes across the stage. Buck naked. His Oscar freak flying high (or low, depending on how you’re looking at this story). Not only did co-host and cinema icon David Niven have a “front-row-seat” to the streaking, but he also showed his British stoic humor and uttered, “Well, ladies and gentlemen, that was almost bound to happen. But 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?” Well played, well played. 

Lucky for him, he was not arrested. Even more fortunate still, Opel now has the distinction of sharing a topic of conversation that has his name alongside Brando’s. 

Perhaps Opel was expecting company like Will Ferrell was in Old School when he uttered, “We’re going streaking!” and not a soul was having any part of that.

  1. Rob Lowe Gets “Proud” with Snow White.

As the Decade of Decadence was closing, the 1989 Academy Awards chose to commence the show with an actor riding a fame wave of the highest order, Rob Lowe. Now, when it comes to his Oscar moment that the New York Times said deserved “a permanent place in the annals of Oscar embarrassments,” it was not entirely his fault. The blame for this lies with the show’s producers. Someone somewhere thought it would be a great idea to have Lowe, Brat Packer extraordinaire, and Snow White do the Ike and Tina Turner thing with Proud Mary. The final notes of their duet weren’t the end of the mess. 

Paul Newman and Julie Andrews posted an open letter to the Academy to describe the ten-minute-plus performance as an “embarrassment.” Show producer Allan Carr never recovered. On the other hand, Lowe has done alright for himself since then and even has a sense of humor about the entire affair. He once told the New York Times that, “It’s always been a huge relief to me that after Snow White, the Oscars got their act together and avoided any further controversy and embarrassment,” Lowe said of marking three decades since his infamous evening. “It’s fitting and proper that we continue to honor the dark and tragic event that befell our nation 30 years later. I’m particularly looking forward to the candlelight vigils.” 

Also, never one to let others use their intellectual property for free, Disney filed a copy infringement lawsuit against the Academy for using their character without permission. Who thought that you could use roll out Snow White and not at least ask The Mouse House if that was OK? 

  1. Angelina Jolie Uncomfortably Kisses Her Brother.

Back in 2000, after taking the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Girl, Interrupted, Angelina Jolie uncomfortably thanked her older brother, James Haven. She said, “I’m in shock, and I’m so in love with my brother right now.” Later that night, they were photographed locking lips in a way that most siblings do not share affection. That did nothing to dampen the press curiosity about their curiously close relationship. More importantly, instead of exclusively thinking about her Oscar win as the true beginning of a storied career, her entry into Oscar history will forever be tied to a sibling make-out session. 

  1. Adrien Brody Lays an Uninvited Kiss on Halle Berry.

Speaking of uncomfortable passionate occurrences, in a move that’s become even more cringeworthy to witness in light of the sexual harassment allegations that have rocked Hollywood in the last several years—Adrien Brody grabbed presenter Halle Berry and planted a long and awkward smooch that seemed to last… forever! 

Brody was taking to the podium to accept the Best Actor trophy for The Pianist. The unplanned moment came in 2003, just a year after Berry became the first black woman ever to win Best Actress for her performance in Monster’s Ball. Sadly, it brings to mind an old saying—one step forward, two steps back. The live on television unwelcomed kiss now is part of Berry’s Oscar history, right along with her making history the year prior. 

Also, it would be nice if this were talked about more since the birth of #MeToo. It was not OK. 

  1. Crash  wins Best Picture over Brokeback Mountain.

In what’s considered one of the most shocking upsets in Oscars history, Paul Haggis’ “race” drama beat out Ang Lee’s critically favored front-runner in 2006—Brokeback Mountain—making it only the second film ever to win the top prize without a Golden Globes Best Picture nomination.

To many, the idea of Crash winning Best Picture over Brokeback Mountain had everything to do with prejudice and nothing to do with artistry. Lee’s story chronicled a love story between Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal’s cowboys, who were gay lovers during a time period when homosexuality was not only seen as the worst of cultural no-no’s, and in fact, many places… it was illegal. Brokeback Mountain took place in 1963. One would think 43 years later, society—particularly Hollywood—would embrace such an idea, especially since it was the best movie of those nominated. Turns out, not so much. In fact, the collective known as the Academy would rather anoint a film in Crash, whose look at the real and deep racial divide in America was only surface-level, instead of an endearing love story whose beauty has not faded over time. 

  1. John Travolta Butchers Idina Menzel’s Name

The year was 2014, and Frozen fever was gripping the entire planet. It should have been a career-best moment for singer and actress Idina Menzel. Instead, it became an exercise in recovering from being called the wrong name in front of hundreds of millions of people on live television. 

Superstar John Travolta took the stage to introduce the singer, who was there to belt out the international smash called Let It Go. Now, Menzel did recover. But, add this gross error by the Grease star to innate nerves that must have been ricocheting through Menzel’s body, and one can understand why the sonic succulence that is Let It Go started quite shakily. It still would evolve into a solid performance, but it was one clearly affected by the world thinking she was “Adele Dazeem.” Menzel got her “revenge” the next year when she introduced him as “Glom Gazingo.” 

  1. ‘La La Land’ Is Best Picture! Or Is It? 

2017 gave us what has to be seen as an enormous failure ever at the Academy Awards. After all, it cannot get any worse than the wrong film being named Best Picture. Bonnie and Clyde star Warren Beaty and Faye Dunaway were reunited and brought out to name the nominees and then bestowed the evening’s highest award—and in Hollywood. Dunaway seemed shaky from the get-go, almost lost in a sea of pressure, blinding spotlights, and the keen knowledge that hundreds of millions of souls were watching you live. After the nine films were introduced as Best Picture nominees, the biggest moment in the Hollywood calendar year had arrived. Somehow, Dunaway looked at the word Moonlight and read La La Land

Incredibly, the greatest error one could make on an Oscars’ broadcast was only corrected thanks to the quick action of La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz. He was set to deliver the most important speech of his life, basking in a moment that producers dream of since they got into the business. Heck, he probably even delivered a few “acceptance speeches” as a young lad using a hairbrush as a microphone and a bathroom mirror as the “camera.” 

Horowitz noticed something while all the La La Land people were congratulating each other. The card Dunaway and Beaty gave him didn’t say his film. It clearly said Moonlight. It was easily the most jaw-dropping moment ever in the history of the Academy Awards. There’s even a famous photo of the crowd, seconds after it occurred, where most of the folks in the audience—including Michelle Williams and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson—are seen with their jaws literally agape. 

Sure, it all worked out. But it is sad. It could have been a triumphant moment for an Academy that had been facing years and years of #OscarsSoWhite criticism. It also should have been writer-director Barry Jenkins’ coronation from the get-go. Instead, it would lead to a good deal of analysis on the part of the Oscars as to how it happened, how it was allowed to happen, and most importantly, contribute to the decision by the Academy to add thousands of new members to ensure diversity is the rule and not the exception.

Written by
Joel D. Amos has been writing about film for over two decades. He is known as The Movie Mensch and his interviews, reviews, and features have appeared in newspapers, magazines, and online publications that have reached millions. His passion for Goodfellas as his favorite movie is well-known, as is his belief that the sanctity of the cinematic arts has the supreme power to unite us like nothing else.

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