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The 10 Most Newsworthy Oscar Controversies

As we near the much feted awards, here's a recce of the most controversial moments in Oscar history
The 10 Most Newsworthy Oscar Controversies

  • Karan Dhall

  • Film Companion

Last Updated: 05.37 PM, Mar 24, 2022

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Dolby Theatre is not new to controversies. Week after week, as we near the much feted awards, here’s a recce of the most controversial moments in Oscar history.

In 1936, the Academy bestowed screenwriter Dudley Nichols with the Best Screenplay Award for The Informer. The drama-thriller film, an adaptation of Liam O’Flaherty’s eponymous novel, backdropped the Irish War of Independence.

But Nichols declined the award, becoming the first person to do so. The refusal came in solidarity with the Screen Writers’ Guild strike. Formed in revolt against the Academy’s studio bias, the Guild believed that the Academy failed to recognize talent. In a letter quoted in The New York Times, Nichols wrote to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, “I deeply regret I am unable to accept the award. To accept it would be to turn my back on the nearly 1,000 members of the Screen Writers’ Guild.”

1940 saw the first African-American woman win an Oscar: Hattie McDaniel. She won the award for the Best Supporting Actress for her performance in Gone With the Wind. While this makes for a moment of liberal pride in retrospect, things were not so rosy back then. Even as McDaniel was tediously allowed entry into LA’s “Whites only” Ambassador Hotel, they forced her to sit at a segregated table at the back of the room. She disproved her treatment with a momentous win and a teary-eyed acceptance speech.

The Godfather (celebrating 50 years of its release this month) is unimaginable without Marlon Brando’s classic act as patriarch Don Vito Corleone. The Academy felt so too in 1973, as it offered the coveted Best Actor award to Brando. He declined and sent activist Sacheen Littlefeather as a proxy to collect his Oscar. But she did not take it either. She quoted Brando’s confidential enveloped speech and said, “He very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award.” Why? Because of Hollywood’s unfair treatment meted out to the American Indians. Expectedly, Littlefeather’s proxy speech was interrupted amidst boos and cheers.

If not for The Godfather, Vito Corleone got another Oscar to his name in 1975, as Robert de Niro won the Best Supporting Actor, playing a younger Vito in the sequel.

The audience could “barely” peace out when artist and photographer Robert Opel ran naked across the stage, flashing the peace sign during the 1974 Oscars. Actor David Niven took the bizarre event in jest. “Isn’t it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?” he beamed.

Two years after 9/11, as the Iraq war loomed large, 2003 saw America in tumultuous times. After winning the 2004 Oscar for Best Documentary (Bowling for Columbine), Michael Moore arrived on stage amidst deafening applause. Things took a U-turn when he got political. “We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons… Shame on you, Mr Bush, shame on you,” he said. The audience booed and cheered, and the orchestra stopped his speech mid-sentence by playing over him. In a post-ceremony press conference, Moore defended his speech. He said that he put America, the land of free speech, in a good light by freely voicing his dissent at the Oscars.

The 2007 Oscars saw the celebrated trio of Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas presenting the Best Director award. Copolla said, “The three of us are here because we know what a great feeling it is to win an Academy Award for Directing.” Spielberg agreed, saying, “It was the greatest honour I ever received”. “Guys, I haven’t ever won an Academy Award!” a dumbfounded Lucas said to a hysterical reception from the audience. Indeed, Woody Allen’s Annie Hall winning over Lucas’ magnum opus Star Wars became one of the most contested Oscar wins in retrospect. It reflected the Academy’s preference for drama films over genre films. The latter had to wait for a long time to get accolades.

Marked by Twitter #OscarsSoWhite, the 2016 Academy Awards was a contested ceremony. It featured 20 actor nominees, all white. This lack of diversity and underrepresentation by the Academy led to many prominent celebrities boycotting the awards. Black Host Chris Rock’s satirical monologue summed up the industry’s discontent with the Academy. Starting with calling the Oscars the White People’s Choice Awards, Rock went on to say, “If they nominated hosts, I wouldn’t even get this job,” taking pot-shots at the jury.

In the most memorable recent oops-of-the-Oscars, the 2017 Oscars saw presenters Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty flub the Best Picture Oscar. “The Academy Award… for Best Picture,” Beatty bellowed to the audience. “La La Land,” announced Dunaway, as an enthusiastic crew marched up to the stage. Plot twist: La La Land was not the winner; it was Barry Jerkins’ Moonlight. Apparently, there had been a mix-up as Beatty’s card read Emma Stone for La La Land, hence the confusion. “This is not a joke. Moonlight is the Best Picture,” clarified La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz, as he presented the award to Moonlight‘s crew, much to their delight.

The 2018-biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, based on the life of Freddie Mercury, found itself mired in controversy over sexual assault allegations levied on director Bryan Singer and the film’s cursorial view on AIDS. Adding fuel to the fire was John Ottoman winning an Oscar for Best Editing for the filmWith a considerable number of erratic cuts in a conversational scene, neither cine-buffs nor Ottoman himself considered the film’s editing as the best. Bohemian Rhapsody has not aged well over the years. The only redeeming factors remain Rami Malek’s Oscar-winning act and a Greatest Hits soundtrack by Queen.

In 2019, actor Kevin Hart got embroiled in a controversy over a series of homophobic tweets he had posted in the past. He then stepped down from emceeing the Oscars that year. Subsequently, the Academy decided to go hostless for the following two years citing an uptick in the TV ratings. Things, however, look different in 2022.

“This year’s Oscars will have a host,” confirmed Craig Erwich, President, Hulu Originals & ABC Entertainment. He might even emcee them, becoming the first person to host the ceremony in three years.

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