And in at No 1 … Jennifer Lawrence meets Jack Nicholson
1. When Jack met Jennifer
This is perhaps my favourite Oscar moment ever, and it is from last year: the 85th Academy Awards in 2013. Tellingly, it does not take place up on stage, in the often tense and frozen ritual of the awards ceremony itself, but happens in the cheerful buzz of the post-show melee backstage. This single, endlessly replayed clip probably did more for Jennifer Lawrence's public profile than anything on the big screen.
George Stephanopoulos, the former Bill Clinton aide who later made a career in TV, was conducting on-the-hoof interviews for ABC and had grabbed 22-year-old Lawrence to talk about her best actress Oscar forSilver Linings Playbook. The surreal spectacle of 75-year-old Jack Nicholson looming up behind Lawrence is riveting. Wiping his face and dark glasses, he then did a wacky Groucho-Marx-type lean into shot, and busted in on the conversation to flirt with a clearly stunned Lawrence. Unlike most Oscar set pieces, it is funny, relaxed and unscripted.
Here is an Oscar moment we could have done without, again from last year. But it's fascinating in what it reveals about the academy's perennial yearning for a younger, hipper, more ironic image – and how irony can go horribly wrong. Seth MacFarlane, the creator of Family Guy, seemed like a great choice as host at first and was welcomed by many (including, ahem, me).
It didn't work out, largely because of his notorious song We Saw Your Boobs, in which he listed all the female stars who have shown their breasts on film. MacFarlane had attempted to hedge this performance with irony – William Shatner comes from the future to warn him how offensive it was going to be – and with a kind of sexual correctness: the gay men's chorus of Los Angeles were his backing singers. He even got some stars in the audience to play along and look horrified, but they were sadly under-rehearsed and under-directed. People thought it was a misfire, particularly the song's mention of Jodie Foster in The Accused (she was playing a rape victim).
This is one of the most legendary Oscar moments, at the 46th Academy Awards in 1974, when the event was less strictly policed. But was this mythic moment as spontaneous as we thought? Just as he was about to introduce Elizabeth Taylor, David Niven is bemused to find a steaker behind him – and with remarkable sang-froid made his legendary off-the-cuff remark. The streaker was gay rights activist Robert Opel, who had press accreditation for The Advocate magazine, and had managed to sneak backstage to get his kit off. But how had he managed it? Security wasn't all that lax, even for the groovy 70s, and many people were startled that broadcaster NBC allowed him a press conference later. Was it a set-up? Everyone swears not.
At the 51st Academy Awards in 1979, John Wayne came onstage to present the Oscar for best picture, and his appearance was genuinely moving. The Oscars love ancestor worship, but this is usually in the context of a lifetime-achievement award, presented to someone who is old but otherwise cheerfully fit. This was different. John Wayne was not getting an award, but visibly in the final stages of cancer, drawn and tired, but good-humoured, thanking the audience for their applause – "just about the only medicine a fella'd ever really need". It was his last public appearance and he died a few months later.
At the 11th Academy Awards in 1939, George Bernard Shaw became a pub-quiz staple for becoming the only person to have won both an Oscar and a Nobel prize. With other co-writers, he got best adapted screenplay for the 1938 film Pygmalion starring Wendy Hiller, taken from his play (later this would become the musical My Fair Lady, without Shaw's involvement). His Nobel prize in literature had been awarded in 1925. Sadly, there is no online footage of the Oscars for this year.
Shaw did not attend the ceremony, but his Oscars "moment" came with his grand dismissal of the Hollywood establishment for presuming to give him one of its baubles: "They might as well send some honour to George for being King of England". However, the statuette was to be seen in his house in England.
There's a certain amount of amiable mickey-taking when Emma Thompson is mentioned in the press now, but perhaps it's time to put this condescension behind us and remember not only how huge Emma Thompson was in 90s Hollywood, but also that she is the only person in Oscar history to get wins for both acting and writing – that is, for Howard's End in 1992 and Sense and Sensibility in 1995 – an achievement that still eludes all those alpha males before whom journalists swoon. Here is a great moment for her, the acceptance speech for Sense and Sensibility at the 68th Academy Awards in 1996, wittily describing a visit to Jane Austen's grave.
7. Did Emil Jannings' best actor Oscar save him from getting shot?
There is no online video of Emil Jannings's encounter with Allied troops in the ruins of Berlin in 1945, but it was one of history's greatest Oscar moments. Sixteen years earlier, at the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929 – a relatively modest dinner at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel – the German actor Jannings received the first best actor award (and, in fact, the first Oscar full stop) for two silent films: Victor Fleming's The Way of All Flesh (now lost, except for five minutes at the UCLA film and television archive) and Josef Sternberg's The Last Command.
After the talkies came in, Jannings's thick accent made him almost unemployable in Hollywood, and he returned to Germany where he became associated with Joseph Goebbels's Nazi propaganda machine. When the Allied forces came storming into Berlin at the end of the second world war, a terrified Jannings was said to have emerged from hiding, holding up the statuette and piteously wailing to baffled GIs: "I have Oscar …!"
Nothing is more mythologised and cheekily misunderstood than Tom Hanks's supposed gaffe at the 66th Academy Awards in 1994. When accepting the best actor Oscar for his role in Philadelphia, he is alleged to have "outed" his inspirational high school teacher as gay. The event inspired the 1997 comedy In & Out, starring Kevin Kline as a notionally straight teacher, engaged to be married, who is horrified when his movie-star ex-pupil outs him in an acceptance speech.
In fact, Hanks's actual teacher Rawley Farnsworth had long been retired at the time. Hanks had telephoned Farnsworth a few days previously to ask permission for a name-check, and although it isn't clear if Hanks told him exactly what he was going to say, Farnsworth had already spoken about his sexual orientation to a San Francisco Chronicle reporter who was preparing a feature on Hanks. His speech moved and inspired Farnsworth to join an organisation of gay teachers and campaign for children with HIV.
On 27 February 1973, 200 members of the American Indian Movement occupied the South Dakota town of Wounded Knee – the symbolically significant site of an 1890 massacre – to protest about the failure of the US government to fulfil treaties with Native Americans. One of the protesters' supporters was Marlon Brando, who planned to draw attention to their cause by sensationally refusing the Oscar he was tipped to win for his performance in The Godfather, and to send in his place the civil rights campaigner Sacheen Littlefeather to decline it.
The resulting moment at the 45th Academy Awards in 1973 is an Oscar classic, especially for the confused reaction to Littlefeather's speech attacking Hollywood's depiction of Native Americans – scattered nervous booing and cheering, with most of those present unsure of the correct liberal response. I have blogged about the bizarre spectacle of Roger Moore and Liv Ullmann trying to present the award, and Roger Moore says that he simply took Brando's Oscar statuette home with him at the end of the evening, although the Academy sent some rather cross representatives the next morning to pick it up.
What a joy. The 61st Academy Awards in 1989 were masterminded by flamboyant Broadway producer Allan Carr. To kick off the show, Carr dreamed up a colossal fantasy-musical extravaganza in which Snow White would be transported through the wonderland of show business in various marvellous scenes. The result was an over-produced kitschy nightmare featuring a duet with Rob Lowe, fresh from his sex-tape scandal. It was received in icy, embarrassed silence by the tuxed audience. Snow White was played by Eileen Bowman, a 22-year-old newcomer who found the show an ordeal and refused to attend the Governor's Ball with Rob Lowe dressed as Snow White. Afterwards, she had to sign a gag order undertaking not to describe her experiences for a period of 13 years. The "Snow White" moment was at first hastily forgotten, then remembered as a hilarious nightmare. I think it can be enjoyed as pure surreality.