Will Smith striking Chris Rock onstage may be one of the most extreme examples of the Oscar ceremony not going to plan— but it’s not the only one. Here are a few Oscar moments over the years that shook things up, and what happened in their aftermath.
In 1973, Marlon Brando was the odds-on favorite to win the Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather. It struck many as strange that Brando chose not to attend the ceremony, instead designating a young Native American actress and civil rights activist named Sacheen Littlefeather as the individual who would accept the award on his behalf. (Brando had previously accepted an Oscar for Best Actor in 1955 for On the Waterfront.)
The night of the ceremony, Brando was indeed announced as the winner of Best Actor, but when Littlefeather took the stage, she waved off the award and gave a prepared speech stating that Brando “very regretfully” could not accept the Oscar. “And the reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry, and on television in movie reruns, and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee.”
Littlefeather’s speech was greeted with a loud mixture of boos and applause. Supposedly John Wayne had to be restrained by security guards from going onstage and forcing her to leave. Later the same evening, Clint Eastwood, presenting Best Picture, ridiculed Littlefeather’s remarks by saying that he was presenting the prize “on behalf of all Cowboys shot in John Ford westerns over the years.”
The Fallout: The speech caused the Academy to immediately ban any future winners from having proxy acceptors for awards. Littlefeather, who would go on to work in Hospice care, said that she was blacklisted by Hollywood for the speech. Brando, on the other hand, would continue to work in Hollywood until 2001, three years before his death.
As iconic actor David Niven introduced even more iconic actress Elizabeth Taylor to present an award at the 1974 ceremony, an English teacher named Robert Opel somehow made it to the stage and ran behind Niven buck naked while flashing a peace sign.
Niven laughed as the audience applauded, then the actor said a perfect one-liner as the crowd members tried to compose themselves: “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?”
The Fallout: Practically nothing. Opel wasn’t even arrested for the stunt. He even did it again, streaking at a Los Angeles City Council meeting. Sadly, Opel was later murdered after staging a protest when Dan White— the man who killed San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone— was charged with manslaughter rather than murder.
Vanessa Redgrave’s Speech
In 1978, Vanessa Redgrave, nominated for Best Supporting Actress for Julia, was the subject of massive controversy. She had befriended a pair of Palestinian students and produced a documentary (“The Palestinian”) that was perceived as promoting Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Front. The debate over her views became so heated that protesters from the Jewish Defense League burned her in effigy outside the ceremony the night of the Oscars.
Regardless, Redgrave won the Oscar, and onstage she thanked the Academy, saying, “…in the last few weeks you have stood firm and you have refused to be intimidated by the threats of a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums, whose behavior is an insult to the stature of Jews all over the world, and to their great and heroic record of struggle against fascism and oppression.”
Redgrave stated in her autobiography that the remarks were directed specifically at the Jewish Defense League. Whatever the reasoning, many watching took great offense, taking it as a broader comment about Jewish people the world over. The speech stunned the audience and viewers at home.
Later in the night, famous screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, preparing to present the writing Oscars, made a comment of his own to great applause:
“I would like to suggest to Ms. Redgrave that her winning an Academy Award is not a pivotal moment in history, does not require a proclamation and a simple ‘Thank you’ would’ve sufficed.”
The Fallout: As polarizing as the moment was, the Academy has made no effort to bury the speech or Chayefsky’s response in the years that followed. In fact, it was a spotlight of a segment about controversies included on a commercially released Oscar’s Greatest Moments VHS tape. Redgrave would be nominated again for Oscars in 1985 (for The Bostonians) and 1993 (for Howard’s End), but would not win either.
Not riding the caboose anymore
In 2015, all 20 actors nominated for the performance awards were white, leading to public dialogue about racial bias among the members of the Academy (especially on Twitter, under the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite). This dialogue has surrounded the Oscars for decades, and once was even discussed onstage at the ceremony itself— by one of Hollywood’s most popular stars, no less.
Eddie Murphy was perhaps the biggest box office star in the world in 1988 when he was asked to present the Oscar for Best Picture. But, as he revealed in a passionate speech he said onstage before he gave the award, his first instinct was to say “no, I ain’t going.”
The reason? Because African American performers had barely been acknowledged by the Academy Awards over the years. As he recited from memory, only three Black actors had ever won Oscars over the course of 60 years at that point: Hattie McDaniel (for Gone with the Wind), Sydney Poitier (for Lilies of the Field) and Louis Gossett Jr. (for An Officer and a Gentleman).
“Black people will not ride the caboose of society and we will not bring up the rear anymore, I want you to recognize us,” Murphy said. He also observed that he’d probably never win an Oscar for saying this, though given the history, a Black performer wasn’t due until “about 2004.”
The Fallout: Years later, Murphy observed in an interview that the speech was all but ignored in the press after the ceremony, and only has gained notoriety as a big moment in the years since. Murphy eventually was nominated for an Oscar himself— in 2006, two years after his predicted date. He lost to Alan Arkin.
As someone who once pronounced Adele’s name as “Add-a-lay” on local radio, the writer of this article certainly has sympathy for John Travolta. In 2014, Travolta was tasked with introducing actress Idina Menzel, voice of Elsa in Frozen. Instead, he proclaimed that coming to the stage was the one and only “Adele Dazeem.”
Travolta claims that the producers had replaced Menzel’s name on the teleprompter with a phonetic version that was supposedly “easier to pronounce” and thus screwed him up. Regardless, the show carried on and the moment became the stuff of a thousand memes.
The Fallout: The next year, Menzel and Travolta would present an award together to show that bygones were bygones. Menzel even joked about the moment in her own version of the “Not My Name” TikTok trend.
(Not) Best Picture
Warren Beatty was noticeably confused when he opened the envelope to announce the winner of Best Picture in 2017. He held the card in the envelope to his fellow presenter, Faye Dunaway, who proclaimed that La La Land had won the prize.
As the cast and crew of the film filed onstage to celebrate the honor, La La Land’s producer Jordan Horowitz came to the microphone waving a finger. “Sorry, guys, hold on. There’s a mistake. Moonlight, you guys won Best Picture.”
It turned out that the Oscars have two envelopes prepared for every award as a backup, and someone had accidentally given the second one for Best Actress to Beatty and Dunaway. Emma Stone had won the award for La La Land, so Dunaway read the card and announced the film itself as winning the big prize.
As soon as the mistake was made, accountants from PricewaterhouseCoopers— who tabulate the ballots and guarantee the integrity of the results— immediately alerted the producers that the wrong winner had been named, and quickly stage managers clarified the situation to everyone onstage.
The Fallout: The next year, Guillermo Del Toro (producer/director of Best Picture winner The Shape of Water) “double checked” the envelope as a joke when he accepted the Oscar. This blunder also acts as a rebuttal to everyone who still claims that Marisa Tomei’s win in 1993 was a mistake when Jack Palance supposedly “read the wrong name.” (If they stopped the show and corrected things when Best Picture was announced, do you really think they wouldn’t have done the same for Best Supporting Actress?)