Everybody gets political (1975)
Hearts and Minds was a lightning rod for controversy at the 1975 ceremony, and for once, the onstage political bloviating managed to piss off both sides of the political spectrum. Peter Davis’s powerful anti-Vietnam War film won the Best Documentary prize, and when co-producer Bert Schneider accepted the award, he also took the opportunity to read a “”Greetings of Friendship to all American People” telegram from Ambassador Dinh Ba Thi of, um, the Viet Cong. This infuriated the evening’s co-host, Bob Hope, who was already steamed that the film (which painted him in a rather unflattering light) had won. So he scrawled a response note and insisted his co-host, Frank Sinatra, read it on the air. Sinatra complied: “The Academy is saying, ‘We are not responsible for any political references made on the program, and we are sorry they had to take place this evening.’” But the Academy wasn’t saying that — Hope was, and though the Academy reportedly scolded him for speaking on their behalf, they still asked him back to host the 1978 telecast (it would be the last of his 19 hosting appearances).
Brando and Sacheen (1973)
But the most famously misplaced political speechifying in Oscar history came in 1973, when Marlon Brando won Best Actor for his iconic turn in The Godfather. It was a big comeback for the actor, who had alienated the suits with his peculiar choices, political activism, and general weirdness in the decade or so before Coppola came a-calling. While Brando may have been bankable again, he certainly wasn’t going to curb the other stuff; he not only didn’t come to the ceremony, but he sent a Native American activist who called herself Sacheen Littlefeather to refuse the award on his behalf, and read his 15-page statement on why he was turning it down (in protest of Hollywood’s treatment of Native Americans, and the recent incident at Wounded Knee, South Dakota). Backstage, Littlefeather was told she’d be kicked out unless she kept her remarks to 60 seconds, which she improvised (reading the statement to press afterwards). Arguments persist to this day as to how legit Littlefeather (née Marie Louise Cruz) actually was, but this much is clear: after the 1973 ceremony, the Academy no longer allowed anyone other than an award’s presenter to accept a statue on behalf of an absent winner.
Snow White and Rob Lowe (1989)
The most notorious of all Academy Award telecasts, the one that still sends shivers down the spines of would-be Oscar producers, aired on March 29, 1989. It was produced by Allan Carr, who followed his one hit (Grease) with a string of flops (including the Village People epic Can’t Stop the Music). Carr’s big opening musical number was a humdinger: an endless (ten-plus minutes) nonsensical nightmare in which Snow White (played by an unknown young actress named Eileen Bowman) comes to Hollywood, sings her way through the Shrine Auditorium, and lands at an onstage replica of the Copacabana Club, where there is singing and dancing and a rather unfortunate duet with Rob Lowe (then trying to clean up his image after a sex tape scandal — what a trailblazer!). Lowe would eventually recover from the debacle; Bowman (who recently talked to The Hollywood Reporter about the incident) fled Los Angeles immediately, returning to her home of San Diego. Disney filed a lawsuit against the Academy for its unauthorized use of their version of Snow White (whoops). An open letter from 17 Hollywood stars — including Paul Newman, Julie Andrews, and Gregory Peck — proclaimed the telecast “an embarrassment to both the Academy and the entire motion picture industry.” But not everyone was embarrassed; just this week, Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody tweeted, “I remember watching the Rob Lowe/Snow White Oscar number live and thinking it was AWESOME.” However, she added a caveat: “I was 10.”