By Alan Hurst
I think I first heard about the Academy Awards via a cover story on a 1972 edition of LIFE Magazine. It featured an article about the 1971 Oscars, which were to be awarded the following week. There was a picture of an Oscar statue, with photos of all the nominees for Best Actor and Actress and a headline promising a story telling us how the Oscars are picked.
I remember devouring the magazine, particularly the listing of that year’s nominees. Not many of them meant anything to me outside of Bedknobs and Broomsticks, which was the only nominee I had seen (it was up for some musical and technical awards). I knew my parents had talked about Fiddler on the Roof (a Best Picture nominee). I knew Ann-Margret (nominated for Carnal Knowledge) because of The Flintstones and a guest appearance on Here’s Lucy. And I knew Cloris Leachman (nominated for The Last Picture Show) as Phyllis from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. But now I wanted to know who all of these other people were, and I wanted to see all these movies but, alas, no luck getting my parents to take their 12-year old to Klute or A Clockwork Orange.
Fast forward to the spring of 1973 and the Academy Awards for 1972. I now knew what the Oscars were, I had voraciously read everything I could about pretty well every movie released that year, and I had managed to cajole someone to take me to a couple of movies that figured prominently amongst that year’s nominees, including Cabaret and The Poseidon Adventure. I had even pulled together my own home-made version of LIFE Magazine featuring that year’s nominees with images cut out of newspapers and the monthly movie magazines that were still popular then.
What I really don’t remember is having a conversation about being allowed to stay up and actually watch the awards. It just seemed to happen. Back then they were shown on a Tuesday night – a school night – and a quick internet search shows that they were only two hours and 38 minutes long, so maybe not the big deal it would be today with the near four-hour marathon they’ve become.
The idea of the Oscars and the show itself really did have an impact because, even before much of the ceremony was accessible on YouTube, I was able to recall vividly some key moments from the broadcast.
- There were four hosts that year and I remember two of them – Carol Burnett and Charlton Heston. I guess nothing that Rock Hudson or Michael Caine did was too memorable. I recall Heston in particular because he ran onstage after the show had already started, allowing an uncomfortable Clint Eastwood to go back to his seat. It seems Heston had car trouble and was late so producers grabbed Eastwood to fill in at the last minute and he stumbled through lines that were clearly meant for Heston.
- While presenting Best Supporting Actress I remember Robert Duvall starting to laugh in between saying Susan Tyrell in Fat City and Shelley Winters in The Poseidon Adventure and thinking, is he laughing at Shelley Winters (who was not a small woman) because he just said Fat City? Because she was in The Poseidon Adventure, and I had seen it, I was rooting for her to win. I felt bad for her because not only did she lose, but some guy I didn’t know laughed at her nomination on national television. Duvall later apologized and blamed his bout of giggles on James Caan, who was mugging in the audience. But still.
- I remember Julie Andrews and George Stevens presenting Best Director to Bob Fosse for Cabaret and wondering why that win seemed to be a surprise. I had seen Cabaret so of course it made sense to me, not knowing the Cabaret seemed to be steamrolling over The Godfather, the odds-on favourite.
- I remember Liza Minnelli accepting her Best Actress Oscar for Cabaret and really emphasizing the word “me” when she said “thank you for giving me this award.” It took a bit time for me to realize that she was essentially stepping out from the shadow of her mother and father (Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli) with that speech and the acknowledgment from the Academy.
- The most prominent memory of the night was watching a Native American walk up to refuse Marlon Brando’s Best Actor Oscar for The Godfather. I recall some boos as she started to speak (which made me feel bad for her as well), then a smattering of applause, and then confusion. Why would anyone turn down an Oscar? And were you even allowed to do that?
- I remember presenter Raquel Welch bitchily saying “I hope they haven’t got a cause” before she and Gene Hackman awarded Minnelli her Oscar, coming as it did after the Brando debacle.
Since then I have watched at least part of every Oscar ceremony. Sometimes with a large group, sometimes by myself, once in a country and western bar in downtown Toronto (the year Henry Fonda won and I was ticked because I couldn’t hear the TV) and once in Vegas when Angela Lansbury presented Elizabeth Taylor with her Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award as my eyes darted between the TV screen and the slot machine I was convinced would pay out. This year it will be from the comfort of home and hopefully it wraps before midnight, but not without a few memorable mishaps.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.