The 2023 Academy Award Ceremony is just around the corner, so now feels like a good time to take a look back at the biggest Oscar moments in the history of the prestigious — and often controversial — award ceremony.
A lot has happened in the years since the very first Oscars ceremony took place back in 1929, with the event becoming a highlight of Hollywood’s social calendar — and our own.
From game-changing wins that were supposed to pave the way for BIPOC performers, to name blunders and calls for greater diversity, plus a fair few moments that had us scratching our heads or covering our eyes, the Oscars have truly been delivering the goods (and bads) for close to 100 years.
We’ve got the highs, the lows, and everything in between, so let’s take a walk down memory lane.
1929: The First Oscars Takes Place
While the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was founded by Louis B Mayer in 1927, the first Academy Awards didn’t take place until May 1929.
The event was held at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, and tickets to the private dinner were $5. Adjusted for inflation, that’s about USD$81 today, but the ceremony only lasted 15 minutes, so it wasn’t the televised spectacular we see these days.
1934: The Original ‘Moonlight’ Blunder Happens
Okay, it’s not quite the same, but get a load of this.
So… he did. The problem? He was the wrong Frank. Frank Lloyd had won for Cavalcade.
It gets worse — just have a read of this quote from Capra about the journey back to his seat.
“[It was] the longest, saddest, most shattering walk in my life. I wished I could have crawled under the rug like a miserable worm. When I slumped in my chair I felt like one. All my friends at the table were crying.”
Thankfully, Capra won Best Director the next year for It Happened One Night. All’s well that ends well?
1936: Dudley Nichols Declines His Award
The first person to ever refuse an Oscar, screenwriter Dudley Nichols turned down his award for The Informer.
With Hollywood studios trying to prevent unionisation, the Screen Writers Guild and Screen Actors Guild urged members to boycott the ceremony and stand with the unions. While most of the stars still turned up to claim their awards, Nichols refused and was rewarded a few years later, when they made him the head of the SWG.
1938: An Imposter Nabs an Oscar
In 1938, Alice Brady won Best Supporting Actress for her work in In Old Chicago. She was at home, too sick to attend the ceremony, and no one questioned the random man who hopped up on stage to accept the award on her behalf.
By the time anyone realised he was not, in fact, connected to Brady in any manner, he (and ‘his’ Oscar) had vanished without a trace. The mystery was never solved.
1939: Oscar Gets His Nickname
Supposedly, the Academy Awards became “The Oscars” after the Academy librarian claimed that the statuettes looked like her Uncle Oscar. The Academy liked it and decided to officially embrace the name as the award’s official nickname.
1940: Hattie McDaniel Becomes the First African-American to Win an Academy Award
McDaniel made history when she won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Gone With the Wind.
However, receiving her award was no easy feat. The 1940 ceremony was held in a hotel with a strict racial segregation policy, and the hotel did not want her to attend. There are reports that film producer David O. Selznick called in favours in order to ensure McDaniel was able to attend, but even then, she was forced to sit away from her co-stars at a segregated table.
Also 1940: The Full List of Winners Is Leaked By the Press
From 1930 until 1940, the Academy sent out the full list of winners to newspapers before the event took place, with the strict rule that the results weren’t to be published until 11pm on the night of the ceremony.
In 1940, the L.A. Times broke the embargo and printed the list in the evening edition of the paper before the ceremony had taken place. The Academy was not impressed!
This event prompted the introduction of the sealed envelope system that the Academy still uses to this day, and the media no longer gets a heads up about who’s won what before the show airs.
1943: Greer Garson Gives the Longest Oscar Speech of All Time
You know how the orchestra kicks in and cuts winners off when they start rambling in their speeches? That wasn’t always the case.
Back in 1943, Garson, who won the Best Actress award for Mrs Miniver, went above and beyond the 45-second limit, with her acceptance speech clocking in at over five minutes.
1951: All About Eve Sets the Record for Most Nominations
With 14 nominations, All About Eve‘s record has only been tied twice, once in 1998 for Titanic, and once in 2017 for La La Land.
1959: Ben-Hur Sets the Record for Most Oscar Wins
With 11 wins, Ben-Hur‘s record has been tied but never beaten. The other films that have won 11 Oscars are West Side Story (1961), Titanic, and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.
1958: Donald Duck Co-Hosts the Oscars
The Disney icon appeared on a screen onstage, bantering with the show’s other presenters, which included Bob Hope, Jack Lemmon, David Niven, Rosalind Russell, and James Stewart.
1964: Sidney Poitier Wins the Oscar for Best Actor
The late, great Sidney Poitier became the first Black man to win the Best Actor nod in 1964, winning for his role as Homer Smith in Lilies in the Field.
It was, unfortunately, another 38 years before Denzel Washington became the second Black man to hold the honour, when he won in 2001 for his work in Training Day.
Poitier passed away on January 7, 2022, at the age of 94.
1968: The Ceremony Is Postponed
The 1968 ceremony was moved from April 8th to the 10th after the assassination of Martin Luther King. King’s funeral was held on April 9th.
1969: Barbara Streisand and Katharine Hepburn Tie for Best Actress
It may have been a draw, but it certainly wasn’t a race to the stage to make the first speech.
Despite her 12 nominations and four wins (Hepburn currently holds the record for most Oscar wins in the acting categories), Hepburn never attended the Oscars to claim her prizes.
1973: Marlon Brando Refuses His Oscar
After winning Best Actor for his rule in The Godfather, Brando refused to accept his award, in protest of the way Hollywood depicted Native Americans.
While Brando did not attend the ceremony, he sent Native American activist and actress Sacheen Littlefeather in his place. As she explained Brando’s reasons for refusing his Oscar, some audience members clapped, while others booed. Meanwhile, Roger Moore apparently took the Oscar home with him.
1974: Tatum O’Neal Becomes the Youngest-Ever Oscar Winner
At just 10 years old, O’Neal snagged the award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Paper Moon, a record that has yet to be broken (although Anna Paquin was 11 when she won for The Piano in 1994, so she came close).
1974: A Streaker Dashes Across the Oscar Stage
While host David Piven was introducing Elizabeth Taylor in 1974, Robert Opel — an American photographer and art gallery owner — made a mad dash across the Oscar stage, flashing a peace sign (along with, you know… everything else).
In the moments after, Piven cracked up, the audience laughed, the band started up, and then the show resumed as normal.
In fact, Opel wasn’t even kicked out of the ceremony. Later, he told reporters: “People shouldn’t be ashamed of being nude in public. Besides, it is a hell of a way to launch a career.”
1981: The Oscars Are Postponed Again
The 1981 ceremony was postponed after an assassination attempt on US President Ronald Reagan. They took place the next day, once it became clear that the President was going to live.
1985: Sally Field Delivers That Speech
In 1985, Sally Field won the Best Actress award for Places in the Heart and her acceptance speech has been misquoted ever since.
Often relayed as: “and I can’t deny the fact that you like me, you really like me!”, Field actually said: “I can’t deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me.”
Regardless, the moment lives on in infamy.
1989: The Snow White and Rob Lowe Fiasco
Now, there are embarrassing moments in Oscar history, and then there’s… this.
So what is this, exactly? It’s an 11-minute song and dance routine which features Rob Lowe and Snow White (played by Eileen Bowman) singing an Oscars’ interpretation of “Proud Mary”, as in: “rollin’, rollin’, keep the cameras rollin'”.
This bit was so despised by attendees and audience alike that Disney quite literally sued the show. Furthermore, 17 celebs — including Julie Andrews and Gregory Peck — signed an open letter condemning the performance as “an embarrassment to both the Academy and the entire picture industry”.
Allan Carr, the show’s producer, and one of the producers of Grease was essentially cast out of Hollywood after this. In fact, the only thing he ever produced again before his death in 1999 was a 20th-anniversary re-release party for Grease.
1992: Jack Palance Does Push-Ups on the Stage
While Jack Palance was onstage accepting his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in City Slickers, he seized the moment as an opportunity to talk about ageism in Hollywood.
After saying that directors were hesitant to cast older men in roles because they weren’t sure if they’d be able to keep up with the physical demands, he dropped to the floor and began doing one-armed push-ups. Truthfully, we’re here for it.
1993: Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, and Richard Gere Are Banned for “Life”
1993 saw Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins and Richard Gere use their platforms to speak out about political issues they cared about.
Sarandon and Robbins denounced the treatment of HIV-positive Haitians, while Richard Gere slammed China’s invasion of Tibet, and it stirred up so much controversy that the Academy banned them all for life.
It turns out that “life” was a fairly loose term. Sarandon was back at the Oscars by the time she won Best Actress in 1996 for Dead Man Walking, and Robbins was there to claim his win for Best Supporting Actor in 2004 for Mystic River.
Also 1993: Marisa Tomei Wins Best Supporting Actress Oscar
Poor Marisa. Her win for My Cousin Vinny was such a shock to everyone that there’s been a decades-long conspiracy that Jack Palance read the wrong name when he announced the winner.
1999: Shakespeare in Love Beats Saving Private Ryan for Best Picture
Basically, chalk this one up to disgraced Hollywood producer and convicted sex offender Harvey Weinstein. Weinstein was notorious for his aggressive Oscar campaigning tactics, and The Hollywood Reporter called the Shakespeare in Love campaign “the nastiest Oscar campaign ever staged“.
Also 1999: Roberto Benigni Leaps Onto Chairs and Up to the Stage
When Italian actor-director Roberto Benigni won Best Foreign Language Film for Life Is Beautiful, he invented jumping on chairs (sorry, Tom!).
Benigni was so ecstatic to have won that he hopped up on the backrest of Steven Spielberg’s chair and did a full “king of the world” moment, and then bunny-hopped his way up the stage steps to accept the Oscar.
2000: 55 Oscars Go Missing
Days before the 2000 award ceremony, multiple crates containing 55 Oscars went missing. Because the Oscars are very strict about their statues — you’re not allowed to sell an Oscar without offering to sell it back to the Academy for $1 first — a whole bunch of missing statues was not a good look for them.
Los Angeles citizen Willie Fulgear discovered 52 of the missing Oscars in a bin behind a grocery store, where he’d been looking for boxes to move house.
Amused by his discovery, Fulgear said, “I’ve got more Oscars than any of the movie stars”.
Also 2000: Angelina Jolie Says She’s in Love With Her Brother
After sharing a very controversial kiss on the red carpet earlier that night, Angelina Jolie declared her love for her brother James Haven while accepting the Best Supporting Actress award for her role in Girl, Interrupted.
She said: “I’m in shock and I’m so in love with my brother right now… he just held me and said that he loves me and I know that he’s so happy for me.”
2001: Björk Is a Swan, Lays an Egg on the Red Carpet
We don’t have anything to add to this, except “legends only”.
2002: Halle Berry Is the First Black Actress to Win Best Actress
It took 74 years for a Black woman to win Best Actress, and to date, Halle Berry remains the only woman to have done so.
Visibly emotional, Berry, who won for her performance in Monster’s Ball, said, “This moment is so much bigger than me. This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll. It’s for the women that stand beside me — Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett — and it’s for every nameless, faceless Woman of Colour that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.”
2006: Crash Beats Brokeback Mountain for Best Picture
Another one of the biggest Oscar race upsets in history, everyone was stunned when Crash took out the Best Picture win, beating Brokeback Mountain. These days, Crash is generally considered one of the worst Best Picture winners in history.
2009: Heath Ledger Wins a Posthumous Oscar
2011: Melissa Leo Drops the F-Bomb
Can you believe this was the first time anyone had ever accidentally sworn during the Oscars? Accepting her award for Best Supporting Actress in The Fighter, Leo said: “When I watched Kate [Winslet] two years ago, it looked so f**king easy!”
2013: Jennifer Lawrence Falls Down
Classic J-Law, right? On her way up to accept her Oscar for Best Actress, for her work in Silver Linings Playbook, Jen tripped on her dress but earned herself a standing ovation.
“You guys are just standing up because you feel bad that I fell,” she joked in her acceptance speech. “That’s really embarrassing.”
2014: John Travolta Introduces “Adele Dazeem”
In another embarrassing Oscars moment, Idina Menzel was about to take the stage to sing ‘Let It Go’, from the Oscar-winning film Frozen, when John Travolta, one of the night’s presenters, completely fumbled both her first and last names as he introduced her to the stage.
While mortified at the time, Menzel has since said that it was the best thing that ever happened to her.
“It was the greatest thing that ever happened to me,” she said during James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke in 2021, noting that his mispronunciation of her name got everybody talking about her.
“He’s written so many nice, apologetic emails,” she continued of Travolta, with whom she is now firm friends. “He’s sent flowers. He’s so kind. To make up for it, he would, like, fly wherever at this point, he’s so sweet.”
Also 2014: Ellen’s Star-Power Selfie
Remember when people still liked Ellen?
— Ellen DeGeneres (@EllenDeGeneres) March 3, 2014
2016: Leo Finally Wins His Oscar
After four previous nominations, and many, many memes, Leonardo DiCaprio finally won his Oscar; Best Actor, for his role in The Revenant. He used his acceptance speech as a platform to bring awareness to the realities of climate change, saying:
“Our production needed to move to the southern tip of this planet just to be able to find snow. Climate change is real, it is happening right now. It is the most urgent threat facing our entire species, and we need to work collectively together and stop procrastinating… Let us not take this planet for granted.”
2017: Moonlight wins Best Picture, not La La Land
The way they let La La Land get so far into their acceptance speeches, only to announce that, actually, Moonlight was the Best Picture winner? It is brutal to watch.
2018: Emma Stone Calls out Gender Inequality in the Directing Category
Speaking of Stone, while presenting Best Director in 2018, the actress took the opportunity to call out the gender imbalance in the category.
“It is the director whose indelible touch is reflected on every frame,” she said. “It is the director who, shot by shot, scene by scene, day by day, works with every member of the crew to further the story. And it is the vision of the director that takes an ordinary movie and turns it into a work of art. These four men and Greta Gerwig created their own masterpieces this year.”
2019: Kevin Hart Steps Down as Oscars Host
When Kevin Hart was announced as host of the Oscars, movie fans were quick to pull up a series of homophobic tweets Hart had posted, calling for him to be fired from the job.
Days later, Hart apologised for his tweets and stepped down as host, and the show went on… hostless.
The Oscars remained without a host in 2020 and 2021, but the Academy has announced that 2022 will see the return of an official host. No word yet on who’s going to get the gig, though.
2021: Chadwick Boseman Loses Best Actor to Anthony Hopkins
In fact, the Academy was so confident of his win that they rearranged the show.
Rather than announcing Best Picture last, they announced Best Actor last, with the idea being that they could close the show with a tribute to the late actor.
The next day, Hopkins recorded an acceptance speech that sounded more like an apology.
Meanwhile, the Academy probably learned that it’s best to not count your chickens before they’ve hatched.
2022: Will Smith Slaps Chris Rock
“That was… uh, the greatest night in the history of television.”
When Best Actor frontrunner Will Smith slapped presenter Chris Rock, viewers around the world were left wondering… was that a joke?
“Will Smith just smacked the s**t out of me!” a shocked Chris Rock exclaimed.
Soon enough, it became very apparent that it was no laughing matter.
Smith infamously yelled, “KEEP MY WIFE’S NAME OUT YOUR F**KIN’ MOUTH”, and the rest is history.
The show went on, and later that same evening, Smith won Best Actor for his role in King Richard. Later that night, he was spotted at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party, rapping along to his song “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It”, Oscar in hand.
However, there were repercussions. The Academy’s Board of Governors later banned Smith from attending the Oscars — and any Academy event — for the next decade.
Will the 2023 Academy Awards bring more chaos? Only time will tell.