From chair-climbing antics to emotional historic wins, these are the real reasons we tune in to the Academy Awards ceremony every year.
How is it that the “biggest party of the year” can often feel like such a tedious slog? Not a year goes by that viewers don’t lament the running time of the nearly four-hour ceremony, which tests the patience and attention spans of film aficionados across the globe.
However, through the years, there have been little moments of levity (or scandal) that have gone a long way toward breaking up the monotony. And it’s those exact moments—that breath of fresh air we crave that breaks up the routine—that keeps us coming back for more. From “the streaking incident” to Italian actor-director Roberto Benigni’s joyous chair-climbing celebration, the Oscars have definitely had more than their fair share of memorable moments.
Now, with awards season in full swing, we look back at the major highlights in the 90-year history of the Academy Awards.
1. The Streaker
His name was Robert Opel and the American photographer’s only real claim to fame was when he streaked during the 46th Academy Awards on April 2, 1974. The crafty Opel allegedly posed as a journalist to gain entrance to the prestigious ceremony and managed to sneak backstage without attracting notice. As host David Niven prepared to introduce Elizabeth Taylor to the stage, Opel ran out from behind the gaudy yellow curtain—naked and flashing a peace sign.
Ever the dry wit, an unfazed Niven quipped: “Well, ladies and gentlemen, that was almost bound to happen. But isn’t it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will get in his life is by stripping off [his clothing] and showing his shortcomings?”
The famous ad-lib, which was met with enthusiastic applause at the time, has been much-contested in recent years, with some claiming that the show’s producer, Jack Haley Jr., colluded with Opel to stage it as a ratings-grabbing stunt. Business manager Robert Metzler said that, during dress rehearsal, Niven asked for a pen to write down the now-famous quip.
Planned on or not, it’s stood the test of time as one of the funniest moments in Oscar history.
2. Sidney Poitier Makes History
On April 13, 1964, critically-lauded Sidney Poitier became the first African-American to win an Oscar for Best Actor. Previously nominated in 1958 for The Defiant Ones, Poitier finally took home the little gold statue for his role in Lilies of the Field.
The win was not without a mild scandal, however, as some guests and viewers took issue with the fact that presenter Anne Bancroft congratulated him with a kiss on the cheek. (Poitier would go on to make even bigger waves when he shared the first onscreen interracial kiss with Katherine Houghton in 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?).
A trailblazer for his refusal to accept the stereotypical roles offered to him by studios, Poitier became America’s first prominent black movie star. And, with his win, he became only the second African-American to win an Oscar (the first was Hattie McDaniel, who won Best Supporting Actress for her performance in 1939’s Gone with the Wind).
“It is a long journey to this moment,” a visibly overwhelmed Poitier said in his famously short acceptance speech.
He remained the only African-American to win in the category until Denzel Washington took home the top prize nearly 40 years later in 2002 for Training Day. During that same ceremony, Poitier was the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award.
3. Jack Palance’s One-Arm Pushup
It was March 30, 1992 when a 73-year-old Jack Palance not only won Best Supporting Actor for his performance in City Slickers, but also won over an entire audience with his highlight-reel demonstration of athletic prowess.
Taking a not-so-subtle dig at film producers who tend to opt for younger actors, even in older roles, Palance took to the podium and proved that age is but a number.
“You know, there are times when you reach a certain age plateau where the producers say…’Well, what do you think? Can we risk it? Can we do it? Can we use him?'” he said. “The other guy says, ‘I don’t know, let’s look at some younger ones. We can make them look older, but this one, you know, it’s kind of difficult.’ They forget to ask that you go out there and you do all these…things. Like for instance, you know, [leaves podium] you go out there, you do these one-arm push-ups. [Does three one-arm push-ups on stage; returns to podium.] That’s nothing, really.”
But the wild applause he received proved that the moment definitely wasn’t “nothing.”
4. The Oscars’ Longest Standing Ovation
On April 2, 1972, during the 44th Academy Awards ceremony, British icon Charlie Chaplin was handed the Lifetime Achievement Award for his storied, much-celebrated career. It was an historic occasion, as it marked Chaplin’s first return to U.S. soil in more than 20 years. An immensely talented actor, director, writer and composer, Chaplin was exiled from America in 1952 for alleged Communist sympathies. It was a toss up as to how the audience would react on Oscar night. But react they did.
After Chaplin was introduced, the diminutive 82-year-old was warmly welcomed with a 12-minute standing ovation—the longest in Oscar history. A visibly choked up Chaplin stood there, struggling to find words and soaking in the accolades in a moment heralded by many as one of the greatest of the annual ceremony’s existence.
“This is an emotional moment for me, and words seem so futile, so feeble,” he said, with tears in his eyes. “I can only say thank you for the honour of inviting me here, and you’re wonderful, sweet people. Thank you.”
5. Marlon Brando Gets Political
The Academy Awards are no strangers to politics: In an effort to bring awareness to causes near and dear to their heart, entertainers have used their time on the podium to share the plight of the disadvantaged and rail against oppressive authority figures. But when one uses “political statement” and “Oscars” in the same sentence, two names immediately come to mind: Marlon Brando and Sacheen Littlefeather.
Brando opted out of attending the 45th Academy Awards on March 27, 1973, despite his Best Actor win for The Godfather. In his stead, the actor sent Littlefeather, a 27-year-old Apache actress and activist for Native American rights, who declined the award on his behalf and read from a prepared statement that railed against the treatment and misrepresentation of Native Americans in the film industry.
The speech was met with equal parts applause and derision (you can hear a smattering of “boo’s” from some audience members).
Brando had invested a significant amount of his time and energy working with the American Indian Movement (AIM) throughout his life and career. His decision to boycott his Oscar win and turn it into a statement about 1973’s Wounded Knee incident made him a bit of a pariah in Hollywood.
As a result of Brando and Littlefeather, the Academy Awards no longer allows proxy acceptances of awards.
6. The Shortest Acceptance Speech Ever
Those two words, tersely uttered into the microphone back in 1968 by one of Hollywood’s most revered directors, marks one of the shortest acceptance speeches in Oscars history. Granted, he added a “very much indeed” after but, by then, the orchestra had already kicked in, effectively cutting off the Brit’s words.
It’s been long speculated that Alfred Hitchcock, fuming at the fact that he lost out on a Best Director trophy five times, was less than impressed to receive the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in honour of his life’s work instead. The award, periodically handed out by the Academy, isn’t the traditional gold man statuette, but a bust of the legendary head of MGM for which it’s named. Although it’s still counted as an Honourary Oscar, some film critics felt that Hitchcock was miffed at his perceived snub in the official Best Director category.
Others would argue that, in true Hitch fashion, he gave viewers everything they needed without showing too much.
7. Chair-Climbing Antics
You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone else on the planet who was more excited to win an Academy Award than Italy’s Roberto Benigni.
Remember when his charming Italian-language film Life is Beautiful was the “It” movie of the late-90s? During the 1999 Oscars ceremony, Benigni stole the show—no easy feat considering the room was teeming with big names like Spielberg, Nicholson, Hanks and Streep. Not only that, he was a surprise two-time winner, taking home the top prize for Best Actor later in the evening.
But it was his reaction to his first win of the night, for Best Foreign Language Film, that had everyone buzzing. When the legendary Sophia Loren read his name from the podium, the 46-year-old Benigni put on a display of pure, unadulterated joy. Kicking his legs up in front of him like a kid pushing himself off a swing, Benigni stood on the plush red chairs in front of him, frantically waving his arms in celebration. As he walked over the heads of seated guests, including a surprised Steven Spielberg, who literally propped Benigni up with his arms, he finally made his way to the podium—but not before bouncing up the stairs like an elated Tigger from Winnie the Pooh.
As evidenced by the resulting standing ovation, Benigni’s unfeigned joy was a breath of fresh air for both guests and viewers. He went on to profess his desire to “kiss everybody” and thanked his parents (for the “gift of poverty”) before taking his final bow. For Benigni, life truly was beautiful that night.
8. The Oscars Awards Its First Female Director
It only took 82 years, but the Academy finally awarded it’s Best Director prize to a woman.
On that glamourous night in 2010, Kathryn Bigelow made history with her critically-lauded low-budget Iraq war film The Hurt Locker. After Barbra Streisand read her name from the envelope, a visibly stunned Bigelow received congratulations from her film’s star Jeremy Renner and her ex-husband (and fellow nominee in the same category for Avatar), James Cameron.
“It’s the moment of a lifetime,” she said once she reached the stage, overlooking the standing ovation before her.
Although she didn’t touch on it directly in her acceptance speech, Bigelow’s win is one for the ages. Just like that, she became an inspiration for female filmmakers across the globe. As women continue to break down barriers in an industry that is still heavily dominated by men, Bigelow stands as a shining example that directing—and the ability to tell a compelling story—isn’t just the domain of one gender.
The Hurt Locker eventually took home a total of six awards that night, including Best Picture.
9. Superman Visits The Academy
During the 68th Academy Awards in 1996, actor Christopher Reeve made his first major public appearance since his tragic 1995 equestrian accident, which left him paralyzed from the neck down.
Entering the stage to a rapturous standing ovation, Reeve proceeded to introduce a film montage recognizing Hollywood’s achievements in tackling social issues—a fitting choice considering Reeve’s activism throughout his career, specifically with regards to spinal cord injuries.
“I wouldn’t have missed this welcome for the world,” he said. “Thank you.”
Reeve passed away at age 52 in 2004.
10. Nobody Plays Cuba Off The Stage
An elated Cuba Gooding Jr. was the highlight of the 69th Academy Awards in 1997. Winning the Best Supporting Actor award for his scene-stealing performance in Jerry Maguire, Gooding was a force to be reckoned with, sweeping onto the stage and talking over the orchestra.
“I’m here and I’m happy!” he said. When the orchestra swelled to move his speech along and continue with the ceremony, Gooding proceeded to race through an extensive list of people involved with Jerry Maguire and, with each passing name, the audience got to its feet for a standing ovation.
Gooding capped off his shining moment with fist pumps while bouncing around the stage. “I love everybody involved [with this movie],” he yelled, before walking off with his trophy.
11. The Name Game
It happens: Nerves can get the best of everyone, even world famous actors like John Travolta. Between the glare of the overhead lights and that far-away teleprompter, it’s not always easy to read your scripted introduction.
And it was during the 2014 Oscars ceremony that Travolta famously flubbed the name of singer-actress Idina Menzel, who was on hand to sing the song “Let It Go” from the smash animated Disney musical, Frozen.
Travolta, reading the scroll on the teleprompter, said: “Please welcome the wickedly talented, the one and only, Adele Dazeem!”
And with that, the Grease star sparked a social media frenzy. Within minutes, one savvy Twitter user set up an account for “Adele Dazeem” and earned thousands of followers by the end of the night.
The 61-year-old actor later stopped by to do an interview with Jimmy Kimmel and revealed the true story about that infamous gaffe: “The truth is…it was getting very close to the time I was supposed to go on and suddenly a page—an assistant to you—grabbed me and said ‘you’re on in a minute.’ I was like ‘What happened to 15 minutes?’ and they didn’t explain. Later, I found out my actual page got stuck in an elevator and couldn’t communicate to anybody so the back-up came to get me.”
12. “And the Oscar for Best Picture goes to….”
It’s considered one of the biggest mishaps in Oscar history.
In 2017, Hollywood veterans Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were set to hand out the top award of the night — but were instead handed the wrong envelope. Instead of the card revealing the Best Picture winner, the pair were handed a double of the Best Actress envelope — which included the name of Emma Stone and her film La La Land.
Despite Beatty’s confused expression, Dunaway mistakenly called the Hollywood musical as the winner — when, in fact, the award should have gone to the indie film, Moonlight, directed by Barry Jenkins.
Although the error was corrected live onstage it made for an incredibly cringe-worthy moment for all involved.