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The first Oscars lasted 15 minutes — plus other surprises from 95 years of awards

The first Oscar presentation and banquet was held in the Blossom Room of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood, Calif., in May 1929.
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
The first Oscar presentation and banquet was held in the Blossom Room of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood, Calif., in May 1929.

You read that right – just 15 minutes. The first Academy Awards ceremony was held on May 1929, in the Blossom Room of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. At the end of a private black-tie banquet, leading man Douglas Fairbanks announced the first ever winners of the golden statuettes.

All the recipients that year were silent movies, except one: The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson. The top prize in 1929 went to Wings, an airplane film similar to one of this year's best picture nominees, Top Gun: Maverick.

The following year, the Academy Award for Outstanding Production went to a war movie, All Quiet on the Western Front (a remake of that film is also a contender this year). Newsreel footage from 1930 captured the head of MGM, Louis B. Mayer, solemnly congratulating the movie's producer Carl Laemmle, saying, "Sorry I didn't win it, Mr. Laemmle. I know of no one I'd rather have beat me than you."

As the silent movie era ended and the talkies began, Mayer had dreamed up the idea of an Academy for Hollywoodland, as it was first known.

"He was afraid of the union movement that was kind of moving across the across the country, and he didn't want the film industry to be unionized," says Bruce Davis, a former CEO of the Academy for 30 years. "So he thought, 'somehow, we'll have this organization, and we'll all just come to meetings and talk about our griefs and problems.'"

Davis, author of The Academy and the Award, says in the late 1920s, writers, directors, actors and other members of the new Academy didn't trust Mayer's group of anti-union studio bigwigs. They soon formed their guilds, and Davis says the Academy nearly folded in 1933.

"Finally, the Academy had to agree to get out of the labor business entirely," says Davis.

Instead, the organization focused on handing out Oscars, as the statuettes were later nicknamed. Radio stations and newsreels began highlighting the ceremonies to movie fans captivated by Hollywood's glitz and glamor.

In 1939, Hattie McDaniel became the first African American actor to win an Oscar for her role as Mammy in Gone With the Wind. McDaniel rose from her seat at a segregated table to accept the award for best supporting actress.

"I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry," she said, wiping away her tears.

Over the years, the Oscars have included scandals and feuds ... like the famous rivalry between sisters Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland, who despised each other and vied for the best actress Oscar in 1942. (Fontaine won for her role in the Alfred Hitchcock film Suspicion.)

The ceremonies continued during the infamous McCarthy era when many Hollywood writers were blacklisted as suspected communists. All of that was upended in 1957 when the winner of the best motion picture was announced: Robert Rich, writer of The Brave One, a story about a Mexican boy and his pet bull.

Someone else accepted the award on his behalf. "Then no one could find this guy. And that's because he did not exist," says Michael Schulman, a staff writer for the New Yorker and author of the new book Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears.

Robert Rich was a pseudonym for screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who was imprisoned for defying the House Un-American Activities Committee.

"He realized there was a contradiction, that all of these people — suspected communists — were blacklisted, and yet they were all working," says Schulman. "They were writing movies under fake names, and now they were winning awards."

Schulman says that was one of the many Hollywood scandals the Oscars have exposed.

In 1953, the Oscars began being broadcast on television, with host Bob Hope, who quipped, "Isn't it exciting to know that a lot of these glamorous stars are going to be in your homes tonight? Television, where movies go to die."

The ceremonies are notorious for running long. But in 1959, the show ended up 20 minutes short. So emcee Jerry Lewis had to ad-lib with shticks and bits to fill the airtime.

"We would like to now do 300 choruses of 'There's No Business Like Show Business,' " he said before taking the baton to lead the orchestra at the Pantages Theatre.

"Lewis invited all of the winners and participants from the show back up on stage, and they're feeling like idiots. So they started dancing with each other," chuckles Davis. "And still, it wouldn't go off. Then people start sneaking off the stage."

For the remaining minutes, NBC cut to a rerun of a sportscast.

Davis says one of the most poignant moments in Oscars history was when
Charlie Chaplin, who had started in silent movies, won a lifetime achievement award in 1972.

"He had been almost driven out of the country because his politics were seen to be too far left for the American public," says Davis. "So to have him come back to receive an honorary award and be embraced by the entire industry was clearly a very moving thing."

The audience gave Chaplin a 12-minute standing ovation.

The following year, the crowd booed when Marlon Brando sent Sacheen Littlefeather to the stage to decline his best actor award because of "the treatment of the American Indians" by the film industry.

Years later, Littlefeather recalled being escorted offstage at the Oscars by security guards. She said that for years Hollywood boycotted her, calling it being "red-listed." Finally, nearly 50 years later, the Academy officially apologized to Littlefeather for the abuse she subsequently endured because of her Oscars appearance.

In 1974, the Oscars audience shrieked when gay activist Robert Opel dashed across the stage naked. The streaker prompted presenter David Niven to quip, "Probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings."

In 1985, best actress winner Sally Field gave one of the Oscars' most unforgettable speeches. "I can't deny the fact that you like me," she gushed. "Right now, you like me!"

Schulman says there have been other cringe moments, like the opening number in 1989, which included actor Rob Lowe singing a duet with a live-action Snow White.

Schulman says the 11-minute, over-the-top opening was a flop for flamboyant producer Allan Carr, who had previously produced the musicals Grease and La Cage aux Folles.

"When it went bad, there was a scapegoat effect," says Schulman. "He was essentially ostracized within days. And he never recovered. It destroyed his career. It destroyed his life."

In the last decade, the Oscars had a racial reckoning after being criticized for not giving awards to actors and filmmakers of color. The #OscarsSoWhite movement led to this 2017 mixup:

"There was a rookie from Pricewaterhouse that year who was a little too enthusiastic about being backstage with all of the stars and clearly took his mind off his job," explains Davis. "He handed the presenter the wrong envelope."

Onstage, presenter Warren Beatty looked at the envelope puzzled. Then Faye Dunaway announced the final winner of the night: La La Land.

Producer Jordan Horowitz accepted the award at first, surrounded by his cast. Then, after much confusion onstage, he returned to the mic.

"I'm sorry, no. There's a mistake: Moonlight. You guys won best picture," Horowitz said before showing a card with the correct winner to the cameras. "This is not a joke. Moonlight has won best picture."

Last year, the winners were overshadowed by a confrontation with best actor nominee Will Smith, who strode onstage and smacked presenter Chris Rock after he had made a joke about Smith's wife's hair.

After delivering the slap seen and heard around the world, Smith sat down in his seat and roared expletives at Rock. Smith won the best actor award for starring in King Richard, but the Academy punished him by banning him from its events for 10 years.

Schulman says anything can happen during a live event, "Whether it's a burst of anger with the slap or just something really moving, someone living their dream." He says so much of the Oscars "are wrapped in this kind of celebrity, like 'you-like-me' absurdity, and then boom! Something happens that shocks your system a little bit."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: March 8, 2023 at 8:00 PM AKST
An earlier web version of this story incorrectly quoted author Bruce Davis as saying Charlie Chaplin "had been almost driven out of not the country ... " The correct quote is: "He had been almost driven out of the country ... "
As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.