11 Past Oscar Moments That Changed Everything, From The First Ceremony To Revamped Rules
This Sunday night, movie fans everywhere will be waiting with bated breath to see if Leonardo DiCaprio finally wins an Oscar for his role in The Revenant at the 2016 Academy Awards. If he does, it will change things forever. Not only will we have to come up with new jokes about the Hollywood movie star, but we'll all have to find a new actor to champion as being "overdue" for a statuette. (An odd claim to make of the 41-year-old with five nominations to his name, anyway; just ask Peter O'Toole, who died at the age of 81 never having won a competitive Oscar despite eight nods.) Such an eagerly-awaited victory would just be the next in a long line of moments that had a lasting impact on the Oscars, starting with the very first ceremony and continuing all the way up into modern times.
I'm not just talking about the most "memorable" Oscar moments here. Yes, everyone remembers when Marlon Brando sent Sacheen Littlefeather to decline his Best Actor trophy, or when host David Niven blithely quipped about a streaker's "shortcomings." But Brando's refusal didn't mean they stopped handing out Best Actor awards, and one streaker didn't mean that suddenly everyone started showing up to the Academy Awards in the buff. (Although that would certainly bring some impressive ratings.) No, I'm talking about the moments that actually and tangibly changed how the Oscars operated moving forward.
Here, in chronological order, are 11 such momentous moments:
1. The First Ceremony (1929)
It all starts at the beginning, obviously. In its incipient year, the Academy Awards were barely recognizable for the glamorous, highly-publicized event they would eventually become. The 1st annual ceremony was held in the ballroom of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, according to the Telegraph; they're now held in the Dolby Theatre, formerly the Kodak. The Telegraph also reports that there were 270 guests in attendance in 1929; 3,400 people can fit into the sold-out Dolby. A ticket cost $5, or about $69 accounting for inflation; in recent years, scalped tickets have gone for as much as $85,000, according to the Fiscal Times. Trophies were awarded in only 12 categories; there are now 24. And back in 1929, the statuette wasn't even known as the "Oscar," a term wouldn't even be coined until the 1930s. (Nobody knows exactly why or where the nickname came from, although theories abound.)
But still, the Oscars as we know them wouldn't exist if those 270 people hadn't gathered in that ballroom to award the first statuettes to actors Emil Jannings and Janet Gaynor, and to name William A. Wellman's Wings (above) as the inaugural "Outstanding Picture."
2. Hattie McDaniel Wins Best Supporting Actress (1940)
It would be over a decade until the first black performer earned the honor of an Academy Award nomination. That performer was Hattie McDaniel, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for playing the iconic role of Mammy in Victor Fleming's magnum opus Gone With The Wind — and she won, beating her own co-star Olivia de Havilland. (Though de Havilland would go on to win two Leading Actress trophies in her career, so don't feel too bad for her.) McDaniel's victory was undoubtedly a landmark one: while presenting her the award, actress Fay Bainter noted that, "This is more than an occasion. It is a tribute to a country where people are free to honor noteworthy achievements regardless of creed, race or color!"
3. Bette Davis Becomes President Of The Academy (1941)
Bette Davis, one of the most iconic Hollywood stars of all time, had already taken home two awards for Best Actress when she was tapped at the age of 33 to become the Academy's first female President, according to The Hollywood Reporter. People were initially thrilled at the popular actress' appointment, as The Hollywood Reporter quoted Hedda Hopper (the columnist portrayed by Helen Mirren in Trumbo) as writing, "If any woman here deserves that job, it’s Bette." However, the website also reported that Davis quickly ran into resistance when she tried to implement two major changes.
The first was the cancellation of the annual dinner and dancing, which she viewed as uncouth following the bombing of Pearl Harbor; she wanted to move the ceremony to a more formal theater instead, with proceeds going to war relief efforts. The second was the revocation of the right to vote of thousands of extras who she argued "lacked taste and culture," and often swung the vote in favor of whichever studio hired them at the time of voting.
Davis received tremendous pushback from the Academy over these changes, and she resigned a mere three months into what was supposed to be a year-long tenure. Two years later, the ceremony was moved from the traditional ballroom into a theater; three years after that, the right to vote was taken away from extras. And the long-standing stubbornness of the predominately white and predominately male Academy — the same resistance to change that would lead to two years of #OscarsSoWhite in 2015 and 2016 — was firmly established.
4. Oscar Goes Global (1953)
The year that Cecil B. DeMille's technicolor ode to the circus became one of the most-maligned Best Picture winners of all time was the first year that the Oscars were broadcast on television, airing on networks in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and the United Kingdom. Approximately 34 million people tuned in to watch Bob Hope host the 25th annual Academy Awards, according to Time — and the Oscars were never the same, having transformed literally overnight from a private affair among Hollywood's elite into a highly-anticipated global event that you could watch from the comfort of your living room.
The appetite for watching movie stars rub shoulders has always been high, apparently, since ratings for the telecast have hardly changed since that first year; last year's ceremony drew in a very comparable 36.6 million viewers. (The record is 57.3 million in 1998, the year that Titanic took home the gold.)
5. Midnight Cowboy Wins Best Picture (1970)
Most of us who are old enough to get into an R-rated movie without a parent or guardian present have stopped thinking about movie ratings a long time ago. But for such an innocuous thing they can be crucially important, determining how much money a film can make, who will go see it, and even where it gets played. Many of the big theater chains will refuse to screen films with an NC-17 rating sight unseen. That makes Midnight Cowboy's victory — the first film to win Best Picture with that most stringent of ratings, then referred to as simply "X" — all the more impressive in hindsight. (The only other two movies rated X or NC-17 that have even been nominated for the highest honor are Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange and Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango In Paris.)
This groundbreaking win signified a huge shift for the Academy Awards. The '60s were a fairly family-friendly time at the Oscars, with six of the decade's 10 Best Picture winners being either musicals or comedies: The Apartment, West Side Story, Tom Jones, My Fair Lady, The Sound Of Music, and Oliver! Conversely, the '70s were a much darker time, with eight of the decade's 10 Best Picture winners dealing in themes of war, crime, mental illness, or familial strife: Patton, The French Connection, The Godfather, The Sting, The Godfather Part II, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, The Deer Hunter, Kramer Vs. Kramer. And Oscar has been fairly-serious minded ever since, with comedies (Shakespeare In Love) and musicals (Chicago) being the exception rather than the rule.
6. The Rise Of The Independent Film (1986)
It's almost inconceivable now, but 1985's Kiss Of The Spider Woman was the first independent film to be nominated for Best Picture. EVER. Prior to the mid-'80s, all of Hollywood's most successful films were produced by the big studios: MGM, Paramount, Warner Bros., etc. Although Spider Woman lost Best Picture to Sydney Pollack's Out Of Africa (from major film studio Universal), its leading man, William Hurt took home the trophy for Best Actor. And the Best Actress winner that year, Geraldine Page, came from another independent film, The Trip To Bountiful. (The following year, Oliver Stone's Platoon would become the first independent film to actually win Best Picture.)
Nowadays, of course, indie films are a fixture of Oscar season. In the past few years alone, independently-produced Best Picture nominees have included Dallas Buyers Club, Nebraska, Philomena, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, The Theory Of Everything, Whiplash, Brooklyn, Room, Spotlight, and the past two winners in a row, 12 Years A Slave and Birdman.
7. Harvey Weinstein Enters The Race (1990)
Speaking of independent films… In 1979, Harvey Weinstein and his brother Bob co-founded a new distribution company focusing on indie and foreign films. They called it Miramax. The first film distributed by Miramax to be nominated for an Oscar was 1989's My Left Foot , which earned five Oscar nominations including Picture, Director, and Actor; English actor Daniel Day-Lewis earned the first of his three Best Actor awards for playing a man afflicted with cerebral palsy. Weinstein's superb campaigning helped the little-known Lewis trump the presumed frontrunner in his category: Tom Cruise, as a Vietnam veteran in Oliver Stone's Born On The Fourth Of July.
Weinstein's name has since become virtually synonymous with the Oscars. He and his brother left Miramax to co-found The Weinstein Company in 2005. Between Miramax and TWC, Harvey Weinstein has personally ushered dozens of films and their actors to Oscar glory, including Pulp Fiction, The English Patient (their first Best Picture winner), Shakespeare In Love (which won in a huge upset over Saving Private Ryan), Good Will Hunting, Gangs Of New York, Inglourious Basterds, The King's Speech, The Artist, Silver Linings Playbook, Django Unchained, Philomena, The Imitation Game, Carol, and The Hateful Eight. To get an idea of what a master campaigner Weinstein is, 2016 is the first year the über-producer doesn't have a dog in the Best Picture race since the 2008 ceremony.
8. John Singleton Is Nominated For Best Director (1992)
It's a well-known fact that only four women have ever been nominated for Best Director. But there have actually only been three black men nominated for the same honor — and no black women. While there have been plenty of directors from outside the United States nominated in the category from countries such as Italy (Bertolucci, Fellini), Sweden (Bergman, Troell) Mexico (Cuarón, Iñárritu), and countless from the U.K., filmmakers of color have been scant with the exception of two-time winner Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, Life Of Pi). The first black director wasn't even recognized by the Academy until embarrassingly recently, when John Singleton was nominated for his 1991 film Boyz N The Hood. (23 years old at the time, he was also the youngest Best Director nominee ever — and still is.) That year, Jonathan Demme emerged victorious for The Silence Of The Lambs.
Since Singleton, only two other black men have joined him in the Best Director category: Precious' Lee Daniels and 12 Years A Slave's Steve McQueen, the latter of whom became the first black director to win Best Picture… although he himself lost the directing prize to Gravity's Alfonso Cuarón.
9. Halle Berry Wins Best Actress (2002)
While we're on the subject of embarrassingly late milestones… Although dozens of black performers had followed Hattie McDaniel to Oscar nominations and even wins in the Lead Actor and two Supporting categories, the first woman of color to win the Lead Actress trophy didn't come until the 21st century, when Halle Berry earned the Oscar for her role in Monster's Ball. When Denzel Washington took home his second Oscar for Training Day that same year, it became the first (and only) time in Academy history that both Lead Acting trophies went to performers of color.
In the 14 years since Berry's groundbreaking win, only three other women of color have been nominated in the Lead category: Gabourey Sidibe (Precious), Viola Davis (The Help), and Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts Of No Nation). To this day, Berry remains the sole black winner in her category while four black men have won Best Actor, four have won Best Supporting Actor, and six black women have won Best Supporting Actress.
10. Kathryn Bigelow Wins Best Director (2010)
I previously mentioned that only four women have been nominated for Best Director; they are Lina Wertmüller (Seven Beauties, 1976), Jane Campion (The Piano, 1993), Sofia Coppola (Lost In Translation, 2003), and Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, 2009). The latter nominee became the first woman to actually win the award at the 2010 ceremony. Appropriately enough, she triumphed over not only four men but her own ex-husband, Avatar's James Cameron, who was her fiercest competitor for the prize.
Perhaps it's a bit optimistic of me to put Bigelow's victory in a list of moments that changed the Oscars forever, considering no other woman has even been nominated for Best Director in the six years since her win (although several have gotten close, most notably Selma's Ava DuVernay). With the Oscars, change is slow when it comes at all, but I hope that one day, we'll look back on Bigelow's win as an early turning point in the Academy's recognition of female filmmakers.
11. Best Picture Gets Preferential Treatment (2010)
No single change in contemporary Academy history has had as big of an effect on the way the Oscar game is played than the recent expansion of the Best Picture field from five to 10 nominees, and the switch from a simple plurality vote to a complex preferential ballot system that came with it. Of course, the Best Picture category only stayed at a firm 10 slots for two years before being altered once again to a flexible number of five to 10 nominees depending on the percentage of films that receive first-place votes (resulting in either eight or nine nominees in all five years since). But the preferential ballot has stayed the same throughout.
What does that mean? An explanation of the preferential ballot system itself would be lengthy and tedious, but in essence it's a system that's designed to arrive a consensus pick the maximum number of people will be happy with. Take this year for example: with eight nominees, any one film would only have to surpass 12.5 percent of the vote to win Best Picture. But even if 13 percent of voters loved that movie, that could still mean that 87 percent of the Academy hated it. In the preferential system, instead of everyone simply picking their single favorite film, they rank their top five nominees in order of preference. These ranked ballots are then parceled out in an elaborate shell game until one film has more than 50 percent of the vote. This means that it's just as important that a film receive a plethora of #2 and #3 votes as #1s; basically, a winner has to be liked by everyone, not just loved by some and loathed by others.
The only other awards body in the industry that awards Best Picture by this complex system is the Producers Guild, which adopted it the same year as the Oscars. Since that change, the PGA has correctly predicted the eventual Best Picture winner 100 percent of the time. This year's PGA winner? Financial crisis dramedy The Big Short. Does that mean we already know our Best Picture winner? Or will this be the year that the PGA's eight-year streak finally ends? We won't find out until the envelope is opened on Sunday night… but whatever the result, the preferential ballot system has changed the way Oscar prognosticators make predictions forever.
Images: Paramount Pictures (2); MGM; Warner Bros. Pictures