Forty years ago, Oscar voters were grappling with many of the same quandaries facing the Academy today. Should they reward the man-versus-nature tale with the famously troubled production, or the ripped-from-the-headlines true-tale drama? Will that unfairly overlooked smash-hit musical drama with the predominantly black cast get a trophy? And when Jack Nicholson keeps his sunglasses on for the entire ceremony, is he doing it for cool-cred reasons, or to simply hide the fact that he’s napping?
As it turned out, the 48th annual Academy Awards ceremony—which featured such films as Jaws, Dog Day Afternoon, and Mahogany—wound up raising more questions than it answered. The event, now viewable on YouTube, took place halfway through a decade that had begun with a surge of personal, provocative, and rule-crooking new films, including some of that year’s clearly troubled nominees—not just Dog Day, but also contenders like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the way-darker-than-you-remember Shampoo. Meanwhile, the whole industry was in flux: New stars had taken over, old genres were falling out of favor, and technologies were on the way that would change movie-making (and movie-going) forever.
That may be why the Oscars seemed so downright confused. It was an attempt to put on a happy face, and to please everyone, during a deeply confused time. The results certainly didn’t make for the worst ceremony of all time (that was yet to come), but it did make for one of the weirdest, as these five highlights (lowlights?) demonstrate:
1. Steven Spielberg had a pre-show pout about being overlooked for Best Director
In the months leading up to the ceremony, a production company called Top Value Television (or TVTV) was set loose around Hollywood, armed with newly available portable cameras, and tasked with capturing the behind-the-scenes goings-on of the awards for a documentary, TVTV Looks at the Oscars (you can find a thorough account of the film in this 2013 Gawker story). One of the doc’s subjects was Spielberg, the young, bespectacled filmmaker responsible for Jaws, and a shoo-in for a Best Director nomination—or so he thought! As the nominations are announced on live television, the cameras captures Spielberg’s frustration at being snubbed in favor of Amarcord director Federico Fellini, who had a 1 in 8 ½ chance of nabbing Spielberg’s slot. “Oh, I didn’t get it!,” Spielberg moans, as his pals commiserate. “I got beaten out by Fellini.” Though he’d later call it “a bad idea” to allow the cameras to accompany him that morning, Spielberg’s brattiness remains a rare look at the kind of pang-inducing heartache the awards season can cause among its contestants. Plus, it gave us a chance to meet these cool Spiel-bros:
2. The opening ceremony was one Smithers short of a Simpsons parody
By 1976, Hollywood was in the midst of a creatively liberating, industry-wide rewrite, one that found young-turk filmmakers—inspired by European filmmakers of the ’60s, and influenced by the country’s post-Watergate foul mood—turning out a string of dark, smart, audience-ennobling hits that likely made some of their forebears anxious. That insurgent spirit is reflected in the nominated films, which included One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (an anti-authority tale set in a mental institution), Nashville (a cynical look at the creative industry), Dog Day Afternoon (a crime tale brimming with lovelorn desperation), and Jaws (the story of a myopic small-town mayor whose constituents cruelly ignore his amazing blazers).
So what better way to reflect the mood of the times than a six-minute-long song-and-dance routine that may as well have been called, “It’s Yippi-Dee-Grand in Movie-Land!”? God bless the late Roy Bolger, who decades earlier had starred as the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. He’s clearly over the moon to be here, and his tap-dancing routine isn’t without its charms. But all his enthusiasm can’t disguise his waning voice, or make up for the opening song’s banal rah-rah lyrics, or redeem the bit’s lame Dorothy walk-on (“Is this the way to the Emerald City?” “No—it’s the way to the Oscar awards!”). Pretty much every opening ceremony is a groan-getter, but this one was a particularly tone-deaf attempt to put a happy face on an (admirably) bleak slate of movies. No wonder Jack and Anjelica tried so hard to keep a straight face.
3. O.J. Simpson and Robert Blake were presenters
The Beretta star (who gave a special achievement award to the makers of The Hindenburg) and the football hero (who handed out a pair of Best Short Film trophies) take the stage back-to-back. And despite the numerous pressures both men must have felt—standing in front of countless peers and colleagues, as millions of viewers watched around the world—both made it through the entire ceremony without killing anyone.
4. Diana Ross performed the theme from Mahogany live…while riding in a horse-drawn carriage…in Amsterdam
The 1976 ceremony took two notable trips away from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion: The first involved a visit to aging (and ailing) film star Mary Pickford, whose frail state makes one wonder if she even knew she was on television (she died three years later). The second featured Ross, via satellite, belting out “Theme from Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To)” while wrapped in a fur jacket and a sequined dress. It’s the sort of proto-music video that must have cost the network tons of cash and stress, and all for a ho-hum lip-synch number with the production values of Lady Chatterley Goes Dutch. Would it have been cheaper to simply fly Ross in from Europe? Sure! But would you want to be on the receiving end of a 3 a.m. phone call complaining about the grape selection aboard the Concorde? (Ross’ song, by the way, lost to Keith Carradine’s Nashville hit “I’m Easy”).
5. Elizabeth Taylor led an awkward sing-along of “American the Beautiful”
To recognize the country’s bicentennial—and to perhaps distract from the fact that the downbeat, American dream-debunking Cuckoo’s Nest had just won Best Picture—the producers dragged the beloved National Velvet star (and several confused-looking winners) to the stage. Staring at the teleprompter with “Gladiator!”-like levels of loosey-gooseyness, Taylor then encourages the audience to stand up and sing along with her and cohost Gene Kelly, even though it’s all drowned out by the sound of the USC Trojan Marching Band (whose members were then abducted by Lindsey Buckingham, and forced to work on Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk in a cocaine yurt for the next three years). Finally, “That’s Entertainment!” revs up, as the crowdgoers—many of whom dressed up to win an award they would not receive—head back into the dark, post-Nixonian night. Yippi-Dee-Grand, America!