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© Everett Collection / Shutterstock
© Everett Collection / Shutterstock
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The Most Controversial Moments in Oscar History

Picture of Simon Reynolds
Updated: 17 May 2017
The Oscars might be the biggest night in the entertainment calendar, but it’s never just about honoring the best movies Hollywood has to offer. Over the course of its 87-year history, the Academy Awards has had its fair share of controversy and scandal—from A-lister boycotts to streakers and major hosting disasters.

Grab your popcorn and join us to revisit the headline-hitting moments that shook the Oscars.

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Hattie McDaniel wins at the segregated Oscars (1940)

Gone with the Wind‘s Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win an Academy Award, but getting her into the ceremony proved to be a battle in itself.

The venue, the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, had a strict whites-only policy, but allowed McDaniel in at the insistence of producer David O. Selznick. Even then she was forced to sit at a segregated table at the back of the room. Her victory—and emotional acceptance speech—cemented her place in Hollywood history.

Marlon Brando’s boycott (1973)

Perhaps the defining controversy in Academy Awards history. Marlon Brando’s Best Actor win for The Godfather saw him dispatch Native American activist, Sacheen Littlefeather, to collect the prize in his place. Only she didn’t—instead leaving it in the hands of presenter Roger Moore as she delivered a protest statement from Brando.

“He very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award,” a nervous Littlefeather said, “and the reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry and on television and movie re-runs.” After this happened, the Academy moved to ban acceptance by proxy.

David Niven and the streaker (1974)

Cool, calm and completely unflappable, David Niven was the perfect choice to present at the 1974 Academy Awards. The acting great, an Oscar winner himself, needed to summon all of his dry British wit when photographer Robert Opel stormed the stage naked and flashed a peace sign.

“Isn’t it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?” Niven quipped.

Rob Lowe and Snow White (1989)

Brat Packer Rob Lowe was at the height of his fame in the late 80s thanks to films like St. Elmo’s Fire and About Last Night. He also found himself caught up in a sex tape scandal, making his Oscars duet with a Disney Princess—Eileen Bowman in the guise of Snow White—an ill-timed disaster.

The morning after, Bowman signed a gag order preventing her from talking about the performance for 13 years. “I remember sitting in my condo after being served the papers, watching the news—and the Snow White number was all that was on the news,” Bowman recalled in 2013.

The Marisa Tomei conspiracy (1993)

Where were you when Marisa Tomei won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for My Cousin Vinny? It might not rival the JFK assassination as far as crackpot conspiracies go, but for years industry gossip has speculated that Tomei was never actually meant to win at all.

In 1994, a year after her triumph, The Hollywood Reporter claimed that Tomei had received the prize “in error” after flustered presenter Jack Palance couldn’t read the name printed on the winner’s card. Instead, he announced Tomei, the last thing he could make out on the nearby teleprompter. Cue a two-decade cover-up… if you believe that sort of thing.

David Letterman’s hosting disaster (1995)

If nine-time host Billy Crystal is the safe pair of hands the Academy can always turn to, then David Letterman is the ceremony’s enfant terrible. His stint overseeing the show in 1995 was a disaster, jam-packed with off-kilter humour that baffled the onlooking A-listers and everyone watching at home.

“Oprah, Uma. Oprah, Uma. Oprah, Uma. Have you kids met Keanu?” he joked to complete bemusement. Only Seth MacFarlane—whose ‘We Saw Your Boobs‘ musical intro number torpedoed the 2013 ceremony—came close in terms of terribleness.

Angelina Jolie kisses her brother (2000)

At the 2000 Academy Awards, all the headlines around Angelina Jolie should’ve been about her Best Supporting Actress victory for Girl, Interrupted. After the ceremony, however, Jolie was snapped giving her brother James Haven an emphatic kiss on the lips and the press had a field day.

Jolie later accused the media of blowing the smooch out of proportion, saying: “First, we’re the best of friends. And it wasn’t some odd open-mouthed kiss. It was disappointing that something so beautiful and pure could be turned into a circus.”

Sacha Baron Cohen provokes North Korea (2012)

With millions of eyeballs glued to the TV, there’s no better venue than the Academy Awards for a prankster like Sacha Baron Cohen. In 2016, he smuggled an Ali G outfit into the ceremony to have his say on the #OscarsSoWhite race row, but four years previously he pulled off a memorable stunt in-character as The Dictator‘s Admiral General Aladeen.

This involved spilling the “ashes” of former North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il over the sacred ground of the red carpet (and interviewer Ryan Seacrest), a provocative gag that saw him swiftly bundled away by security before he could trigger World War III.

#OscarsSoWhite (2016)

With all 20 acting nominees Caucasian, the 2016 Academy Awards found itself at the centre of controversy thanks to an alarming lack of diversity. The hashtag #OscarsSoWhite quickly lit up social media, prompting Spike Lee, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith to lead a boycott of the ceremony.

Host Chris Rock’s opening monologue addressed the furore head-on. “I’m here at the Academy Awards, otherwise known as the White People’s Choice Awards,” he said. “If they nominated hosts I wouldn’t even get this job.”

Asghar Farhadi refuses to attend (2017)

Asghar Farhadi’s stunning drama A Separation won Best Foreign Language Film in 2012, and the Irianian director could get his second Oscar this year thanks to a nomination for The Salesman. He won’t, however, be attending the ceremony in person, declining to make the trip following President Trump’s controversial travel ban.

The 2017 awards season has been charged with anti-Trump sentiment—from Meryl Streep at the Golden Globes to Stranger Things star David Harbour at the SAGs—so we wouldn’t be surprised if one of this year’s winners uses their acceptance speech to make Farhadi’s absence felt.

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