The first Oscars lasted 15 minutes — and other surprises from the Academy Awards A lot can happen in 95 years. Ahead of the Academy Awards on Sunday, we take a look back at the surprises, the scandals, the slap and — yes — even the streaker.

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

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This weekend, all of Hollywood and film fans around the world will be anticipating these words.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: And the Oscar goes to...

SHAPIRO: For almost a century, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been handing out awards. NPR's Mandalit del Barco runs down some key moments from the Oscars' history.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: I'm standing at the Blossom Room at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. This is where, in 1929, the newly formed Academy handed out its first golden statuettes. At the end of a private black-tie banquet, leading man Douglas Fairbanks announced the winners. The ceremony lasted all of 15 minutes. The winners were all silent movies except one - "The Jazz Singer," starring Al Jolson.


AL JOLSON: (As Jakie Rabinowitz) Wait a minute. Wait a minute. You ain't heard nothing yet. (Singing) Toot, toot, Tootsie. Goodbye.

DEL BARCO: The top prize in 1929 went to "Wings," an airplane film not so different from one of this year's best picture nominees, "Top Gun: Maverick." One of its contenders, the war picture "All Quiet On The Western Front," is a remake of the 1930 Academy Award winner. Newsreel footage captured the head of MGM, Louis B. Mayer, congratulating producer Carl Laemmle.


LOUIS B MAYER: Well, sorry I didn't win it, Mr. Laemmle. I know no one else I'd rather have beat me than you.

CARL LAEMMLE: Thanks very much.

DEL BARCO: As the silent movie era was ending and the talkies beginning, it was Mayer who had dreamed up the idea of the Academy for Hollywoodland, as it was first known.

BRUCE DAVIS: He didn't want the film industry to be unionized. So he thought, somehow we'll have this organization, and we'll all just come to meetings and talk about our griefs and problems.

DEL BARCO: Bruce Davis is a former CEO of the Academy and author of "The Academy And The Award." He says in the late 1920s, writers, directors, actors and other Academy members wanted to form their own guilds. He says they didn't trust Mayer's group of anti-union studio bigwigs.

DAVIS: They were seen by the artists as tools of the producers. So the Academy had to finally agree to get out of the labor business entirely.

DEL BARCO: Instead, the Academy focused on handing out Oscars, as the statuette was later nicknamed. Radio stations broadcast the ceremonies to movie fans captivated by the glitz and glamour.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Hollywood crowns its king and queen of the air. They're the stars among stars. The affair is the highlight of the year for movie folk.

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


HATTIE MCDANIEL: I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry. And may I say thank you and God bless.


DEL BARCO: 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. The ceremonies continued during the infamous McCarthy era, when many Hollywood writers were blacklisted as suspected communists. Here's what happened in 1957 to the winner of the Best Motion Picture Story award.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: The envelope, please - "The Brave One," Robert Rich.


MICHAEL SCHULMAN: Someone else accepted the award on his behalf. But then no one could find this guy. That's because he did not exist.

DEL BARCO: Michael Schulman is author of the new book "Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood In Gold, Sweat, And Tears." He says Robert Rich was a pseudonym for screenwriter Dalton Trumbo.

SCHULMAN: He had gone to prison 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. And they were writing movies under fake names, and now they were winning awards.

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


DEL BARCO: In 1953, the Oscars began being broadcast on television with host Bob Hope.


BOB HOPE: Television - that's where movies go when they die.


DEL BARCO: The ceremonies are notorious for running long. But in 1959, the show ended up 20 minutes short. Davis says emcee Jerry Lewis had to ad-lib.

DAVIS: Lewis started leading the orchestra.




DAVIS: Then he 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. And it still - it wouldn't go off. And then people started to sneaking off the stage.

DEL BARCO: Davis recalls when Charlie Chaplin, who started out in silent movies, won a lifetime achievement award in 1972.

DAVIS: He had been almost driven out of the country because his politics were seen to be too far left for the American public.

DEL BARCO: That's why, Davis says, it was so touching for Chaplin to be embraced by the film industry.


CHARLIE CHAPLIN: Oh, you're wonderful, sweet people.


DEL BARCO: The audience gave Chaplin a 12-minute standing ovation. The next year, the crowd booed when Marlon Brando sent Sacheen Littlefeather to the stage to decline his best actor award.


SACHEEN LITTLEFEATHER: And the reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry. Excuse me.



DEL BARCO: In 1974, the Oscars audience shrieked when gay activist Robert Opel dashed across the stage naked. The streaker prompted this response from presenter David Niven.


DAVID NIVEN: Probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life was by stripping off and showing his shortcomings.


DEL BARCO: In 1985, best actress winner Sally Field gave one of Oscar's most unforgettable speeches.


SALLY FIELD: I can't deny the fact that you like me right now. You like me.


DEL BARCO: Schulman says there have been other cringy moments, like the opening number in 1989, when actor Rob Lowe sang a duet with a live-action Snow White.


ROB LOWE AND EILEEN BOWMAN: (Singing) Rolling, rolling, keep the cameras rolling.

DEL BARCO: Schulman says the over-the-top opening was a flop for producer Alan Carr.

SCHULMAN: He was essentially ostracized within days, and he never recovered. It destroyed his career. It destroyed his life.

DEL BARCO: 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 into the 2017 mix-up, says Davis.

DAVIS: There was a rookie from Pricewaterhouse that year who was a little too enthusiastic about being backstage with all the stars and clearly took his mind off his job and handed the presenter the wrong envelope.

DEL BARCO: Warren Beatty looked puzzled as Faye Dunaway announced the final winner of the night. "La La Land" producer Jordan Horowitz accepted the award surrounded by the cast. Then he returned to the mic.


JORDAN HOROWITZ: There's a mistake. "Moonlight," you guys won Best Picture.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: "Moonlight" won.

HOROWITZ: This is not a joke. "Moonlight" has won best picture.

DEL BARCO: Last year the winners were overshadowed by a confrontation by best actor nominee Will Smith and presenter Chris Rock.


CHRIS ROCK: Oh, wow. Wow. Will Smith just smacked the [expletive] out of me.


DEL BARCO: Anything can happen during a live event, says Schulman.

SCHULMAN: Whether it's a burst of anger with the slap or just something really moving, someone, like, really living their dream, boom. Something happens that shocks your system a little bit.

DEL BARCO: Waiting for surprises keeps audiences coming back to the Oscars year after year. Who knows what could happen this Sunday night? Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Hollywood.


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