The last time the Oscars went without a host was a fiasco. Could Sunday's host-free affair be a repeat of what happened on March 29, 1989?
The show 30 years ago began with 11 minutes that ruined careers, and nearly humiliated the Motion Picture Academy. And for once, no one had the host to blame. There was, however, a lot of other blame to spread around.
For the 61st Annual Academy Awards, first-time Oscar producer Allan Carr, decided to do something a little different.
Strike the "little": Carr, who had produced the big-screen "Grease" and "La Cage aux Folles" on Broadway, declared with elegant and prescient understatement that the 61st would be "the Oscar show the world will remember."
Indeed. Such spectaculars had no place for a host. So hosts were out — the first hostless Oscars ceremony since 1971. Such spectaculars needed stars, so Carr reached out to several from the golden age. Such spectaculars needed opening numbers, so esteemed composer Marvin Hamlisch got the call to write the 11-minute opening number, billed as a tribute to classic Hollywood with a song-and-dance routine by Snow White, played by an unknown stage actress from San Diego named Eileen Bowman.
There were, in hindsight, ominous developments before the show. Some of those "classic" actors, like Katharine Hepburn, declined the invitation to participate. Carr then had to reach out to other stars, all of whom were of advanced age.
Bowman recalled in a Hollywood Reporter interview from 2013 that she and another woman were summoned to the producer's Benedict Canyon compound. "I remember his swimming pool had pink water in it," she recalled. "He had a 30-foot Oscar outside his door and auditioned us in a robe. The other girl and I looked at each other thinking, 'What is happening?'"
She would find out soon enough. As the show began, Bowman's Snow White drifted into the audience to sing the opening number, "I Only Have Eyes for You," Audience members were confused. Some visibly recoiled. As Snow White walked out on a proscenium, the stage was converted into a re-creation of the Ambassador Hotel's old Cocoanut Grove nightclub, with Merv Griffin singing his 1940s' hit, "I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts."
The "stars" then followed, including Dale Evans and Roy Rogers, Alice Faye and Tony Martin. Dorothy Lamour literally had to be supported as she walked out.
Then it got weirder. Rob Lowe appeared to sing a bowdlerized version of "Proud Mary" with Snow White, whom he called "Snow." Their voices wheezed and cracked — the most famous karaoke debacle in Hollywood history.
Then weirder still: As the final number ground away ("Hooray For Hollywood") the camera pulled back to reveal "Snow" encased in what appeared to be an amoeba, or giant brain.
The audience clapped vigorously, grateful their ordeal was over. Bowman was too. She ran backstage and literally bumped into Glenn Close, she recalled. Her next — and also last — Hollywood movie job was a bit part in "Killer Tomatoes Eat France!"
The next day, the reviews were as expected. Then Disney sued the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences over copyright infringement (that's right — Snow). Seventeen major actors demanded an apology from AMPAS.
Poor muddled Carr insisted the show was a success. "What have we done?," he asked the Los Angeles Times a few days later. "We've touched the heart of America and won the town." Carr, whose Hollywood career ended that night, died in 1999.
Legendary Oscars writer Bruce Vilanch — he survived the night and would go on to write Billy Crystal's material — offered the most concise post mortem in an online interview a few years ago.
He cited, for example, Snow's trek through the audience: "You can't bring someone out into the audience who isn't on their level," he said. "They're going to look at her and say 'I didn't get this far to have to deal with a dress extra.'"
But the real trouble began long afterward, he said. The Disney lawsuit, settled in early April, forced everyone to relive those opening 11 minutes.
Next — and of greater consequence — on May 12 Rob Lowe was sued over an infamous "sex tape." Those 11 minutes were re-lived all over again in the tsunami of press that followed,
Maybe Lowe might think of hosting the 2020 Oscars — as penance?