Oscar Nights Through The Years

Jess Cagle talks to Liz Smith
It was a subdued birthday party for Oscar at 75, as it was planned to reflect the world as it was on March 23, 2003, says Entertainment Contributor Jess Cagle.

But the glitz and glamour that was originally planned and that audiences have come to expect of the Academy Awards was a far cry from the first Oscar ceremony.

The first Academy Awards ceremony was nothing more than a dinner party for friends. There were no production numbers, and there was no suspense. The winners' names were printed on the backs of the menus.

According to Damien Bona, the author of two books on Oscar lore, the first awards were given out in five minutes. The winner for Best Picture was "Wings," a World War I aviation drama.

The first campaign to win an Oscar began the very next year, when Mary Pickford invited the five Academy judges to her Pickfair estate for tea. To show their appreciation, they voted her Best Actress that year.

Over the years, there have been many different Oscar strategies. In 1946, Joan Crawford stole the show by staying home.

"Who was more fabulous on Oscar night," asks Columnist Liz Smith, "than Joan Crawford, emerging from her bed where she said she had pneumonia because she thought she wasn't going to win for 'Mildred Pierce?' And she did win. And she comes out and greets the press, then she goes back to bed and is photographed with her Oscar."

It was television that made the Academy Awards a national event back in 1953. It was the highest-rated show to date in television's short history, and the rest, as they say, really is history.

The Academy Awards became an event we all could take part in from our living rooms - part fashion show, part contest, part spectacle.

In 1974, it was a streaker who stole the show. To everyone's surprise and delight, host David Niven had the perfect quip: "The only laugh that man will ever get is for stripping down and showing off his shortcomings," the actor said.

When she was named Best Actress for "Funny Girl," Barbra Streisand had a great line: "Hello, gorgeous," she said to the statuette. But it was her outfit that had tongues wagging. She wore Arnold Scassi's see- through pajamas.

"It was a fashion victim mistake," says Smith, "but it was wonderful because you can't ever forget it."

And who can forget Cuba Gooding Jr., talking faster and louder as the orchestra tried to play him off the stage? Or Roberto Benigni's madcap exuberance when he won Best Actor for "Life Is Beautiful"?

It is that very same awkward mix of reality and entertainment, celebration and purpose, that makes the Oscar ceremony a tricky business during difficult times.

How to celebrate movies during war time has always been a thorny problem. During World War II, because of shortages, the Oscars themselves were made of plaster, painted gold.

The Academy wanted to downplay the frivolity of the affair. So asked the men just to wear business suits and the women to dress down.

"This is the night war and politics are forgotten, and we find out who we really hate," joked Bob Hope in the movie "The Oscar. " Was he ever wrong. Politics have a big part to play in Oscar history.

When Marlon Brando won for Best Actor in the "The Godfather," he sent Sacheem Littlefeather to decline his Academy Award on behalf of Native Americans.

And Palestinian rights activist Vanessa Redgrave, Best Supporting Actress for "Julia," used her moment in the spotlight to condemn the people who opposed her nomination, calling them "Zionist hoodlums."

And when Charlie Chaplin came back to accept his honorary award after a 20-year exile for suspected Communist sympathies, it was a great moment in Oscar history.

As the Academy has said, the Oscars are a reflection of American life, of who we are, at any given moment, and tonight will be no different. It is, after all, the Oscars.