When viewers tune in for the 95th Academy Awards ceremony on March 12, they’ll no doubt see tearful acceptance speeches and over-the-top fashions. But for all its glitz and glamor, the Oscars sometimes provide another sideshow – scandal.
The scandals range from charges of racism (Black actress Hattie McDaniel seated at the back of the room the year she took home the Best Supporting Actress award; #Oscarssowhite decrying the lack of diversity) to some truly cringeworthy performances. Remember when Rob Lowe sang and danced with Snow White? Yeah, we’d like to forget that too.
Sometimes it’s the fashions that lay an egg, like Björk’s infamous swan outfit at the 2001 ceremony. Other times, audiences are stunned by actors using the occasion to make a statement, as when George C. Scott and Marlon Brando refused to accept their Oscars. (Here’s a list of famous people who’ve turned down major awards or nominations.)
To assemble a list of the biggest scandals at the Oscars, 24/7 Tempo consulted entertainment media such as ET, as well as lists of Academy Awards controversies on Vanity Fair, Good Housekeeping, and other sites. We did not include perceived snubs for wins or nominations, but here’s a list of movies so good they should have won an Oscar – but didn’t.
This year, the nomination of Andrea Riseborough as Best Actress for “To Leslie” drew criticism for her team’s supposedly aggressive marketing tactics, but the Academy declined to rescind her nod. That was a mere kerfuffle compared to Will Smith’s slap of host Chris Rock at last year’s ceremony. People are still talking about the “slap heard round the world,” with Rock addressing it in a recent comedy special. What – if anything scandalous – will happen at this year’s Oscars?
Hattie McDaniel’s missing Oscar
> Year: 1940
When Hattie McDaniel won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Mammy in “Gone With the Wind,” the nation was still very much segregated. During the ceremony, she wasn’t allowed to sit with her white castmasts and was relegated to the back of the room. Despite the indignity, McDaniel claimed she was proud of being the first Black person to win an acting Oscar. After her death, the statue was donated to Howard University, but it went missing in the 1960s. A number of theories of its fate emerged – was it being stolen or simply misplaced? – but it has never been found.
Elizabeth Taylor wins for movie she dissed
> Year: 1961
A film icon, Elizabeth Taylor won two Academy Awards during her long career. In 1966, she won for her performance in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” but her first Oscar came in 1961 for playing a call girl in “Butterfield 8.” She apparently hated the film and dissed it every chance she could, claiming that she did it only so that she could make “Cleopatra.” But always a trooper, Taylor accepted the award soon after having undergone an emergency tracheotomy for pneumonia.
Best actress tie
> Year: 1969
Ties happen all the time in sports. But when two actresses tied for Best Actress at the 1969 Academy Awards, it was a bit unusual. Just on the cusp of stardom, Barbra Streisand won for “Funny Girl” in a tie with Katherine Hepburn for “A Lion in Winter.” No one doubts both ladies gave great performances, but it was considered odd at the time for a relative newcomer to tie with the legendary Hepburn.
George C. Scott rejects Oscar
> Year: 1971
George C. Scott never hid his distaste for the Academy Awards. When nominated previously for Best Supporting Actor in “The Hustler,” Scott notified the Academy that he would not accept the award, calling the ceremony “a two-hour meat parade, a public display with contrived suspense for economic reasons.” It shouldn’t have come as any surprise, then, when Scott refused to accept the Best Actor statuette for playing the title role in the World War II drama “Patton.”
Marlon Brando turns down Oscar
> Year: 1973
Marlon Brando revived his sagging career with his performance as Vito Corleone in “The Godfather.” He boycotted the ceremony, however, and when his name was called as Best Actor, he sent ââactress and activist Sacheen Littlefeather to the stage, where she refused the Oscar on Brando’s behalf in protest of Hollywood’s portrayal of Native Americans on film. She was booed, and it was reported John Wayne nearly rushed her on stage. In June 2022, the Academy apologized to Littlefeather for the treatment she received that night. She died the same year.
Streaker during the ceremony
> Year: 1974
When a streaker interrupted David Niven’s introduction of Elizabeth Taylor, he joked “Isn’t it fascinating that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings.” Niven’s quick quip led many to wonder if the run, by photographer and gallery owner Robert Opal, was planned.
Cher’s revenge dress
> Year: 1986
Upset for not being nominated for her role in “Mask,” Cher decided to take her revenge through fashion. When she presented the award for Best Supporting Actor, the singer/actress sayshayed out in a skimpy, two-piece outfit designed by Bob Mackie. To the surprised crowd, she said, “As you can see, I did receive my Academy booklet on how to dress like a serious actress.”
> Year: 1989
Rob Lowe was a young actor when he accepted the Academy’s offer to do a song-and-dance routine with actress Eileen Bowman dressed as Snow White at the 1989 ceremony. He soon regretted the decision. Although the song was written by legendary composer Marvin Hamlisch, it was a dud that left the audience cringing due to the lackluster performances of both singers. Lowe later told the New York Times that Disney threatened to sue over the performance.
Rumor about Marisa Tomei’s win
> Year: 1993
Newcomer Marisa Tomei wasn’t expected to win for Best Supporting Actress in 1993 for her role in “My Cousin Vinny.” She was going up against two legends of English cinema – Vanessa Redgrave and Joan Plowright – so when Jack Palance called Tomei’s name, many doubted she was the true winner and assumed that Palance had gotten the name wrong, either because he couldn’t read the correct name or because he was drunk. Once he’d made the mistake, rumor had it, the Academy couldn’t renege. But in fact, Palance had read the right name, and the young actress was honored for her funny and sweet portrayal of Mona Lisa Vito.
Harvey Weinstein’s dark Oscar win
> Year: 1999
Harvey Weinstein had longed for Oscar prestige and he finally got it with a Best Picture award for “Shakespeare in Love.” Although a lovely film, “Shakespeare in Love” beat out the favorite, Steven Spielberg’s WWII epic “Saving Private Ryan.” A 2017 Vanity Fair article reported that Weinstein’s strong-armed marketing tactics were the real reason behind the win. That same year, allegations first surfaced about Weinstein’s sexual harassment of women. Earlier this year, the disgraced movie mogul was sentenced to 16 years in prison for the 2013 rape of an actress in Los Angeles. This came in addition to an earlier conviction that netted him a 23-year term.
Elia Kazan’s controversial Oscar
> Year: 1999
Elia Kazan directed some of Hollywood’s best films. “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “On the Waterfront” are classics. But during the 1950s, he gave the names of suspected communists to the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which led to some in Hollywood being blacklisted. Many hadn’t forgotten that when he received an honorary Oscar in 1999. He was cheered by some, but jeered by others.
Stoned in drag
> Year: 2000
Nominated for the song “Blame Canada” from “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut,” “South Park” creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker showed up to the ceremony in drag: Parker wore a dress similar to Jennifer Lopez’s famous plunging Versace gown, while Stone came dressed in an outfit the pink Ralph Lauren number Gwyneth Paltrow had donned the previous year. The two later admitted they had taken LSD-laced sugar cubes before the show.
> Year: 2001
Icelandic singer/songwriter Björk admitted that when she showed up in a tulle swan dress for the 2001 Oscars she wasn’t trying to fit in with the other high-fashion ensembles. She accomplished her goal. It landed an egg, so to speak, as it was named one of the worst Oscar dresses of all time.
Adrian Brody’s enthusiastic kiss
> Year: 2003
You’d expect an actor winning his first Oscar would be excited. But after winning best actor for “The Pianist,” Adrian Brody grabbed and kissed presenter Halle Berry. Berry later said she was shocked by the kiss, but was too stunned to stop it. Many criticized Brody for crossing a line.
> Year: 2011
After watching James Franco’s and Anne Hathaway’s lackluster hosting gig at the 2011 Oscars, viewers should probably take back every nasty thing they said about Rob Lowe and Snow White. Even switching costumes (she in a tuxedo and he in a gown) couldn’t liven up their performances. While Hathaway admitted she was a bit over-excited in playing to the large crowd, Franco was, well, wooden.
John Travolta’s confusion
> Year: 2014
Idina Menzel is an established Broadway star. But when John Travolta introduced her before she sang “Let it Go” from “Frozen,” he called her “Adele Dazeem.” Initially taken aback by the flub, Menzel later said “It was the greatest thing that ever happened to me.”
> Year: 2015
Noting that all the 2014 nominees for the acting awards were white, media strategist and diversity advocate April Reign came up with the hashtag #oscarssowhite to highlight the lack of Black representation and the Academy’s history of racism (see: Hattie McDaniel). She had a point: 92% of the Academy’s membership is white. Some actors, such as Jada Pinkett Smith, boycotted the ceremony and demanded change. Even President Barack Obama weighed in, saying the industry should expand its talent base. Since then, the Academy has made efforts to be more inclusive.
Best Picture mix-up
> Year: 2017
Imagine the biggest night of your life when your movie wins Best Picture? Except, it didn’t really happen. That’s what happened when “La La Land” was mistakenly announced as Best Picture due to a mixup with the envelope read by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. The mixup was soon cleared up when “Moonlight” was in fact given the award.
Casey Affleck alleged sexual harassment
> Year: 2017
When Casey Affleck won an Oscar for his riveting performance in “Manchester by the Sea,” not all were pleased, given allegations of sexual harassment made against the actor. One of those who objected was presenter Brie Larson, a supporter of women’s rights, who unenthusiastically handed Affleck his statue.
Will Smith slap
> Year: 2022
Edgy comedians like Chris Rock sometimes cross a line. Will Smith thought so when the host of last year’s Oscars made a joke about wife Jade Pinkett Smith’s shaved head. She suffers from alopecia, which causes hair loss. As the audience watched in disbelief, Smith stormed on stage and slapped Rock across the face. He later won the Best Actor award for “King Richard,” but was subsequently banned from the ceremony for 10 years.
Andrea Riseborough’s nomination
> Year: 2023
The intense marketing campaigns for Academy awards came to light when a talented but relatively unknown British actress Andrea Riseborough was nominated for Best Actress for her role in the independent film “To Leslie.” How could a little-known performer in a movie that grossed about $27,000 get the coveted nod in a class that included previous winners Cate Blanchett and Michelle Williams? For one, her team waged a fierce grassroots campaign on her behalf, calling in the likes of Blanchett and Susan Sarandon to praise her performance as an alcoholic single mother given a second chance. Because her nomination was unusual by Hollywood standards (i.e., her team didn’t spend millions of dollars in the usual manner), some called into question the marketing tactics. However, the Academy declined to rescind her nomination, though it said that some of the social media and outreach efforts “caused concern.”