“And now ladies and gentlemen, here’s one of the great legends of Hollywood. She’s back with us tonight—Miss Snow White!”
It was 1989 and the Oscars were just getting started. Instead of being greeted by a host, an unknown actress dressed as Snow White kicked off an 11-minute musical number in which Merv Griffin reprised his 1950 hit “I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts” and 25-year-old Rob Lowe struggled to stay on-key during a parody version of “Proud Mary.” The number was based on a famous gay nightclub show in San Francisco, and some prominent members of Hollywood found it so distasteful that they sent the Academy a letter saying so.
In terms of TV ratings, the ‘89 Oscars were a success. The show topped the previous five Academy Awards telecasts with 42.7 million viewers. Even so, entertainment critics and Hollywood establishment figures thought it was a disaster, and Disney sued to try to prevent the opening number from ever being aired again (it’s available on YouTube). Veteran entertainment journalist Robert Hofler says the opening act was indeed badly cast, poorly executed and went on for way too long. Yet he also thinks there was something homophobic about the blowback against the show and its producer, Allan Carr, who was best known for producing the 1978 hit film Grease.
“Allan Carr was kind of the first gay producer who was out of the closet,” says Hofler, author of Party Animals: A Hollywood Tale of Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll Starring the Fabulous Allan Carr. “A lot of people did not want this flamboyant queen who wore caftans to be directing the Oscars.”
The negative reaction to the show helped end Carr’s career. New York Times film critic Janet Maslin wrote that the “61st Academy Awards ceremony began by creating the impression that there would never be a 62nd.” A week after the Oscars, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences received a scathing letter signed by 17 prominent Hollywood figures. The signers included Julie Andrews, Paul Newman, Billy Wilder and Gregory Peck, a former Academy president.
“The 61st Academy Awards show was an embarrassment to both the Academy and the entire motion picture industry,” the letter stated. “It is neither fitting nor acceptable that the best work in motion pictures be acknowledged in such a demeaning fashion. We urge the president and governors of the Academy to ensure that future award presentations reflect the same standard of excellence as that set by the films and filmmakers they honor.”
To top it off, Disney was now suing the Academy for “copyright infringement, unfair competition and dilution of business reputation.” Apparently, no one had consulted the company about depicting Snow White. (Disney dropped the suit after the Academy apologized.)
It was a big blow to Carr, who had hoped the ‘89 Oscars would revive his career. In the late ‘70s, Carr was known for throwing wild parties visited by members of the Hollywood establishment like Gregory Peck and Billy Wilder, both of whom would later sign the letter condemning his Oscars show. Then in the ‘80s, Carr produced a few movies that bombed, including a sequel to Grease. The parties tapered off as the AIDS crisis set in and openly gay men like Carr faced increased social stigma. He saw the Oscars as a way to get back into Hollywood’s good graces.
Previous Academy Awards shows had used up to six hosts or even gone hostless, and Carr decided he didn’t want a central host for his show. Instead, he opened the Oscars with a multi-performer musical number based on a popular gay nightclub show in San Francisco called Beach Blanket Babylon.
But the “camp” style of humor that permeated Beach Blanket Babylon wasn’t yet a part of mainstream media. Hofler thinks the negative response to the Oscars number “was this real reaction against this gay humor in a period in which people were no longer really tolerant of gay people.” He contrasts this to the years before AIDS when Hollywood establishment types had had no problem partying at Carr’s house.
“Believe me, because Allan Carr was the producer, everyone involved identified that opening number as this kind of gay humor run amok,” Hoffler continues (Eileen Bowman, who played Snow White, later wrote the Oscars show “looked like a gay bar mitzvah,” whatever that means). Were the opening number to air today, the reaction might be different. “I interviewed [former Paramount Pictures CEO Sherry Lansing] about it and I remember her saying, I bet if they showed that today people wouldn’t object to it.”
Dennis Bingham, director of the Film Studies Program at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, thinks Carr’s opening number “may have worked just great on a stage in a nightclub some place, but it wasn’t good television.” Yet he also thinks that, 30 years later, it’s hardly the most embarrassing thing that’s happened at the Oscars.
“The year that Seth MacFarlane hosted, when people turned on the show a little late to see him leading a chorus line singing ‘We Saw Your Boobs’—that was much more embarrassing and uncalled for,” he says of the 2013 Oscars. In addition, Bingham says the 2017 Best Picture mix-up, where La La Land received an award intended for Moonlight, “is the worst thing I’ve ever seen happen at the Oscars.”
As maligned as Carr’s Academy Awards show was, it did have some influential moments. His was the first Oscars with extended coverage of stars arriving on the red carpet, an event that has since become its own pre-awards show. Carr coined an iconic award show phrase by telling presenters that instead of announcing the “winner,” they should say, “The Oscar goes to…” Billy Crystal also delivered a well-received monologue at the ‘89 Oscars. The Academy asked Crystal to host the next year, and he went on to become one of the show’s most frequent and popular hosts.
In addition, many might find the ‘89 Oscars telecast significant today because it captures one of Lucille Ball’s last public appearances before her death a month later. That night, Ball and Bob Hope took the stage and made each other laugh for a few minutes before introducing “The Stars of Tomorrow,” a musical number featuring many children of celebrities.
Unfortunately, the “Stars” number didn’t live up to the legendary comedians who introduced it. For Hofler, “that was really the worst part of the show. But no one remembers that.”