Friday, 30 March 2018

40 years on: Star Wars at the Oscars – part one

Mark Hamill, C-3PO and R2-D2 at the Oscars, April 3, 1978

Audiences had spoken. They had crowned Star Wars, not only as the film of 1977, but as the most successful movie of all time. But would the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences agree? 

On April 3, it will be 40 years since Star Wars was up for 10 awards at one of the most surprising and controversial Oscars ceremonies of them all. Episode Nothing looks back. 

It was a year when the world lost some of the most famous people ever to grace a movie screen: Elvis Presley, Groucho Marx, Charlie Chaplin and Bing Crosby had all died between August 1977 and Christmas Day.

Hollywood had also said goodbye that year to Joan Crawford, Howard Hawks, Peter Finch and Zero Mostel.

The 50th Academy Awards were held in April 1978 with the intention of celebrating Oscar's golden anniversary in style. But the evening would not be a simple tribute to Hollywood's fabulous history.

I'm going to take more than one blog post to tell the story of that evening, because I think it gives us an insight into an entertainment world that had just recently been rocked by Star Wars.

The film-makers being honoured that evening ranged from the editor Margaret Booth, who had been working for D.W. Griffith as early as 1915, to the young people who were shaking up Hollywood in the 1970s. And the mixture sometimes made for uneasy watching.

The evening saw protests and angry political speeches. It saw the era represented by presenter Bob Hope attempting to engage with 1970s tastes and pop culture at the same time as mocking them.

That night, the Academy gave awards to recipients who hadn't turned up, and it handed the top prizes to a film that mocked Hollywood and its obsession with awards. And everyone in the room must have been aware that the industry had been changed forever by Star Wars

The Oscars for 1977 on TV 

The TV coverage started at 7pm local time – and children wouldn't need to stay up very late. It was really the early part of the evening that contained the highlights for Star Wars fans.

(It was different in my country, the UK. We had to make do with a late-night highlights show on ITV the next day. I knew I wouldn't be allowed to stay up, but I wondered whether Star Wars would rate a mention.)

The coverage began with shots of stars arriving in limousines, inter-cut with black and white footage showing the stars of old. Then, inside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, it was Carrie Fisher's mother who took the stage first. Debbie Reynolds danced and sang a number called 'Look How Far We've Come'. The lyrics contained a nod to her daughter's film, in a line about "those extra-terrestrials here from space".

The first person connected to Star Wars to take the stage that night was John Williams. He was among a host of previous Oscar winners who were brought on during that opening number. (Williams already had two Academy Awards to his name: one as composer for Jaws and one for arranging and conducting the music for Fiddler on the Roof.)

The attempt to gather so many award-winners in one place was not quite successful, though. As Mason Wiley and Damien Bona noted in the book Inside Oscar, "Their names flashed on and off before anyone had a chance to read them."  

And that was the last big tribute to classic Hollywood of the night. The Hollywood Reporter reported: "High hopes for an extraordinary, solid-gold evening reflecting years of film excellence were dashed within the first few minutes." 

After that, the evening seemed to reflect a Hollywood that was no longer at ease with itself. 

Bob Hope jokes about Star Wars, Vanessa Redgrave speaks out – and Star Wars lightens the mood

Bob Hope was presenting the Academy Awards for the 19th and last time. He gave George Lucas's film the first name-check of the evening. "Good evening and welcome to the real Star Wars," he said, to a good deal of applause.

You expect the host to mock the industry, but Hope's opening monologue smacked of culture wars. Quite a few of the gags didn't just prick the image of Hollywood A-listers, but mocked the new, permissive atmosphere in the business.

Recalling the first ever winner of the Best Picture prize, Hope said: "If Wings were made today, Buddy Rogers and Dick Arlen would be walking into the sunset holding hands."

He went on: "Fifty years ago, the boy got the girl. Today it's anybody, her mother, father, brother or cocker spaniel."

Of the most successful film ever made, he noted: "1977 will be known as the year of Star Wars, which has grossed over $200m. That's even more than some baseball players make."

But the tone of the evening was about to turn from snide to angry.

There were at least two protests outside the awards ceremony that night. One was by the Blacks in Media Broadcasting Organisation (BIMBO) at the overwhelming whiteness of Oscars. The other was by the Jewish Defence League, against Best Supporting Actress nominee Vanessa Redgrave. 

Redgrave had produced a political film, The Palestinians, and been seen with Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization. She had received bomb threats after that, and protesters had threatened to picket venues showing the film Julia unless the studio denounced her.

Redgrave drew gasps, applause and boos when, after acknowledging co-star Jane Fonda and Julia director Fred Zinnemann, she told Academy members to be "very proud that in the last few weeks you've stood firm and you have refused to be intimidated by the threats of a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums whose behaviour is an insult to the stature of Jews all over the world and their great and heroic record of struggle against fascism and oppression". The Academy had "dealt a fatal blow against that period when Nixon and McCarthy launched a worldwide witch-hunt against those who tried to express in their lives and their work the truth that they believed in", she said, to a mix of boos and applause.

With so much tension in the room, it was left to the cast of Star Wars to lighten things up. 

Mark Hamill, C-3PO and R2-D2 present Oscars

"One of the biggest box office hits since the Nickelodeon is Star Wars," said Bob Hope, returning to the sage.

"I saw it and like you, I was enchanted by the performance of its hero. May the force always be with him – Mark Hamill."

Hamill duly appeared, in a blue tux and bow tie, and instantly wrong-footed the presenter by saying "And may the Farce be with you."

Looking at the footage today, it seems Hope – who was great with scripted material but not always a fantastic ad-libber – genuinely thought Hamill was picking him up on a slip of the tongue and was nonplussed.

Then came the moment which would have had young audiences ecstatic: C-3PO walked onto the stage, and R2-D2 trundled on shortly afterwards. In those pre-home video days, a glimpse of the droids like this would have been a truly thrilling moment for young fans.

Hamill and the droids were on stage to present two special awards for sound: one for Star Wars and another to its only competitor in science fiction, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

For the next minute or two, Hamill delivered his speech, with R2-D2 echoing it in his own electronic voice. "You know, I sometimes feel like Zeppo marks alongside Groucho and Harpo," Hamill said.

It was Anthony Daniels as C-3PO who read out the award citations. The first went to Frank Warner for special sound editing on Close Encounters and the second, for "the creation of the alien, creature and robot voices featured in Star Wars", to Benjamin Burtt Jr.

Burtt went on to become such a high-profile part of the Star Wars series that it's easy to forget that he was not the credited sound editor on Star Wars, so was not in contention for the competitive Oscars.

It's also interesting that, after thanking Ken Mura of University of Southern California Cinema and Star Wars' producer Gary Kurtz, Burtt thanked Jim Nelson, the associate producer who had his name removed from the credits after falling out with Lucas. He praised Nelson for "great friendship and encouragement", before adding: "And I'd like to, of course, thank George Lucas, who had all the great ideas and provided all the inspiration for the things in Star Wars."

During his speech, the camera cut to George Lucas, Gary Kurtz and Marcia Lucas, sitting together.

There would be a lot more heard of Star Wars as the evening went on. But Marcia, who was nominated for Best Editing, was the only one of those three who would need to get out of her seat.

Next time: Star Wars starts winning some prizes.

  • Did you watch the Oscars back in 1978? What do you make of those clips today? Do leave a comment below.


Harrod said...

The Academy's citation said "the alien, creature and robot voices featured in Star Wars?" What to them is the difference between alien and creature, especially when they ignored equally iconic vehicle and weapon sounds?

Darren Slade said...

Yes, that's an odd choice of words. I'd never thought about it!

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