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75 years of Oscar

Oscar turns 75 this year, old enough to write a second volume of its memoirs. The Academy Awards are always called Hollywood's Prom Night, and like all prom nights they inspires a lot of memories and photographs and scrapbooks, and sometimes you go rummaging through them.

Everyone remembers Ron Lowe dancing with Snow White (except for me--I was stuck on an elevator to the press room and didn't see it). No one will ever forget Roberto Begnini climbing over the seats to claim his Oscar, or the unflappable David Niven confronted with a streaker, or Jack Palance pumping off those one-armed pushups, or Sally Field crying "You really love me." So those are everybody's memories. Here are 10 of my own, alphabetically:

* Halle Berry's acceptance speech last year after winning best actress for "Monster's Ball." There were those who said she went on too long, or was too emotional, but for me it was the perfect speech, combining the emotion of the moment with the context of history.

She was the first black woman to win as best actress, and as she named those who prepared the way for her, from Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne to Diahann Carrol, to "the women that stand beside me, Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett, Vivica Fox" and then to "every nameless faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened," well, there were tears in my eyes.

* Charlie Chaplin's honorary Oscar, in 1972, for his lifetime of work. They held his award right to the end of the show, where they thought it would be most dramatic, and after a filmed tribute Chaplin appeared on stage and walked to the front and there should have been a magical moment, but some director or network executive or busybody got worried that the show was running too long, and superimposed a sponsor's trademark over Chaplin before fading to the credits. Wrong, cruel, stupid.

* How in the world did "Chariots of Fire" win in 1982? I remember a conversation I had at Cannes in May of 1981, with David Puttnam and Jake Eberts, who produced it, and Hugh Hudson, who directed it, and this was not an interview but just a discussion about whether the film would "play" in America. British Olympic runners in the 1924 Olympics? One a Jew, one a Christian, both running out of faith?

The movie opened in late 1981 in four theaters and slowly built an audience through word of mouth. It was still playing in some theaters a year later. With today's mass release patterns, it would have been dead in a weekend. It's worth remembering the other four best film nominees that year: "Atlantic City," "On Golden Pond," "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "Reds." Four films that have stood the test of time--but, yes, "Chariots of Fire" would play in America.

* Bette Davis is one of three people often credited with naming the Oscar (she said its backside reminded her of a former husband). The legendary star was a presenter in 1986, after suffering a stroke in 1983, and it appeared to many viewers that she was completely confused at the podium. Not entirely true, or at least not her fault. What happened was that she departed for a moment from the teleprompter. The prompter operator begin to scroll to catch up with what he thought was being left out, then scrolled back when he realized she wanted to return to the copy, and all she could see were lines of type scrolling up and down unhelpfully. To set the record straight, she appeared with Johnny Carson the next night, just to show everyone she hadn't lost it. That was the night she got an ovation simply for lighting a cigarette.

* Isaac Hayes, performing the theme song from "Shaft" in 1972. He materialized out of a cloud of smoke, decked in chains, like a Hells' Angel riding a piano rather than a motorcycle. It may not have been a great song, but did Oscar ever have a greater entrance?

* There was a time when many Americans thought Bob Hope was the permanent Oscar emcee. He hosted the show eight times by himself, and seven times with co-hosts, between 1955 and 1978, and that included the first telecast of the Oscars in 1953. That year I listened on the radio, in the hospital, after having my appendix removed, and it seemed to me that the Academy Awards were unimaginably distant and grand. The fact that Hope could joke about them made him grander still. Listening on the radio made them seem so glamorous in my mind's eye that the real thing has never quite equaled the images in my imagination that night.

* In the spring of 1993, the Italian master Federico Fellini was given an honorary Academy Award, and in October of that year he was dead of a heart attack. But it is not Fellini I remember. What I remember is his wife, Giulietta Masina, sitting in the front row and weeping as he accepted the Oscar. She was weeping with both sorrow and joy, because she knew he was a dying man.

* The best Oscar day I ever spent was in the company of Dr. Haing S. Ngor, who was nominated for best supporting actor for "The Killing Fields." The Cambodian doctor had never acted a day in his life before being cast in the film as a journalist who barely escapes with his life from the tyranny of the Kymer Rouge.

I asked if I could follow him around., First he did the morning TV shows. Then he went to Tuxedo Center on Sunset and rented formalwear. Then he went to a Thai restaurant not far away, which was in fact run by Cambodians, where he caused a sensation when he walked in; by the time lunch was over, every Cambodian within five miles had gathered at the restaurant.

Ngor did not have the slightest expectation that he would win, but he'd had an incredible journey from the killing fields to the Oscars, and he was determined to enjoy every moment. He had a camera and photographed everything. As it happened, he did win the Oscar that night, and went on to act in 16 more movies and TV shows before being shot dead in 1996 in a robbery-homicide.

* Sir Laurence Olivier won an honorary Oscar in 1979, and gave a speech so dramatic you could hear a pin drop. The camera cut to Jon Voight, in the audience, and you could read his lips" Wow."

The next day, as it happened, I went to interview Michael Caine, who told me he had received a call that morning from Olivier: "He wanted to know what I thought of his speech. I said, 'Magnificent--but what did it mean?' Larry said: 'Exactly, dear boy! Utterly meaningless. I'm afraid I went up at the crucial moment and forget everything I intended to say, so I just fell back on the old Shakespearean actors' tactic, where you mumble something about life and death and being off to Salisbury, and hope to can get close enough to the wings to hear the prompter."

So great an actor was Olivier, however, that he sold the speech convincingly, and his listeners, convinced they had heard something profound, demanded the transcript. Then they puzzled over it.

* "The thing I regret most about the times I produced the Oscar show," the director Norman Jewison told me, "was the time John Wayne called up and said he wanted to be a presenter. Just hearing his voice on the phone was awesome. But he called a little late and we had already sent out invitations to all the presenters, so we didn't have an opening, and that's what I had to tell him."

That would have been in the late 1970s, maybe 1978, Jewison said.

In 1979, Wayne was a presenter at the Oscars--giving the best picture award to "The Deer Hunter." By then everybody knew he was dying. In 1963, after a lung cancer operation, he said he'd "beaten the big C," and for a long time, that was true But he had open-heart surgery in 1978, and was operated on early in 1979 for stomach cancer.

When he walked onstage, his face was thin, his step was slow, he was apparently in pain, but he walked up to the podium unaided, and did the job to great applause. A few months later, in June of 1979, he died.

"Watching that was an inspiration," Jewison said. "What courage the man had. Why did I turn him down the year before? John Wayne! Why didn't I shuffle some people around? What was I thinking?"

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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