It wouldn't be the Oscars without a career-crumbling PR disaster (or three), as Hollywood’s finest discharge jokes that should never see the light of day, stick a clumsy oar into politics they know nothing about, give the award to the wrong recipient, or... hit someone square in the face.
The organisers of the 2023 Oscars (taking place on March 12) may have formed a “crisis team” in order to prevent one star from punching another star in the face, but history proves that Oscar disasters are hard to predict – and near-impossible to prevent. Here are some of the most memorable:
1. Will Smith smacks Chris Rock
In the most astonishing moment in Oscars history, Will Smith smacked Chris Rock across the face after the comedian joked about his wife Jada Pinkett Smith's baldness, before swearing at him. Moments later, the star won best actor for King Richard, and broke down in tears during his acceptance speech, apologising to the Academy for his violent behaviour.
The assault came after Rock said, “Jada, I love you. G.I. Jane 2, can't wait to see it” in reference to the 1997 film G.I. Jane in which actress Demi Moore shaved her head. Rock may not have been aware of Pinkett-Smith's alopecia, and Will Smith then strode on to the stage and delivered a powerful open-handed slap to Rock's face. “Oh, wow! Wow! Will Smith just smacked the s--- out of me,” Rock exclaimed. The audience initially assumed it was part of the script, but Rock appeared genuinely stunned, and stumbled into announcing the winner for best documentary.
Smith was comforted by Denzel Washington, Tyler Perry and Bradley Cooper (who, in the film A Star is Born, plays a musician who wets himself on stage at the Grammys). Rock has declined to press charges.
It's not the first time Smith and his wife have been the butt of awards jokes. During the 2022 Baftas, at which Will Smith won best actor, Rebel Wilson said: “I thought his best performance over the past year was being OK with all his wife’s boyfriends.” Smith responded to the comment by insisting there has “never been infidelity” in his marriage.
2. The Oscar goes to La La Land! Oh wait...
There's nothing quite like something going completely awry on live television, particularly when it involves high emotions, movie stars and a slow, torturous build to collective realisation of a fiasco. At the 2017 Academy Awards, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were called upon to announce the winner of Best Picture, Beatty appearing to jokingly dither as he checked and re-checked the contents of the envelope containing the winning name. Only, it turned out, Beatty's dithering wasn't meant as humour.
Dunaway announced La La Land as the winner, with the cast and crew of the musical assembling on stage to collect their awards, and the film's producers embarking on their acceptance speeches... until terrified stagehands began notifying the assembled winners that there had been an envelope error, and that Moonlight was in fact the winner.
The clip itself is oddly mesmerising, with the frantic rushing around of stagehands in the background signalling that something has gone wrong; the gradual realisation on the faces of those on stage (Emma Stone's repeated “Oh my God” is a particular highlight); the sheer disbelief exhibited by Naomie Harris and Shirley MacLaine in the audience, a blushing Warren Beatty wanting to fall into a hole and disappear forever; producer Jordan Horowitz aggressively swiping the correct envelope from Beatty's hand; Damien Chazelle's heart slowly breaking into a thousand pieces as he collects his thoughts at the back of the podium before slinking away...
It ultimately transpired that Beatty was reading from an envelope announcing Best Actress in a Leading Role, which previously went to La La Land star Emma Stone. Confused, he passed the envelope to Dunaway, who, seeing the title La La Land, assumed it meant the musical had won Best Picture.
At least the protocol to interrupt the speech and announce the correct winner should seemingly put the Marisa Tomei urban legend to bed once and for all. Plus it gave us one of the most shocking, uncomfortably hilarious last-minute plot twists in Oscar history.
3. Daniel Kaluuya’s sexual speech
With his mother and sister in attendance, it was a proud family moment to see their respective son and brother pick up the award for Best Supporting Actor in film Judas and the Black Messiah. However, they might have been less proud when he started referencing his parents' sexual activities.
Upon picking up the award, the Black Mirror star thanked God, family, friends and his team, but also went on to talk about his love for life. He said: “We've got to celebrate, we've got to celebrate life man. We're breathing, we're walking, it's incredible! My mum, my dad, they had sex!”
The camera then focused in on Kaluuya's family in attendance, showing his mother Damalie, in shock mouthing “what is he talking about?” and leaving his older sister with her head in her hands.
“It's amazing, I'm here! So I'm so happy to be alive, so I'm going to celebrate life”, the actor continued, collecting one of the two awards that the Shaka King film won that evening.
4. ‘Adele Dazeem’
John Travolta’s spectacular name-fail at the 2014 Academy Awards – we’d say mispronunciation, but “Adele Dazeem” isn’t even remotely similar to “Idina Menzel” – was one of the most gloriously cringe-worthy moments in recent Oscars history. You can watch Travolta welcome the “wickedly talented” Let It Go singer on to the stage (and then watch him again and again and again) below:
Subsequent attempts by Travolta to explain how he managed to get Menzel’s name so catastrophically wrong have just made the incident seem even odder. Apparently, it’s all the fault of Goldie Hawn – and some (apparently very un-phonetic) phonetic spelling.
“As I get backstage [ahead of his announcement] I run into Goldie Hawn. She's sexy, charismatic, beautiful and I was star-struck, hugging and loving her up, forgetting I had to do this bit,” he told US talkshow host Jimmy Kimmel, during a special post-Oscars edition of Kimmel’s TV show.
“Then they were like ‘OK you're on’ and then they said ‘Oh by the way, we've changed Idina's name to a phonetic spelling’ and I was like ‘Wait – what do you mean?’ ‘Go!’” he added.
“So I go out there and I get to her thing and I go ‘Huh?’ In my mind I'm going ‘What? What is that name? I don't know that name’. And it was this phonetic spelling, and I didn't rehearse it that way.”
5. John Travolta’s runaway hands
Poor John Travolta. After embarrassing himself at the 2014 Oscars (see above), he had a chance to redeem himself the following year – but instead managed to make matters even worse. The actor hit the headlines after a series of unfortunate photographs emerged, in which he appeared to be getting uncomfortably close to actress Scarlett Johansson on the ceremony’s red carpet, snaking an arm around her waist and planting a kiss on her cheek.
Admittedly, the full video of the incident makes his actions seem less creepy – Johansson’s expression of stony-faced horror, caught by the photographers, quickly relaxes into a smile. The actress herself has described the picture as an “an unfortunate still-frame from a live-action encounter that was totally sweet and totally welcome”.
Idina Menzel shared her thoughts on the time John Travolta called her “Adele Dazeem”: “At first, I felt sorry for myself. Like, Meryl Streep’s out there...and then I’m like, ‘Get your sh--- together. Stop worrying that he messed up your name. Sing, b---'” https://t.co/pAh9PMD6iw pic.twitter.com/fsOe16WT81
— The Hollywood Reporter (@THR) September 9, 2021
But Travolta’s adventurous hands also attracted attention later in the night, when they found their way on to the face of Idina Menzel. After reuniting on stage, the pair made light of Travolta’s “Adele Dazeem” blunder the year before, and all appeared to be going well – until the actor began touching Menzel’s face, intimately cupping her chin. We all got chills – and they were definitely multiplying.
6. Jennifer Lawrence falling over. Then falling over again
Poor J-Law endeared herself to the public after she tripped on her Dior dress and took a tumble when heading to the stage to collect her Best Actress Oscar in 2013, awarded for her performance in Silver Linings Playbook.
She then proceeded to fall over again at next year’s ceremony – although this time round, it was on the red carpet, rather than when she was collecting an award.
7. Glenn Close’s ‘Da Butt’ Dance
This was one moment that certainly stole the show at the sombre 2021 awards ceremony. The Academy Awards veteran, Glenn Close, was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Hillbilly Elegy, missing out on the award to Minari star, Youn Yuh-jung.
However, the 75-year-old did not let that ruin her night. One of the many presenters of the evening, Lil Rel Howery, embarked on a quiz with the attendees, proceeding to playing a throwback song and asking members of the audience whether the song won an Oscar, was nominated or did not receive any recognition from the Academy.
Glenn Close was then asked to identify ‘Da Butt’ the song from Spike Lee's 1988 film, School Daze, by the Washington D.C. outfit, EU (Experience Unlimited). Not only did Close name the track, but delved into the history of the track. Upon rounding off her lecture on the 80s number, Howery asked Close whether she knew the dance moves that accompanied the track.
One week since Glenn Close danced Da Butt at the Oscars
She was having such fun 😍 pic.twitter.com/secL9aK5LZ
— Best of Glenn Close (@badpostclose) May 2, 2021
The Dangerous Liaisons star then stood up from her table and proceeded to twerk to the song, much to the audience's laughter and applause, with Howery calling it the “baddest Oscars of all time.”
It is certainly a dance that won't be forgotten by many for a long while.
8. Oprah or Uma?
Things hadn’t been good between the two chat show hosts anyway, but perhaps David Letterman’s weak joke confusing Oprah Winfrey and Uma Thurman truly kicked off the “feud” between them that has been compared to the Cold War.
As the New York Times surmised at the time: “Mr Letterman has a questionable mid-America habit of ridiculing names, including those of everyone from immigrant cabdrivers to store owners called Mujibur and Sirajul. Opening the awards ceremony (a list of the winners is on page C12), he zeroed in on Oprah (Winfrey) and Uma (Thurman), but quickly discovered that the audience found the routine somewhat less than amusing, even when he frantically added Keanu (Reeves).”
Oprah reportedly found the gag less than hilarious, and refused to appear on Letterman’s show, for years. The pair eventually patched things up in 2005; Winfrey sat on his couch and presented the host with a photo of her with Uma Thurman.
9. ‘The man never lets the woman talk’
In 2010, the former producer of Best Documentary winner Music by Prudence gatecrashed the director’s acceptance speech. Roger Ross Williams had barely begun speaking before Elinor Burkett, who had originally come up with the idea for the documentary about a severely disabled Zimbabwean musician but was later kicked off the film, strode into the limelight and said, “The man never lets the woman talk. Isn't that just the classic thing?"
Burkett had previously attempted to sue Williams. The case was settled out of court, but she was still angry that she hadn’t been invited to any of the awards parties celebrating the film.
She said at the time: “There have been all these events around the Oscars, and I wasn't invited to any of them. And [Williams] is not speaking to me. So we weren’t even able to discuss ahead of the time who would be the one person allowed to speak if we won.”
For his part, Williams said: “The Academy is very clear that only one person can speak. I own the film. She has no claim whatsoever. She has nothing to do with the movie. She just ambushed me. I was sort of in shock.”
The audience were shown smiling bemusedly, before the conductor did everyone a favour and started the orchestra up.
10. Jerry Lewis’s 20 minute ad-lib
Even the most casual Oscars viewer will recognise an overlong speech. But in 1959 host Jerry Lewis had the opposite problem: a too-short telecast, and 20 minutes of script-free TV to fill. Lewis did a remarkable job ad-libbing, including taking the baton from the conductor and leading the orchestra while shouting at the great and the good of Hollywood to get dancing.
Natalie Wood with Robert Wagner, Maurice Chevalier and Rosalind Russell, Bob Hope and Zsa Zsa Gabor all paired up, but only for a few minutes, leaving Lewis out in the cold. In desperation, broadcaster NBC ended up cutting to a short film about the proper use of handguns.
Spencer Tracy, who was watching at home, reportedly said: “My God, have we fallen to this?”
In 2013, Anne Hathaway’s dream came true: she won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in Les Misérables. But nobody remembers that, because she did it wearing a pale pink dress that was tailored around her bust. As she later explained herself: “It looks like my nipples are hard.”
The dress caused such sensation online that The Huffington Post dedicated an entire section of its website to it. Hathaway even went so far as to make an official statement about the dress, explaining that it was a last-minute choice after the two she had previously chosen were being worn by other people. She ranked the outfit as the joint most embarrassing moment of her life – tied with her uneven co-hosting of the Oscars with James Franco in 2011.
12. The streaker
Robert Opel certainly got his timing right. The artist and gay rights activist waited for David Niven to announce the 1974 Best Picture winner to reveal himself to the world, interrupting Niven’s introduction of Elizabeth Taylor as “a very important contributor to world entertainment” to present the award.
The actor was pleasantly taken aback by the excited screaming of the crowd before he realised the cause of the hysteria, at which point he launched into an unscripted put-down: “Well ladies and gentlemen, that was almost bound to happen. Isn’t it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?”
Taylor was so shocked by Opel she feared she flubbed her lines. As Academy Award members fondly remembered, the Seventies was rife with naked people gatecrashing things: "I remember when that happened. Streaking was a part of our world and you actually had to worry that somebody would appear in your world naked. And then it happened at the Oscars.”
13. Ann Reinking’s Against All Odds performance
Well, at least the dancing was nice. Broadway actress Ann Reinking was brought on to the Oscars stage to mime along to Phil Collins’ Against All Odds, which was nominated for Best Original Song in 1985 for appearing in the film of the same name. As has been noted elsewhere, this cringe-inducing, five-minute-long performance is a good example of when YouTube is not kind to bygone performances.
Reinking’s aggressively wide-eyed, partially snorted rendition is more painful for the fact that Collins wasn’t allowed to sing the Grammy-winning song himself during the Oscars, despite asking the Academy more than once, because he wasn't “a movie person”. He was then made to sit in the audience and watch the entire thing. His verdict? “It was awful,” he told Rolling Stone.
14. Julia Roberts’s speech
Was this speech awful or adorable? The jury’s out, but it was certainly awkward: Roberts didn’t mention, let alone thank, Erin Brockovich, the self-taught lawyer who successfully took on the Pacific Gas & Electric Company in 1993, and inspired the film that Roberts won her Best Actress Oscar for. She almost got there, but shortly after saying, “I want to acknowledge so many people that made Erin Brockovich Erin Brockovich”, interrupted herself to “make [her] dress pretty”, which was obviously more important.
15. Goldie Hawn perks up slavery
Did Goldie Hawn really have to announce the title of the grim, gruelling Best Picture with such peppy enthusiasm in 2014? Her reading of “12 Years a ... Slave!”, delivered with that huge three-martini smile, made it sound like a Mel Brooks chucklefest, or the beginning of a Louis CK routine. Luckily, Steve McQueen was too busy jumping up and down to care.
16. The Worst Best Picture Winner on Earth
Cecil B DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth is considered one of the least worthy Best Picture winners, a verdict that was sealed on the night. In 1953, the awards were shown on TV through a dual telecast. Following Mary Pickford’s announcement, there was polite, if shocked, applause from the Californian crowd, but the New York audience were stunned into a silence so quiet that someone could be heard saying, “Who decides these things anyway?”
17. ‘Nobody said the children were really deaf’
In a fine example of how to jerk tears at the podium in a thoroughly non-awkward way, Louise Fletcher emotionally signed to her deaf parents during her Best Actress acceptance speech in 1976. The Academy were so taken with it, that they decided to bring back sign language for the next year’s ceremony.
Eleven young girls from the John Tracy Clinic for the Deaf, named after the deaf son of double Oscar winner Spencer Tracy, would join Debby Boone for her performance of Oscar-nominated song You Light Up My Life.
Problem was, the girls on stage weren’t deaf, fluent in sign language or even signing the same words. Viewers noticed this, forcing the Academy to fess up: they’d recruited a group of able-hearing students from the nearby school, but it was alright, a spokesperson said, “because nobody said the children were really deaf. And a doctor at the Tracy Clinic did recruit them”. Naturally, the Alliance for Deaf Artists was offended, along with a fair share of the viewers at home.
18. ‘Shame on you, Mr Bush!’
Your chances of taking an Oscar home are better if you make a film about politics: just look at the success of All The President’s Men and Lincoln. But should you want to bring the subject up at the awards themselves, you may have your gong swiped off you by an angry mob.
While Michael Moore gathered a few whoops of support at the start of his tirade against President Bush in 2003, they were soon drowned out by the mass booing of the star-studded audience. The orchestra started playing to signal Moore’s early exit, but the Best Documentary director carried on shouting, “Shame on you, Mr Bush!”, over and over again.
19. Angelina Jolie’s sibling snog
In some families – the Lannisters, for instance – it’s entirely acceptable to give your siblings a full, passionate, on-the-lips kiss. But Angelina Jolie’s display of affection for her brother James Haven at the 2000 Oscars certainly raised more than a few eyebrows at the time.
After winning the Best Supporting Actress Award for her role in Girl, Interrupted later that night, Ange successfully compounded any lingering awkwardness by declaring that she was “so in love” with Haven.
“I’m – I’m in shock. And I’m just so in love with my brother right now,” she gushed. “He just held me and said he loved me and I know he’s so happy for me.”
Both siblings later stated that the kiss and Jolie’s speech had been “misinterpreted”.
20. Kim Novak suffers from Vertigo
First she quit Hollywood and moved to the country; then she accused the makers of The Artist of “rape” after they appropriated the music from Vertigo; and she’s often described as a recluse. So it’s safe to say that Kim Novak was always going to be a wild card at the 2014 Oscars. The first shock was her face, bisected as it was by a Heath Ledger-esque Joker smile. Even more startling was her apparent lack of knowledge about how microphones work, leading co-presenter Matthew McConaughey to place a gentlemanly arm around her shoulder in a bid to pull her towards it. Once there, she talked over him, seemed a little addled, and generally behaved like a supremely ironic choice to present Best Animation.
21. Bob Hope’s outrage
During the Vietnam war, the actor and comedian Hope actively supported the US government, travelling to entertain the troops, and proudly declaring his support for both the military and the war itself. It therefore perhaps isn’t too surprising that Peter Davis’s 1974 film Hearts and Minds, a hard-hitting documentary about the propaganda techniques used during the conflict, isn’t all that kind about Hope.
When Hope presented the Academy Awards the following year, he probably wasn’t over the moon when Hearts and Minds claimed the prize for Best Documentary.
But when the film’s co-producer Bert Schneider collected the award, and decided to make the most from the opportunity by reading a politically charged “Greetings of Friendship to all American People” message from Viet Cong Ambassador Dinh Ba Thi, Hope clearly decided things had gone too far.
He asked his co-host Frank Sinatra to read out an apology to the audience, which read: “The Academy is saying, ‘We are not responsible for any political references made on the program, and we are sorry they had to take place this evening.’” The Academy, however, weren’t saying anything: the hastily drawn up message was entirely Hope’s work.
22. The Saving Private Ryan dance
Steven Spielberg’s blood-soaked, groundbreakingly real-seeming Second World War epic Saving Private Ryan managed to earn 11 nominations and five wins at the 71st Academy Awards in March 1999.
But, during the ceremony, the film also gained a more unlikely tribute: a gloriously pointless, and by all accounts bizarre choreographed dance number, set to the film’s Best Picture-nominated score. (The other nominated scores also got their own dance tributes during this segment, thanks to choreographer Debbie Allen.)
Sadly, the full dance isn’t available online.
Follow-up: A lot of you have asked so here is the Saving Private Ryan tap dance routine from the following year's Oscars. pic.twitter.com/9sPnX7ivib
— Ben Crew - Muppets Gatsby (@BenjaminCrew1) February 23, 2022
23. James Franco and Anne Hathaway’s frosty chemistry
At the 2011 ceremony, co-hosts Anne Hathaway and James Franco – ostensibly chosen to appeal to a younger demographic – managed to put countless Eurovision Song Contest hosts to shame after treating the audience to mis-timed jokes, a complete lack of rapport, and some decidedly uncomfortable “banter”.
Franco gave off a deliberately low-key, uninterested, “couldn’t care less if I’m here or not” kind of vibe. Opposite him, poor Hathaway appeared manically over-enthusiastic, and more than a touch desperate.
24. Julia Roberts mounts Denzel Washington
Yes, her again. “The Oscar goes to – I love my life! – Denzel Washington,” gushed an embarrassingly emotional Julia Roberts as she announced the Best Actor Winner at the 2002 Academy Awards.
Not content with her excessively enthusiastic intro, the actress later jumped on poor Washington, as he completed a (comparatively quite dignified) acceptance speech, throwing her arms around his neck, and forcing him to practically carry her off stage. (Skip to about three minutes in.)
25. ‘We saw your boobs’
Okay, so the notoriously non-PC Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane was never going to be a “safe” choice of host for the 2013 Academy Awards. But MacFarlane’s opening number – a song titled We Saw Your Boobs, in which he listed the films in which many of the attending actresses had appeared topless – managed to offend quite a lot of people, including many of the attending nominees.
26. Rob Lowe’s Snow White routine
The various performances and skits reeled out during the Oscars ceremonies don’t always quite hit the mark. But in 1989, things reached an all-time low (all-time Lowe?) after actor Rob Lowe took part in a spectacularly cringeworthy Snow White-inspired opening number.
The act (and Lowe’s terrible singing) attracted widespread derision, and later inspired an open letter from a number of Hollywood notables, including Julie Andrews, Paul Newman and Billy Wilder.
“The 61st Academy Awards show was an embarrassment to both the Academy and the entire motion picture industry,” it read. “It is neither fitting nor acceptable that the best work in motion pictures be acknowledged in such a demeaning fashion."
Allan Carr, the impressario behind Grease and Can't Stop the Music, was also responsible for producing the Oscars that year. He was reportedly shunned in industry restaurant Morton's the following day, and barely worked in Hollywood again.
27. Two sisters are nominated for Best Actress
In 1942, sibling rivalry reached its zenith when sisters Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland were both nominated for the Best Actress Award: Fontaine for Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion, and Havilland for the romantic drama Hold Back the Dawn.
The relationship between the sisters was not an easy one. Various biographers have claimed that the pair's rivalry began at a young age and stemmed from a difficult relationship with their mother, who allegedly favoured Olivia and insisted Joan take a different surname when she began acting. Later in life, the sisters went on to become estranged from one another.
While Fontaine triumphed in 1941, Havilland evened the score by winning her own Best Actress Oscar in 1946, for To Each His Own.
“It was a bittersweet moment,” Fontaine recalled, looking back at the 1941 ceremony. “I was appalled that I won over my sister.”
Later on, however, her attitude seems to have become less generous. “I married first, won the Oscar before Olivia did, and if I die first, she'll undoubtedly be livid because I beat her to it,” she told the Hollywood Reporter in 1978.
In the event, Fontaine did pass away first, in 2013; De Havilland followed her in 2020.
28. ‘Come on up and get it, Frank’
At the 1934 Academy Awards ceremony, in a gaffe that was beautifully reminiscent of the Male Model of the Year Awards at the beginning of Zoolander, the wrong person managed to head to the stage to collect an award.
Two directors named Frank (Frank Capra and Frank Lloyd) were nominated for Best Director – but Capra wasn’t properly listening to the announcement, and, upon hearing the presenter’s jubilant cry of “Come on up and get it, Frank!” assumed that he had won. The real winner, of course, was Frank Lloyd.
Upon realising this, Capra began what he later described as “the longest, saddest, most shattering walk of my life”.
“I wished I could have crawled under the rug like a miserable worm,” he lamented. “When I slumped in my chair I felt like one. All my friends at the table were crying.”