Posted by Susan Doll on February 16, 2015
Movie lovers anxiously await the 87th Academy Awards next Sunday, February 22, though many of us have grown profoundly disappointed in the changes in the show over the last few years. In 2009, the Academy decided to drop the on-air tributes to those who were awarded honorary Oscars; around the same time, the show’s producers and/or directors chose to eliminate the compilations of clips of classic films that used to mark each ceremony. Both decisions were short-sighted, robbing the Academy of an opportunity to teach young generations about the great films of the past. If the Academy is so interested in preservation and education, then they should model that behavior during this high-profile event.
The rationale or excuses given for such decisions usually revolve around “streamlining” the show so it doesn’t exceed its running time, though cutting out the mediocre production numbers performed by the latest pop sensations might accomplish that more effectively. Concerns about the program running over its allotted time slot have always plagued the awards show—except for one year. I was thinking about that offbeat year as I looked over TCM’s schedule this week. This evening, as part of the “31 Days of Oscar,” TCM is airing Oscar-nominated films from 1958. The awards for the 1958 films were presented on April 9, 1959, at the RKO Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, and the television broadcast was produced by Jerry Wald. Six stars hosted that evening, including Bob Hope, David Niven, Tony Randall, Mort Sahl, Laurence Olivier, and Jerry Lewis. By the time it was Randall’s turn to host his section of the program, Wald asked him to skip his jokes and move the show along as quickly as he could. Later, Maurice Chevalier was cut off after Rosalind Russell handed him his honorary Oscar so that a chorus of young girls could race through, “We’re Glad You’re Not Young Anymore.” Anthony Franciosa, Robert Wagner, and Rock Hudson were supposed to sing a response to the girls, but Wald decided to cut the number. After all of the awards had been given out, Mitzi Gaynor closed the show with “There’s No Business Like Show Business”—except it wasn’t the end of the show. Wald had rushed the proceedings so much that there were 20 minutes of air time left.
Wald signaled the news to Jerry Lewis, the evening’s last host, who yelled, “Another 20 minutes.” Onstage behind Gaynor were all of the evening’s winners and presenters. The group stood there in shock while Lionel Newman and his orchestra continued to play. A few stars began to dance: Cary Grant took Ingrid Bergman by the hand; Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner joined in; Bob Hope twirled Zsa Zsa Gabor across the stage. Dean Martin grabbed Sophia Loren and waltzed by the podium where he snatched an Oscar. Lewis ad-libbed: “And they said Dean and I wouldn’t be on the same stage again,” with Martin responding, “He needs me.”
Lewis continued to toss out quips and jokes before asking Lionel Newman for his baton. He faked his way through leading the orchestra in a kind of dry run for the conducting scene in The Bellboy. By the time the dancing stars grew weary of the commotion and disappeared, the comedian was in full Lewis frenzy. He picked up a trumpet and began blaring sour notes. At that point, NBC discontinued the broadcast and ran a short film about pistols. Later, Bob Hope quipped, “They timed this thing with a sundial.”
Television broadcast aside, the 1958 Academy Awards were memorable for other reasons. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was one of that year’s most talked about films, primarily because of the personal life of Elizabeth Taylor. Just after production began, Taylor’s husband Mike Todd was killed in a plane crash; by the time the film was released in September, she was dating Debbie Reynolds’s husband, Eddie Fisher. Within the span of one film’s production, she went from grieving widow to home-wrecker. The entertainment press, who had gotten a lot of mileage out of Taylor the widow, were beside themselves with Taylor the husband-stealer. Hedda Hopper claimed the attraction was based only on sex and would never last, while entertainment columnist Mike Connolly claimed Taylor threw a party for Fisher and called it a “You Can All Go to Hell Party.” After she was nominated as Best Actress, he declared that giving Liz the Oscar was simply out of the question. Hedda and Mike must have had the inside track, because Eddie and Liz were over as soon as she saw Richard Burton on the set of Cleopatra. And, she lost the Best Actress race to Susan Hayward who won for I Want to Live. Set your DV-R for 3:00am tonight to catch Taylor in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and judge for yourself whether she was snubbed.
The winner for Best Picture was not one of the heavy dramas that dominated theaters that year. Instead Arthur Freed’s lumbering musical Gigi beat out Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Separate Tables, and The Defiant Ones. Campaigning and strategizing have always been a part of the Oscar race, and MGM’s calculated handling of Gigi’s release may have had something to do with its high profile. The studio opened the film at the Royale—a legitimate Broadway theater. It ran for six months before moving on to regular movie theaters. However, its efforts to secure costar Maurice Chevalier an Oscar nom for Best Supporting Actor backfired. Chevalier was assured by MGM that a nomination was inevitable after he won a Golden Globe, but Academy voters didn’t agree. Don’t be too sad for his loss, however, because he was given an Honorary Oscar. You can revisit Chevalier’s performance tonight when Gigi airs on TCM at 8:00pm. Lee J. Cobb did receive a nomination for Best Supporting Actor for The Brothers Karamazov, which airs at 5:00am, though he lost to Burl Ives, who won for his performance as Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof for those keeping score.
Ives was a well-known folksinger who had been briefly blacklisted before agreeing to testify for HUAC. Though his decision estranged him from the folk-singing circle, he was able to pursue an acting career. Ives was not the only folk singer in contention as Best Supporting Actor. Theodore Bikel, who played a sheriff in The Defiant Ones, was also nominated. Whether the entertainment press thought folk singing a low pursuit, or whether its association with liberal politics (communism) tainted the press’s opinion, columnists repeatedly cracked jokes or made snide comments. Mike Connelly felt there should be “less folksongs and more gams” in the 1958 Oscar race, while Sidney Skolsky noted, “Bikel would win in a cinch if beatniks voted.”
The blacklist was still an issue in Hollywood in 1958, and it came out of the shadows when The Defiant Ones was nominated for original screenplay. One of the cowriters was Nathan E. Douglas, a pseudonym for blacklisted writer Ned Young. Academy rules stated that no admitted communists could be listed on an Oscar ballot, and that included anyone who refused to appear before HUAC. However, industry pressure persuaded the Academy to revoke the law. Young won but not under his real name; at least his pseudonym was declared a winner. The win prompted Hedda Hopper to rant, “Since our Academy now makes it legal for Commie writers to receive Oscars, some past winners, who are as bitter about this as I, tell me they’ll return theirs.” Of course, no one did.
The 1958 Academy Awards season and broadcast was marked by salacious scandals, commie-fearing columnists, panicky producers, and a jacked-up Jerry Lewis . . . and, yet, how truly entertaining it must have been compared to recent Oscar seasons and broadcasts.
“It’s the Oscars.” Parade Magazine. February 26, 2012.
Matthews, Charles. Oscar A to Z: A Complete Guide to More than 2,400 Movies Nominated for Academy Awards. New York: Doubleday, 1995.
Wiley, Mason and Damien Bona. Inside Oscar: The Unofficial History of the Academy Awards, 10th ed. New York, Ballantine Books, 1996.
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