By Eric Henderson

This weekend, the Academy Awards held their honorary awards. Among those honored was French New Wave titan Jean-Luc Godard. That his career merits the attention is without question. Yet, controversy raged on over his citation over his perceived anti-Semitism. As the Associated Press wrote yesterday:

“Several governors of various academy branches spoke about the groundbreaking work of controversial filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, who did not attend Saturday’s ceremony. The French-born director has been the subject of media reports in recent weeks that suggest he is anti-Semitic, and the academy received some complaints about selecting him to receive an honorary Oscar, though many filmmakers, including Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese cite him as an inspiration.”

Is it possible to have an Academy Award year go by without some sort of controversy popping up? The answer is yes, but it’s a lot more fun when all hell breaks loose. Godard’s award is just a drop in the bucket of Oscar’s turbulent history. Here are some of the most notable Oscar controversies of all time.

1929: The first Academy Awards ceremony wasn’t given a whole lot of attention, compared to what the awards have become today. But by the second ceremony, the competitive heat was on. People suggested at the time that Mary Pickford’s win in the best actress category was a fix. That’s because her husband was Douglas Fairbanks, president of the Academy. In fact, the first few decades of the Oscars were actually riddled with studio bloc voting and strong-arm campaigning the likes of which would seem litigious in the Price-Waterhouse era.

1970: When George C. Scott was nominated for his performance in Patton, he told the board of directors in no uncertain terms that he would not be attending and would, in fact, refuse the award should it be voted into his hands. Nonetheless, Patton was a huge hit, his performance was universally acclaimed, and his weak competition did little to chip away at his inevitable win. Goldie Hawn was left to open the envelope.

1972: If Scott’s refusal fired upon Oscar’s Fort Sumpter, Marlon Brando‘s win two years later for his performance as The Godfather‘s Vito Corleone became the Academy Awards’ own little Gettysburg. Brando’s name was called out, but it was Sacheen Littlefeather who stepped onto the stage to browbeat the Academy with Brando’s 15-page rejection letter. Littlefeather represented American Indians, who Brando claimed were frequently mistreated by the film industry (hence his protest), though it was later discovered she was actually an actress named Maria Cruz.

1974: Hollywood’s old and new guards were at war (literally) following Peter Davis‘s win in the best documentary category. His film, Hearts & Minds, plunged deep into the nation’s divide over the Vietnam War. In his speech, he read a telegram from the Viet Cong delegation to the Paris Peace Accords, which thanked anti-war activists. (This just three years after Jane Fonda herself refused to comment when winning her award for Klute.) Backstage, host Bob Hope flipped out. Amid protest from co-host Shirley MacLaine, Hope forced Frank Sinatra to read a disclaimer on the air absolving the Academy of all responsibility for political content.

1977: It seems as though the ’70s was Oscar’s heyday for controversy. The decade reached its heated peak with Vanessa Redgrave‘s acceptance speech. Though she won best supporting actress for her performance in Julia, it was her participation in a documentary supporting Palestinians that roused furor. As the Jewish Defense League burned her in effigy outside the auditorium, she thanked the Academy for standing up against “a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums, whose behavior is an insult to the stature of Jews all over the world, and to their great and heroic record of struggle against fascism and oppression.” Chaos. Boos. Shock. Screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky emerged later on that evening to opine, “I’m sick and tired of people exploiting the Academy Awards for the propagation of their own personal propaganda.”

1992: Here’s a controversy that lives on though there’s apparently no truth to it. Marisa Tomei‘s best supporting actress win for My Cousin Vinny was thought unlikely enough against Judy Davis in Husbands & Wives and (oh, look who it is) Vanessa Redgrave in Howards End, that it was presumed presenter Jack Palance simply misread the winner from the back of the envelope, instead of from the contents. Price-Waterhouse have repeatedly denied the rumor, but some to this day think Tomei’s win is fraudulent.

1998: When accused Communist sympathizer Charlie Chaplin was welcomed back into Hollywood in 1971 to accept an honorary award decades after the era of Joseph McCarthy, he was embraced with open arms. When Elia Kazan — who named names and (some say) indirectly brought about the end of many talented people’s careers — was brought to the stage almost 30 years later, he was met with some applause, but also some very pointed silence from a number of members in the audience.

2002: Tensions were extremely high at the 2002 Oscars (which took place on March 23, 2003). That’s because the U.S. invasion of Iraq had just begun. Michael Moore, as predicted, won an Oscar for Bowling for Columbine. And Moore, as predicted, launched into a tirade against President Bush. He arranged for the filmmakers of the other four nominated documentary to stand in solidarity, but some appeared taken aback by the vehemence of the booing that resulted.

2005: Almost everyone predicted Ang Lee’s gay cowboy romance Brokeback Mountain to win best picture. Even Jack Nicholson seemed shocked when he read the winning film’s title: Crash. In the upset’s aftermath, some activists tried to pin the win on institutionalized homophobia, citing interview snippets from the naysaying likes of Ernest Borgnine and Tony Curtis.

Too many years to cite just one: The nominations for the best foreign film and best documentary categories are decided by committee, and it seems not a year can go by without those separate committees once again embarrassing the Academy by ignoring some of the most high-profile, most well-reviewed films of the year. Sometimes the oversight comes about due to the arcane nomination requirements (such as those barring essentially “international” productions from participation alongside the more “purebred” foreign movies). Other times it seems due to collective stupidity, as when Hoop Dreams failed to win a nomination in 1994.

Eric Henderson is a web producer and film blogger for WCCO.COM.

Eric Henderson

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