What comes to mind when you think of the most controversial Oscars moment? Is it the infamous Will Smith slap in 2022 or the Björk egg stint that happened at the 2001 Oscars red carpet? Well, the Academy Awards’ 95-year history is beset with an array of controversy, proving that A-list celebrities have never failed to stir tension or turn heads in some way at Hollywood’s most prestigious awards night.
Since the inception of the first Oscars on 16 May 1929 at the Hollywood Roosevelt hotel, the award ceremonies have been one of the most talked-about international events. And, as per the official website, new rules are implemented every year to maintain a high degree of fairness and transparency while conducting the awards competition. However, the Academy is yet to find a way to cease the commotion created by celebrity guests every season.
Be it The Pianist (2002) actor Adrien Brody non-consensually kissing Best Actor presenter Halle Berry during the 2003 Oscars or actor Sacha Baron Cohen arriving at the 2012 Oscars, holding the ashes of the late North Korean supreme leader, Kim Jong-il, these ‘what happened at the Oscars’ stories have time and again stirred curiosity and controversy worldwide.
Here are 15 of the most controversial moments from the Oscars
When Will Smith slapped Chris Rock
Will Smith slapping famous comedian Chris Rock during the 94th Academy Awards is considered one of the most controversial moments in the history of award ceremonies.
The incident involves Smith storming the 2022 Oscars stage to slap presenter Rock after the latter joked about Smith’s wife Jada Pinkett Smith and her shaved head. Although the ceremony didn’t revoke Smith’s Best Actor nomination and eventual win for his performance in King Richard (2021), that night, he was later issued with a ten-year ban from attending any Academy event.
Smith, who publicly accepted his mistake and profusely repented his actions, was seen sending out multiple apologies to Rock after the incident. This was followed by a final one in the form of a video called “It’s been a minute,” which was released on Smith’s official YouTube channel on 29 July 2022.
On 4 March 2023, Rock, too, addressed the incident on his Netflix live stand-up show, Selective Outrage, and said, “Everybody knows, yes it happened, I got slapped a year ago – I got smacked by this motherf****r. And people are like, ‘Did it hurt?’ It still hurts. I’ve got Summertime ringing in my ears.”
Daniel Kaluuya shares his parents’ sex life on stage
While accepting the Best Supporting Actor award for his role in Judas and the Black Messiah (2021), Kaluuya gave one of the most surprising Oscar speeches, by sharing how happy he was to be alive and said, “My mom, my dad, they had sex. It’s amazing. And that’s why I’m here.” He even managed to get a priceless reaction from his mother and sister in the audience.
The envelope goof-up
Popularly known across the internet as #envelopegate, this controversy involves a careless envelope goof-up by Oscars presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, who mistakenly presented La La Land (2016) and its producers with the Best Picture award during the 2017 ceremony. It was only when the team members were midway through their acceptance speeches that the presenters realised they had the wrong envelope. The actual winner was Moonlight (2016), and Jordan Horowitz, one of the producers of La La Land, displayed extreme humbleness by stating that he was proud to hand over the award to team Moonlight.
The #OscarsSoWhite campaign
After all 20 Academy Awards nominations went to white actors for the second year in a row in 2016, the diversity snub led to a boycott that kicked off the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, which was made popular by the BroadwayBlack.com managing editor, April Reign, in 2015. The viral outrage eventually led to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences diversifying its Academy members in a statement and pledging to “commit to doubling the number of women and diverse members of the Academy by 2020.”
At the ceremony, host Chris Rock highlighted the issue with subtle humour during his opening monologue and said, “Well I’m here at the Academy Awards, otherwise known as the white people’s choice awards.”
Sacha Baron Cohen’s red carpet arrival with ‘ashes’
British actor Sacha Baron Cohen isn’t stranger to being controversial, and so it’s little surprise that his promotional stint of The Dictator (2012) during the 84th Academy Awards ceremony will always go down in history as one of the most daring moves in Oscars history.
Cohen walked the red carpet in his Middle-Eastern leader look from the film with a container in his hand. Claiming to carry the ashes of the late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, the actor openly showed the face of the leader that was displayed on the container.
Homophobia spotted during the 2006 Oscars
One of the highest-grossing gay romance films of all time, Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005) was largely expected to win Best Picture at the 2006 Oscars. However, when Paul Haggis’s film Crash (2004), which didn’t even manage a Golden Globe nomination, won the Best Picture award that year, it upset numerous critics who felt that Brokeback Mountain was snubbed because the movie portrayed gay cowboys. The Academy was eventually accused of being homophobic.
Adrien Brody kisses Halle Berry
This iconic 2003 Oscar controversy involves American actor Adrien Nicholas Brody, who after receiving his Best Actor win for The Pianist (2002), surprised presenter Halle Berry by kissing her straight on the mouth.
Berry later revealed in one of her Watch What Happens Live interviews that the kiss wasn’t planned at all. “I knew nothing about it,” she said. Meanwhile, Brody received extensive criticism for the non-consensual stint on stage.
When Björk laid eggs on the red carpet
If there’s any eccentric celebrity fashion moment that can match Lady Gaga’s appearance in the iconic meat dress for the 2010 MTV Music Video Awards, it’s Icelandic star Björk’s egg-laying stint at the 2001 Oscars red carpet.
Wearing a white swan-like Marjan Pejoski dress, the star freaked everyone out when she started laying not one but six eggs on the red carpet.
BBC reports that Björk later amusingly recalled the incident in an interview and said, “Other people’s bodyguards kept picking them up and saying in their thick American accents, ‘Scuse me, ma’am, you dropped this.”
Angelina Jolie’s unusual brotherly love
American actor and filmmaker Angelina Jolie shocked fans after being photographed with her brother in an unusually close lip-lock during the 72nd Academy Awards, making it easily one of the most controversial Oscars moments in history.
Additionally, even her acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actress for Girl, Interrupted (1999) during the ceremony was termed weird after the actor went ahead to say, “I’m in shock and I’m so in love with my brother right now.”
Shakespeare In Love over Saving Private Ryan?
John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love (1998) being chosen over Steven Spielberg’s critically acclaimed war drama, Saving Private Ryan (1998), for Best Picture at the 1999 Oscars, is still considered one of the most controversial snubs in the history of the Academy Awards.
The 11-time Oscar nominee Saving Private Ryan was the frontrunner in the Best Picture category, and Shakespeare in Love surprisingly winning over Spielberg’s film left the industry and fans in shock.
Tomei’s doubtful win
When American actor Marisa Tomei won the 1993 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role in the comedy, My Cousin Vinny (1992), over other Oscar nominees such as Judy Davis, Vanessa Redgrave and Miranda Richardson, a few in the audience grew doubtful and even went ahead to believe that the teleprompter had made a blunder in reading Tomei’s name.
However, the Academy’s official video of the announcement and the Oscar winners list later made her win clear.
Streaker appearance at the 1974 Oscars
The 1974 Oscars stage limelight being stolen by gay rights activist Robert Opel – with his completely naked appearance during host David Niven’s speech about the Best Picture category – will never be forgotten as one of the most controversial moments in history.
The host, however, dealt sportingly with the situation and even made the audiences break into a laughter fit by saying, “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?”
Marlon Brando’s award refusal
What happened at the Oscars in 1973, made the 45th annual Academy Awards go down as one of the most controversial award seasons in history. Well, it all started with Marlon Brando refusing to accept the Best Actor win for his iconic portrayal of Vito Corleone in The Godfather (1972).
The American actor who was then boycotting the film industry in protest of Hollywood’s portrayal of American Indians, instead asked activist Sacheen Littlefeather to take to the stage on his behalf, and reject the award presented by actor Roger Moore and film director Liv Ullmann.
Stating Brando’s reasons for refusing to accept the award, Littlefeather said, “And the reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry and on television in movie reruns, and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee. I beg at this time that I have not intruded upon this evening, and that we will in the future, our hearts and our understandings will meet with love and generosity. Thank you on behalf of Marlon Brando.”
Barbra Streisand and Katharine Hepburn’s tie
During the 1969 Oscars, Barbara Streisand and Katherine Hepburn tied for Best Actress for their respective films, Funny Girl (1968) and The Lion in Winter (1968). What made the moment unique was the veteran celebrity, Hepburn, receiving the same number of votes (3,030) as newcomer Streisand.
Since the four-time Best Actress winner, for whom awards were meaningless, didn’t attend the ceremony, Streisand missed her chance to share the moment with the legendary star.
Racist behaviour towards Hattie McDaniel
If you ever wondered about one of the very first controversies that happened at the Oscars, you must know that it was African-American movie star Hattie McDaniel’s 1940 win for Best Supporting Actress in Gone With The Wind (1939).
Hattie was the first Academy Award winner of colour. However, after she concluded her speech by saying, “my heart is too full to tell you just how I feel. And may I say thank you, and god bless you,” the star was unfortunately escorted to sit at a table at the back of the room in the Ambassador Hotel in Las Vegas, as the venue followed a strict policy based on segregation.
Not just that, her award, which she left to Howard University in her will, went missing later.
(Main and featured image: Courtesy Myung Chun/Los Angeles Times/Getty)
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Question: What controversies happened at the Oscars in 2022?
Answer: Oscars 2022 was loaded with multiple controversies. The most prominent one was Will Smith storming the stage and slapping presenter Chris Rock after the comedian made a jab about Smith’s wife. Other controversies include the elimination of eight of the total 23 categories from the main Oscars ceremony, the first-ever and not-so-transparent Twitter voting poll, and the complex COVID-19 rules.
Question: What is the story behind the Oscars?
Answer: After the inception of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1927, a dinner held in the Crystal Ballroom of the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles was what led to the final decision for the incorporation of the goals of the new organisation. Of all the goals, one focused on honouring outstanding film achievements. Through this, the Academy aimed to encourage the highest quality in all spheres of motion picture production. And that’s how Academy Awards came into existence. The very first one was held on 16 May 1929, at the Hollywood Roosevelt hotel.
A PhD research scholar, Sushmita is a full-time writer and a part time poet. Clashing and colliding with words since childhood, there was nothing better than writing she could do to make a living. Notepads are Sushmita’s one true love — the unbothered victims drowned in the ink of her pen. An avid fan of K-pop and K-dramas, she mostly writes about Korean culture and entertainment. When not writing, Sushmita is dancing, reading, collecting books, learning about fashion, art, motion pictures, and appreciating BTS.
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