The 91st Oscars will take place this Sunday, February 24, and the path to get this show on the road has been...controversial. From last August's announcement and subsequent recusal of the Best Popular Film award, to the proposal of presenting certain awards during commercial breaks and trying to make it so only two of the five Best Original Song nominees would be performed (a blatant ratings ploy), it's been a lot. But nothing has been a bigger controversy than the selection of host for the 2019 Oscars. (opens in new tab)
To put it simply, Kevin Hart was invited and accepted the gig, then withdrew after past jokes and comments made by Hart were found to contain anti-gay slurs and language. Then, after a lot of hemming and hawing, the Academy announced on January 9 that the show would go forward for the first time in 30 years without a host.
Before the 1989 Academy Awards, there have been plenty of host-free Oscars, including the 41st, 42nd, and 43rd Academy Awards. But there hasn't been an Oscars without a host since 1989, and for good reason.
Because honey, it was a disaster.
The 1989 Oscars are considered to be the worst Oscars ever, and to quote Stefan on Saturday Night Live, the show had it all: No host, Rob Lowe and Snow White singing a Tina Turner song modified to be film-related, Lucille Ball, and Merv Griffin singing ‘I’ve Got A Lovely Bunch Of Coconuts’ in a faux Cockney accent. It feels like a fever dream, and was so bad it destroyed the career of producer Allan Carr. No one remembers the 1989 Oscars as the year Jodie Foster won her first Oscar, or the year the verbiage changed from “and the winner is…” to “and the Oscar goes to…”.
Nope, it's forever known as the Oscars where Rob Lowe sang with Snow White for over 10 minutes.
Please, join me in viewing the cringe:
If you're still with me, and didn't close the tab in a white hot rage, I'll try to explain how this happened.
Producer Allan Carr—who we can also thank for Grease and its even better sequel, Grease 2—got his dream job in producing the Oscars, and went above and beyond in terms of the production. Carr was known for throwing massive elaborate parties, and wanted his Oscars to have the same effect. He wanted it to be the most phenomenal, extravagant Oscars ever. He had tulips flown in from the Netherlands, and the green room for Oscar presenters, performers, and winners to gather backstage was transformed into "Club Oscar", a luxurious suite. Instead of an emcee for the evening, the show relied on presenters connected in pairs, calling the night's theme "couples, costars, companions and compadres" while gathering celebrities like then-couple Demi Moore and Bruce Willis and James Bonds Michael Caine, Sean Connery, and Roger Moore to present awards that evening.
The plan was to kick off the lavish affair with a big, bold number. Carr called on Steve Silver, creator of campy musical revue "Beach Blanket Babylon" to write an opening number that would take the audience through a tour of Hollywood history lead by Snow White.
What came to be was this: 22-year-old Eileen Bowman giving an ear-piercingly high performance as Snow White alongside a pre-sex-tape-scandal 24-year-old Rob Lowe, as they, uh, "sang" a re-worked version of Tina Turner's "Proud Mary." This was only one part of the 12-minute opener, which, as previously mentioned, featured Merv Griffin singing "I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts," whilst legendary Hollywood stars like Vincent Price and Dorothy Lamour suffered while smiling on the stage of the Shrine theatre.
“His mistake was having that first number go on for so long,” said Gil Cates, the late producer who would later produce 14 Oscar shows after Carr, to The Wrap. (opens in new tab) “When you see something that doesn’t work, by four minutes it’s terrible, by five minutes it’s outrageous, by eight minutes it’s the kiss of death and by 12 minutes it’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen in your life.”
Lowe reflected on the moment he knew it had all turned against him—when famed director Barry Levinson showed his clear disgust—in a conversation with the New York Times (opens in new tab): “I could see him very clearly pop-eyed and mouthing, ‘What the [expletive]?’” Lowe recalled. “But to be a successful actor, you have to have a big dollop of self-denial, so I managed to convince myself that I’d killed it.”
Bowman, on the other hand, claimed to be delivered a gag order the next morning forbidding her for speaking about the engagement for 13 years, and later described the performance (opens in new tab) better than I ever could: "The show itself looked like a gay bar mitzvah. Middle America must have been like: 'What is going on? There are dancing tables, there's Snow White singing with Rob Lowe, there's Merv Griffin with people with coconuts on their head!'"
It was terrible, but it wasn't over. Later on in the show, Hollywood legends Walter Matthau, Bob Hope, and Lucille Ball (in her final public appearance, she'd pass away about a month later) introduced “The Stars Of Tomorrow,” singing a song called “I Wanna Be an Oscar Winner.”
None of the people involved—Corey Feldman, Ricki Lake, Patrick Dempsey, Christian Slater, amongst many forgotten others—have won an Oscar.
It's a ten-minute musical number that involves a tap-dancing Dempsey, Feldman doing his best Michael Jackson impression, and Blair Underwood and Joely Fisher looking like they're hoping the ground will swallow them whole. Lucille Ball deserves better. So does Blair Underwood.
The show, as a whole, was panned across the board. Critics hated it, and it was so terrible that according to the BBC (opens in new tab), 17 people involved in Hollywood—including Julie Andrews, Paul Newman, and Billy Wilder–signed an open letter deriding the event, calling it “an embarrassment to both the Academy and the entire motion picture industry.” Gregory Peck even threatened to return his Oscars if Carr was involved in any further productions. It also turned out that no one had gained permission for the use of Snow White's likeness, and the Walt Disney Company sued the Academy for copyright infringement (though the suit was dropped 11 days later after a formal and public apology.)
Allan Carr found himself shunned by Hollywood, and spent the next decade in relative seclusion until his death from liver cancer in 1999. A panel was convened to figure out what went wrong, and decided that the biggest mistake was the length of the opening number, but they also agreed to pay the producer of The Oscars (up until then, it was an unpaid gig), using single presenters, relying on film clips over big production moments, and, well, having a host. The next decade rotated Whoopi Goldberg, David Letterman, and Billy Crystal as emcees of the biggest night in Hollywood.
Don't shoot the messenger—this year's host-less Oscars will have to be really terrible to beat the memory of this one.
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Amanda Mitchell is a writer and podcaster with bylines at Marie Claire, OprahMag, Allure, Byrdie, Stylecaster, Bon Appetit, and more. Her work exists at the apex of beauty, pop culture, and absurdity. A human Funfetti cake, she watches too much television, and her favorite season is awards season. You can read more of her work at amandaelizabethmitchell.com or follow her on Instagram and Twitter @lochnessmanda.
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