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January 18th, 2007


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08:17 am - in which Hollywood forgets to respect its elders
If you feel as if you have been especially bad in the past few days and need some true punishment, I have just the YouTube clip for you. But it's really bad. There are levels of bad in the clip so high they are almost incalculable by modern methods. It's so bad, I have to put it in its own special Badness Box so that it doesn't inadvertently escape and harm us all. Here it is:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MC6Teda0y8A

What particular clip could be so bad that I cannot stop but instead can only hope to contain? Why, it's the infamous opening number to the 1989 Academy Awards featuring an actress dressed up as Snow White and "her blind date for the evening", an embarrassed-looking Rob Lowe (who had already been the subject of another embarrassing video appearance several months earlier. Hope he didn't think this was going to be a career turner-arounder.) I don't like using the phrase "shocked and appalled" unless I'm using it derisively, but honestly, this time around, I was completely appalled by what I saw.

Not by the hokey staging (dancing "stars", for one.) Not by the embarrassing song rewrites that would make even the hackiest filker wince. Not by the cringe-inducing singing voice of the actress playing Snow White (listen to her totally miss the high note at the end of her version of "I Only Have Eyes For You") and definitely not by Merv Griffin's singing turn, because honestly, Merv Griffin is THE MAN. If this had been all the number featured, honestly, I could view it as a silly, stupid campy romp.

But the gist of the number is that Snow White, after spending "so many years away from Hollywood" (what) returns just in time for a big dance number set in LA's famous Coconut Grove nightclub -- not Boston's "Cocoanut Grove", which suffered a true tragedy so I won't make any comparison jokes here. Anyway, Snow's return to the Coconut Grove (and they all call her "Snow", which, had she been running around a few miles south of the Dorothy Chandler pavilion, would've meant another thing entirely) was heralded by a host of famous faces from Hollywood's past. Merv introduces each one as they went by: Alice Faye! The lovely Dorothy Lamour! Vincent Price! Cowboy legends Roy Rogers and Dale Evans! The talented Cyd Charisse!... poor Lamour looked especially frail as she passed by, supported on either side by two dancers. Now this is where I felt completely awful. I felt so awful for these celebrities, once the Toast of Hollywood, now being trotted out in front of an audience during the number which would eventually be producer Allan Carr's downfall. The Academy Awards had sunk to a new low, and it had the terrible audacity to drag down some very classy people with it. It wasn't always like that, though.

See, let me tell you a story about Susan Hayward.

Hayward was an actress in the 40s and 50s, playing roles in such films as Reap the Wild Wind, My Foolish Heart and I Want To Live!, the last of which won her a Best Actress Oscar in 1958. However, Susan also worked on 1956's The Conqueror, a big-budget flopperoo historical epic (inexplicably starring John Wayne as Genghis Khan) that could quite possibly be the deadliest movie ever filmed. A lot of its exterior desert shots were done on location in Snow Canyon, Utah. Unfortunately, Snow Canyon was downwind of the Yucca Flats atomic bomb testing facility in Nevada, and as a result had been saturated with fallout. The cast and crew all worked on this highly radioactive ground for about 13 weeks and if that weren't enough, when they returned to Hollywood for retakes, approximately 60 tons of this radioactive dirt were shipped back as well to match the set. (Howard Hughes, the executive producer, made the decision to ship the dirt back, and was so guilt-ridden by the decision that he tried to buy up all the prints and suppress them.)

In 1981, when People Magazine did a special report on the problems of this production, they reported that approximately 91 out of 220 cast and crew had contracted cancer, including John Wayne, Agnes Moorehead, Dick Powell, Pedro Armendiaz (who actually killed himself when he learned of his terminal condition) and Susan Hayward herself.

Hayward presented the Best Actress Oscar in 1974. It is customary to send presenter invitations to past Oscar winners, and while Hayward had been perfunctorily invited for the 1974 ceremonies, nobody had expected her to accept. At this stage of her illness the cancer had ravaged her terribly. She was frail, withered, in constant pain and unable to stand for long periods of time, and her beautiful red hair had all but fallen out due to intense chemotherapy treatments. She was only fifty-five years old, but looked and felt much, much older. Nevertheless, she gracefully accepted the invitation and said she had every intention of presenting the award.

In preparation, she had a beautiful new dress designed for her with a special handkerchief-like accoutrement to cover her withered and useless left hand. She had a new wig made, specially colored to match her original hair. Waiting in the wings at the actual ceremony, she sat in her wheelchair, with her doctor standing by, until it was time for her to present. She was given a large dose of Dopamine at the very last second and then, tenatively clutching the arm of co-presenter and friend Charlton Heston (who tenderly whispered "Steady on, old girl" as he escorted her) stepped out onto the stage to a standing ovation. She presented the award as gracefully as she could, walked back offstage with Heston, then collapsed in her wheelchair and later said "That's the last time I'll ever do that." She lived for just about a year more, dying in March of 1975.

This is one of the classic Academy Awards stories, and I do admit it chokes me up a little every time I think of it. Susan Hayward enjoyed one last ovation. One last chance to shine with grace in front of the town which had given her so much love in the past.

So to watch the 1989 opening number and see Vincent Price, Dorothy Lamour, Alice Faye and the others being trotted out and paraded around while an insipid faux Snow White screeched out tunes, well, that just made me feel terrible. The 1970s are sometimes considered the Decade That Taste Forgot, but in this instance, the late 80s trumped them and trumped them hard. The Coconut Grove number wouldn't be the last public appearance for any of these celebrities, but it was their last Oscar appearance until their inevitable turn in the yearly "In Memoriam" segment. (Except for Cyd Charisse, who is still with us.) They all deserved a much better send-off, and that's why I had to stop watching that godawful musical number just as Snow White started singing a song to the tune of "Proud Mary" with Rob Lowe. I do realize I missed a classic moment where Lily Tomlin makes her entrance just as a dancer loses his shoe, and while Tomlin does her thing the dancer crawls over to retrieve it and flings it away. I'd love to see that part, but I just couldn't continue watching. It was that bad. Disney attempted to sue the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for using their Snow White likeness without permission (relenting once the Academy apologized) but I think the rest of us should've sued as well for mental anguish.

Additionally: The 1989 Academy Awards ceremony was the first where the line "And the winner is..." was replaced, per order of Allan Carr, with "And the Oscar goes to..." This "it's better because everybody's a winner" type of attitude didn't sit well with a lot of folks, and Allan Carr kept a list of presenters who accidentally on purpose forgot to use the new phrase, with the intention that they would be barred from future presentations. Ironically, due in part to the horrible opening dance number, it'd be Carr himself who wouldn't be invited back to the show. And now you know the rest... of the story. This is Spatch Harvey... good day!

(23 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


[User Picture]
From:ron_newman
Date:January 18th, 2007 03:04 pm (UTC)
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so what became of the lady who played Snow White?
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From:derspatchel
Date:January 18th, 2007 03:13 pm (UTC)
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Not a whole lot. Her last on-screen appearance was in 1996, as "Valet" in the USA Network's vaguely-smutty "Silk Stalkings" series.
[User Picture]
From:ron_newman
Date:January 18th, 2007 03:20 pm (UTC)
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Thanks, now I have her name. So, she somehow reinvented herself as ... a cabaret singer ??
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From:pecosy
Date:January 18th, 2007 11:32 pm (UTC)
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She was always a cabaret singer. The whole number is based on the still-running San Francisco revue Beach Blanket Babylon. BBB is one hell of a great cabaret show that did not translate well here AT ALL. Onstage it's a fun show that sparkles with great singers, playful satire and impossibly large hats. Somehow it got turned into a train wreck of an opening number. Page two of this LA Times article sheds some light on the disastrous opening number as well as the entire production.
[User Picture]
From:ron_newman
Date:January 18th, 2007 11:35 pm (UTC)
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I clicked on your link, but don't see any page 2 or reference to the LA Times.
[User Picture]
From:pecosy
Date:January 18th, 2007 11:38 pm (UTC)
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Sorry, I pasted the first link again instead of this one.

Also forgot to add that I recognized the amazing Val Diamond, who is still performing with BBB, as the tiki-drink-hatted singer, so I'm guessing Ms. Bowman was playing Snow White onstage at the time of this unfortunate broadcast.
(Deleted comment)
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From:derspatchel
Date:January 18th, 2007 03:38 pm (UTC)
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I can't remember actually watching the number on TV -- perhaps I blocked it out -- but I do remember discussing it on the school bus the next day.

I bet Susan Hayward's presentation is on YouTube somewhere, but I didn't find it last night after a cursory search. Then again, YouTube's search stinks on ice, so I'll have to check again later. I saw the clip once in one of those Oscar Retrospective specials years ago (along with the streaker and David Niven's "To think he decided to show the world his shortcomings" riposte) but haven't since and I'd like to.
(Deleted comment)
From:dcart
Date:January 18th, 2007 06:09 pm (UTC)
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Damn you, Don.
From:dcart
Date:January 18th, 2007 06:13 pm (UTC)
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er, um
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From:campion7
Date:January 18th, 2007 03:39 pm (UTC)
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I am utterly convinced that Hollywood has no class anymore. All you need to do is compare actors like Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn to Vin Diesel and Lindsey Lohan (Notice I did not give them the honor of calling them actors.) and you'll see what I'm talking about.
[User Picture]
From:ron_newman
Date:January 18th, 2007 03:41 pm (UTC)
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are we comparing actors of the same age, though?
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From:derspatchel
Date:January 18th, 2007 03:53 pm (UTC)
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And, to be fair, both Grant and Hepburn had their fair share of personal demons, and the tabloids and gossip columns of the time did not discriminate in their reporting (Louella Parsons, for example, married a studio doctor and had enough connections so that on several occasions she knew that an actress would be expecting a "blessed event" before the actress herself.) It just all depends on how the celebrity in question reacts to such scrutiny and temptation.

There are still classy actors and actresses out there; you just have to look beyond the Lohans to find them.
[User Picture]
From:hemlock_martini
Date:January 18th, 2007 03:49 pm (UTC)
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I couldn't watch the whole thing. I got as far as "Memories" and I crumpled.
From:oakenguy
Date:January 18th, 2007 04:19 pm (UTC)
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I could only watch it with the sound off.

I was on the phone when the Lily Tomlin shoe/dancer incident happened, and went inarticulate for a moment. It wouldn't have been a big deal at all if Lily had just lost her shoe and kept going, or even if someone had reached in from stage left and snagged it....but for the dancer to crawl down the steps on his belly?? Directly behind her??? If they passed out Darwin Awards for dumb things done on stage, they'd replay that moment at every awards ceremony.
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From:pecosy
Date:January 18th, 2007 11:49 pm (UTC)
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Watching the shoe bit, I'm pretty sure that was a scripted gag based on her lack of reaction, her smooth delivery of about flubbing her big entrance, and her rather intentional goof of "Welcome to the shoe...the SHOW!" Plus you can see the guy in place ready to crawl down to get the shoe before she's even off the stairs.

Wow, I'm a real miss-know-it-all on this comment thread!
[User Picture]
From:derspatchel
Date:January 19th, 2007 03:31 am (UTC)
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But you're providing a heck of a lot of insight. I really enjoyed reading that LA Times article. I almost felt bad for Allan Carr -- okay, I did a little, but then again I realized it was his show and he was calling the shots and at any time he could have just said "Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait just a moment, let's pull this back a little."
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From:grumqa
Date:January 18th, 2007 05:03 pm (UTC)
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It looked like the actress playing Snow White knew exactly how awful that opening song was, but did it anyway because her family was being held at gunpoint. I don't know much about musical theater, but she seemed shrill and terrified.

I am not familiar with Susan Hayward, but that was a great story.
From:dcart
Date:January 18th, 2007 06:22 pm (UTC)
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I had no idea about The Conqueror. Appalling.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:January 18th, 2007 06:29 pm (UTC)

Keith in Minnesota

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Mildly interesting corollary: Teri Garr was on some talk show (probably Letterman) talking about her appearance in the opening number of an Oscar telecast. It had something to do with dancing on the wing of a plane. Apparently it was pretty awful, and she knew that it would be one of those "never live this down" moments for her.

And then the next year the Snow White/Rob Lowe thing happened, and she knew she was safe.
[User Picture]
From:derspatchel
Date:January 18th, 2007 06:32 pm (UTC)

Re: Keith in Minnesota

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I love it when Letterman brings up those old clips in an interview.

Like when he had Helen Hunt on and they showed the clip of her from an Afterschool Special where she did some PCP and jumped out a second-story window.
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From:minkrose
Date:January 18th, 2007 10:22 pm (UTC)
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That really was awful. I will say that having Lily Tomlin at the end made me feel sufficiently better(I share my birthday with her). I couldn't even watch the whole thing; I skipped through most of it.

According the the original poster who allegedly attended rehearsals, the sex scandal hadn't come out yet, but Google says "sex scandal of 1988" so you're definitely correct. It seems to me that they wouldn't put him on stage with Snow White (one of the most child-like Disney princesses) if it had already happened, but apparently they actually did... bizarre.
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From:heathbar27
Date:January 19th, 2007 02:30 am (UTC)
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Okay. I did it.

I watched the whole thing. WITH sound.

Admittedly, I did have to watch from about the five minute mark to the eight/nine mark from between my fingers, and I actually screamed out, "NOOOO! NO! Oh my god NO!" when Rob Lowe started singing. It scared my cat. (The screaming. Or maybe it was the singing. I really can't be sure.)

There's not much more to say about it. I mean... what CAN you say about that? I guess my best is, "I agree with the person above who said the shoe thing was scripted." Because it totally was. And also maybe, "I feel that a lot of cocaine was involved in the creation of this number." Because it totally was.
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From:babs_the_nymph
Date:January 19th, 2007 03:41 pm (UTC)
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Oh holy shit that was bad. I got as far as Lowe coming out and starting to talk to Snow White as if he's having an actual conversation, and I had to cut it. Oh the frickin' pain. Thanks, Spatch.

The 70s had some taste in a kitschy way. The 80s were a vacuum, a complete vacuum.

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