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!