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The Best Moments in Oscars History: Tearful Speeches, NSFW Streakers, and Powerful Songs

In honor of the 88th Academy Awards on Feb. 28, The Daily Beast’s Kevin Fallon and Marlow Stern discuss the ceremony’s greatest moments ever.

02.24.16 6:16 AM ET

Marlow: Now that we’ve gone through the Oscars’ not-so-beautiful, dark, twisted history of getting it wrong, from the innovative Orson Welles masterpiece Citizen Kane being bested by How Green Was My Valley to the last two years of all-white acting nominees—and subsequent #OscarsSoWhite backlash—let’s discuss the reasons why so many people, present company included, tune in to the Academy Awards year after year: the moving and fun moments.

Kevin: The Debbie Allen interpretive dance numbers! Yes, please!

Marlow: I’m going to start with a throwback to 1940, when the Academy awarded Hattie McDaniel with the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her turn as Mammy in Gone With the Wind. It’s a problematic character in a problematic film, one that essentially romanticizes plantation life, but at a time when segregation was still rampant in the Jim Crow South and beyond—McDaniel was barred from attending the film’s premiere in Atlanta, Georgia, and forced to sit at a segregated table during the Oscars’ ceremony—it’s noteworthy for being the first time an African-American actor was nominated for, and won, an Oscar. And watching her acceptance speech is enough to make even the most hardened cynics tear up:

Marlow: I’m going to start with a throwback to 1940, when the Academy awarded Hattie McDaniel with the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her turn as Mammy in Gone With the Wind. It’s a problematic character in a problematic film, one that essentially romanticizes plantation life, but at a time when segregation was still rampant in the Jim Crow South and beyond—McDaniel was barred from attending the film’s premiere in Atlanta, Georgia, and forced to sit at a segregated table during the Oscars’ ceremony—it’s noteworthy for being the first time an African-American actor was nominated for, and won, an Oscar. And watching her acceptance speech is enough to make even the most hardened cynics tear up:

Kevin: Marlow, don’t get too excited but I bet you did not know you were speaking to a bona fide expert in tearful Oscar speeches. Oh, I have logged hundreds of pinot grigio-soaked hours weeping to clips of old acceptance speeches on YouTube to reach tenured status on the topic, to the point that I can recite the best of them by heart.

Marlow: I see a “Kevin Fallon Re-enacts the Greatest Oscars Acceptance Speeches” viral video in your future.

Kevin: Which brings me to one of my all-time favorite Oscars moments: Tom Hanks winning for Philadelphia. It is the perfect awards acceptance speech. It’s emotional. It stands for something important, without seeming patronizing or didactic. He chokes up while thanking his wife—nothing gets me like a reaction shot to a sputtering spouse—and is genuinely thankful. By the time he pays tribute to those who lost their lives to HIV and AIDS by saying, “The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels,” I need to rehydrate. The clip should be required viewing by all nominees.

Marlow: I love that moment. And speaking of Hanks’s co-star in that film, Denzel Washington, the 2002 Academy Awards was a monumentally important one when it comes to inclusion. It had been 38 years since a black actor had won a lead actor/actress Oscar—Sidney Poitier for Lilies of the Field in 1964—and on that night, both Washington and Halle Berry took home Oscars for Best Actor and Actress. That it happened on the same night Poitier received an honorary Oscar made it all the more poignant, with Washington shouting to him in the rafters, “I’ll always be chasing you, Sidney. I’ll always be following in your footsteps. There’s nothing I would rather do, sir,” and Berry’s tearful speech: “This moment is so much bigger than me. This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll. It’s for the women that stand beside me, Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett, Vivica Fox. And it’s for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.”

Kevin: Her speech was glorious, and the perfect example of an Oscars moment—as was her quivering emotional meltdown after her name was called. A GIF-ready moment before the age of GIFs.

Marlow: Ah, the halcyon pre-GIF age. More recently, Marion Cotillard’s Best Actress acceptance speech in 2008 for La Vie en Rose, one of the most award-worthy performances in recent memory, was lovely, with the luminous Cotillard—who could barely speak a lick of English—shrieking, “Thank you life, thank you love, and it is true, there is some angels in this city!”

Kevin: My favorite thing about the Oscars, in that I have a torrid love-hate affair with it, is its insistence on flooding the telecast with musical performances, whether they make sense—like an original song nominee, for example—or are epic exercises in deranged artistic lunacy, like Rob Lowe and Snow White singing “Proud Mary,” the most beautiful fail in award-show history. Nothing, though, was as magnificent as Beyoncé, Jennifer Hudson, and their Dreamgirls co-star Anika Noni Rose donning siren red evening gowns to belt a medley of three nominated songs from their film. They performed amid buzzing rumors that Beyoncé was jealous of Hudson’s award-season success, culminating in a torching diva song-off as their voices and egos dueted and battled on the medley’s first two songs. Whatever was going on behind the scenes, the on-stage performance was pure fire.

Marlow: Probably the last time Beyoncé was ever upstaged in a performance. Speaking of musical performances, a lot of people remember Bjork’s glorious swan dress—designer Marjan Pejoski’s bizarre body stocking replete with a giant white swan draped around the Icelandic chanteuse’s neck—but few remember that she also turned in a fantastic performance of her Oscar-nominated song “I’ve Seen It All” from Dancer in the Dark, sadly sans Thom Yorke.

Kevin: If I’ve said it once I’ve said it a thousand times: When you wear a dress that looks like water fowl you are dooming yourself to having your musical performance overshadowed.

Marlow: It’s perhaps the most unconventional musical routine in Oscar history, swan dress and all. A moment that changed the course of music history came when 14-year-old Michael Jackson performed the ballad “Ben,” about a rat, at the 1973 Oscars, showcasing his impressive pipes and signaling the start of his massive solo career sans The Jackson 5. And who can forget Three 6 Mafia’s rowdy rendition of their Oscar-winning hip-hop track “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” bringing some much-needed musical diversity to the buttoned-up proceedings, and with co-star Taraji P. Henson belting out the chorus to boot.

Kevin: I love the fashion and I love the musical moments, but I’m honestly really just tuning into the Oscars to have a good cry. It’s why if I could travel back in time I would go to the 1972 ceremony to witness and weep along live to the 12-minute standing ovation for Charlie Chaplin when he received his honorary Academy Award for his lifetime of achievements.

Marlow: That honorary Oscar is less impressive when you consider how many times the Academy fucked him, though! Chaplin never received a single Best Director nod, not even for his masterpiece The Great Dictator. But alas, I digress…

Kevin: Or I would record the 1975 telecast and just replay Michael Douglas openly crying while dad Kirk Douglas picked up his honorary Oscar soon after suffering a stroke that left him with nerve damage. Then, because I obviously need a pick-me-up, I’d rewatch Billy Crystal’s opening montages, where he inserts himself into the year’s big films. It’s a conceit that’s been done to death now, but they were a hoot and a half when he started it.  

Marlow: They were. And who can forget Crystal serenading Jack Nicholson from his lap. He really was the consummate Oscar host—someone with enough industry friends that he was in on the joke, but also enough of an outsider to roam freely. I’m a big fan of the ceremony’s batshit moments, too, and it’s here we should pay homage to Robert Opel, the man who famously streaked naked across the stage flashing a peace sign during the 1974 Academy Awards ceremony as David Niven was introducing Elizabeth Taylor, leading Niven to remark, “Well, ladies and gentlemen, that was almost bound to happen. But 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.” The whole thing may have been a planned stunt by producers of the ceremony, but a naked hippie flashing a peace sign during the final months of the Vietnam War does, in retrospect, bear some significant cultural resonance. Opel later opened a gallery of gay art in San Francisco before he was murdered in 1979. RIP, you Oscar legend you.

Kevin: The ceremony could use more nudity in general, in my opinion. Although, based on the reaction to Neil Patrick Harris in his skivvies last year I may be alone in this sentiment. (You looked great, NPH, you really did.) There are so many other (clothed) moments I could name. Sandra Bullock’s speech—particularly her ode to her mother—made me cry. Ben Stiller dressed as a character from Avatar made me laugh. Diana Ross singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” still the greatest movie song of all time, with live-streamed movie fans from around the world, gave me the gay chills. Hell, count me among the millions who ate up that Ellen DeGeneres selfie like the traffic bait it was. The Oscars are, for all the frustration they cause, still just plain fun to watch.