Disney and Oscar have a long history together.
Just last year Frozen cleaned up with a win for Best Animated Feature and for best song. This year Big Hero 6 is in the running, as well as the short film that preceded it, Feast.
Look in any record book about the Academy Awards and you’ll see one name pop up over and over again…
Whether it’s an Oscar personally given to Walt (who holds the record with over 60 nominations, half of those resulting in wins, also a record) or to his company, Disney and the Academy have had a great relationship.
Oscar and Mickey Mouse were even born the same year (1928).
The only thing missing for Disney is a Best Picture win. They are still the only major studio left from the “golden days” of the 1920s to remain winless in the Best Picture category (unless you count the four wins for Miramax, which Disney bought in 1993 and sold just a few years ago).
Here now are ten great Disney Moments at the Oscars…..
Walt’s First Oscar Wins
The Academy Awards' 5th annual Ceremony was just a small industry gathering at a hotel ballroom when Walt and his wife Lillian attended on November 18, 1932.
A few people listened on the radio, and some read about it in film magazines, but the Oscars didn’t get the massive wall to wall coverage and live worldwide broadcast that it does today. It was in that small intimate atmosphere that Walt, a few weeks shy of his 31st birthday, was given his very first Oscar.
Actually, Walt is credited with popularizing the name for the little golden guy. It had officially been called the “Academy’s Award” until a librarian at the Academy remarked that it looked like her Uncle Oscar. The nickname was seen as a derogatory one until Walt stood at the podium and referred to his statue proudly as “his little Oscar.” After that, the name stuck.
The Oscar given to Walt that night was an honorary one, for the creation of Mickey Mouse and his contribution to world cinema. Nevertheless, it was only the second such award ever given. The first honorary Oscar was given to Walt’s idol, Charlie Chaplin, in 1929. Chaplin was supposed to present the award to Disney, but got sick the day of the ceremony and couldn’t attend.
Disney’s animators created a special cartoon for the occasion called Mickey’s Parade of Award Nominees. It was the very first Mickey Mouse cartoon produced in color.
In the short, Mickey leads a marching band, including Minnie, Pluto, Horace Horse Collar and Clarabell Cow (Goofy and Donald hadn’t yet been born.) Also in the parade were caricatures of that year’s major acting award nominees as the characters they played in their films, including Wallace Beery as “The Champ” and Frederick March as Dr. Jekyll, who changes into Mr. Hyde as the parade moves along. (Both Beery and March would make Oscar history that night by sharing the Best Actor Award.) The parade ends with Pluto holding a sign attached to his tail saying “The End.”
You can tell that the cartoon was done quickly, and not up to the usually rigid Disney standards. The background doesn’t change at all. It’s just the same castle and windmill rotating by over and over again as the characters pass.
At the conclusion of the short. which has been cut from subsequent releases of the cartoon, Mickey appears onscreen to thank the Academy and introduce Walt, saying that he could take it from there.
The cherry on top of the night was that Disney also won his first Oscar in a competitive category. It was for best cartoon.
Flowers and Trees was the 29th Silly Symphony film Walt produced, but it was his first in Technicolor. The use of this new process, which Disney shrewdly locked up exclusively for his studio, was revolutionary and gave new life to a medium that had shown signs of waning. The film community took notice and gave the short its highest honor.
The days of black and white cartoons were quickly coming to an end, and the years of Disney dominance at the Academy Awards were just beginning.
Disney’s Unofficial Anthem Wins Big
If there’s one thing Walt Disney knew about his audiences, it was that they loved music, especially when it moved the story along and pulled at your heartstrings.
From Steamboat Willie in 1928 to The Three Little Pigs in 1933 and Snow White in 1937, songs, whether instrumental or lyrical, were an integral part of Disney films. That’s why it’s so surprising that the Academy took over a decade to award Best Song to a number from one of Walt’s pictures.
1940′s Pinocchio is a masterpiece visually, but it’s the music that helps seal the deal. The jaunty score that fills the film, written by Disney’s in house composers Frank Churchill, Leigh Harline and Ned Washington, was honored by the Academy, but there was one song that stood out among them all and took the top musical prize at the 13th Annual Oscar Ceremony in 1941.
“When You Wish Upon A Star” is a plaintive song, first heard as Jiminy Cricket - voice of Cliff Edwards - introduces the story. (Trivia note: in the scene where Jiminy is sitting on a bookshelf as he sings the song, you can see both “Peter Pan” and “Alice In Wonderland” among the books in the collection. This is a nice in-joke, as those films were still in pre-production by Disney at the time, still a decade away).
It’s a tune filled with hopes and dreams, all about the power of wishes coming true. For audiences in 1940, with the world on fire and rolling headlong into war, it was a soothing ballad and became an instant hit.
The Academy followed with its praise.
Not only did Pinocchio win for best song and score, the first Disney film to do so, it also has the distinction of being the first animated feature film to win Oscars in competitive categories.
The songs from Pinocchio were so popular that a full soundtrack was released, the first time that had ever been done for a feature film, animated or not. It rose to the top of the charts.
“When You Wish Upon A Star” was recently named #7 on the American Film Institute’s list of Top Movie Songs of all time. It has since become the anthem for Disney, heard in TV shows, other Disney productions and at the theme parks. It’s certainly lived up to Oscar’s billing as Best Song.
The Disney canon produced many other memorable tunes after that 1940 triumph. Unfortunately, Oscar only recognized them twice more for Best Song in the successive 50 years (1947 and 1964.) Even so, “When You Wish Upon A Star” retains its unique position in both motion picture and Disney history.
James Baskett Honored
In 1946, Americans were still shaking off the horrors of The Great Depression and World War II. Walt Disney came along with the right tonic to lift their spirits.
“Zip A Dee Doo Dah,” the featured track in Song of the South, was an instant hit. Its lyrics, which speak of plenty of sunshine and a wonderful day ahead, exuded optimism with every note. For the man who sang it in the film, though, things were not always so happy.
James Baskett studied to be a pharmacist before dropping out of college to pursue a career as an actor, eventually joining the performing company of the legendary dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Baskett made his way to Broadway, where he starred in a revue featuring Louis Armstrong. The reviews were so good, they prompted Baskett to move to Hollywood. He did a few parts in B films, and co-starred on the Amos and Andy Radio Show.
It was through that job that he was invited to the Disney Studio to audition for a small voice-over role as one of the butterflies in Disney’s live action/animated adaptation of the Uncle Remus stories, written by Joel Chandler Harris.
When Walt Disney met and heard Baskett, he knew he had found his Uncle Remus, a role Baskett hadn’t even intended to read for. As a result, James Baskett has the distinct honor of being the very first actor hired to star in a live action Disney film.
He certainly rewarded Disney for his faith in him.
Viewed from a 21st Century politically correct perspective, Song of the South can make you wince. The film’s depiction of Plantation life in the post-Civil War south has images and dialogue that can be seen as demeaning to African Americans (contrary to popular myth, there are no references to slavery in this film).
Baskett’s performance, however, stands out. In response to critics, Baskett was quoted in a 1947 Ebony magazine article as saying, “I believe that certain groups are doing more harm to our race in seeking to create dissension than can ever possibly come out of the positive images Mr. Disney shows in this film.”
Uncle Remus is a genial character, narrating the animated stories of Brer Rabbit, Brer Bear and Brer Fox. Baskett actually provided the voice for both. He spoke so fast as Brer Fox that the animators had trouble synching his words to the cartoons. Remus is the voice of wisdom and the conscience of the film.
Many of his lessons and moralistic fables are told in song. “Zip A Dee Doo Dah” was just one of them, but he conveyed just as much emotion and yearning in that one song as Judy Garland had done in her rendition of “Over the Rainbow” a few years before in The Wizard of Oz.
The proof of Baskett’s imprint on the collective minds of the public is that "Zip a Dee Doo Dah” has been covered and recorded by hundreds of artists since, yet it’s Baskett’s version that endures. People remember him, despite the fact that Song of the South has been effectively buried by Disney and hasn’t been seen publicly in over 30 years.
The Academy members felt so strongly about Baskett’s performance as Uncle Remus that they didn’t even place him in the nominee pool for Best Actor, they just gave him an Oscar outright, which was presented to him by Ingrid Bergman at the 20th Academy Awards Ceremony in 1948.
James Baskett was not only the first actor to win an Oscar for a Disney film, he was also the first African American male to be given one. (Since he didn't win it in competition, it's Sidney Poitier that's often credited as the first black actor to win an Oscar, in 1961). His co-star in the film, Hattie McDaniel, had the distinction of being the first African American female a few years before with her win for Gone With The Wind.
Baskett’s Academy Award read:
“Given to James Baskett for his able and heartwarming characterization of Uncle Remus, friend and storyteller to the children of the world.”
The award was somewhat of a redemption for Baskett, as he had to endure one of the saddest points in Disney history just a few years prior to that.
The World Premiere for Song of The South was held at the FOX theater in Atlanta Georgia on November 12, 1946. Everyone from the film was there for the big night.
Everyone, that is, except for the film’s star.
Baskett would have loved nothing more than to soak in the appreciation and adulation of the crowd seeing his film for the first time. Unfortunately, Atlanta was a segregated city back then, and African Americans – even those who starred in the film itself – were not allowed to mix with whites in movie theater audiences.
I wish I could say that Walt Disney himself boycotted this shameful policy and treatment of his star by avoiding the premiere.
It pains me to say he did not.
While records show that Walt debated canceling the premiere due to the racial exclusion policy, the fact that the family of Joel Chandler Harris (who had been outspoken critics of segregation and the Ku Klux Klan) personally invited him to have the premiere in Georgia - where Harris wrote all the Uncle Remus tales – convinced Disney to go. His one mild form of protest was to leave the theater immediately after the film began. He never stayed to see it with the segregated audience.
Baskett’s Oscar night glory made up in a small way for his disgraceful treatment in Georgia, and he was generally acknowledged as one of the finest African American actors of his generation. Sadly, James Baskett died of heart failure at the young age of 44, just a few months after winning his Award and never lived to build upon his Disney triumph.
As of this writing, Disney still does not have plans to release Song of the South from its vaults. That’s a shame, as they have used parts of the film for park attractions (Splash Mountain, Critter Country) and the song is one of the most played in the Disney universe. The company has put out other racially insensitive cartoons from that period on DVD, with explanations putting them in context.
Today’s audiences should be exposed to this film and be allowed to judge it on its own merits. This would also give a new generation a chance to see Baskett’s one and only Disney performance, a powerhouse one which will stand the test of time, as the Academy itself confirmed.
Walt’s Record Setting Night
By 1953, Walt Disney had run up an incredible amount of Academy Award nominations. With the exception of one year, Disney had some stake in the race annually since 1932. His trophy case was filling up fast. (He also had the unusual task in 1937 of presenting himself with an Oscar, as he was the one chosen to read the nominees that year).
Walt cried onstage when he was given the Irving Thalberg award in 1942 for his production of Fantasia. The Academy lauded him for the use of Bach, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, despite the fact that the film was Disney’s first box office bomb. Through his tears Walt said,
“Maybe I should be getting a medal for bravery instead. We all make mistakes, mine was an honest one. I promise to rededicate myself to my old ideals.”
Perhaps the most unique Oscar ever was given to Walt as a special trophy in 1939 to honor the groundbreaking achievement of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The statue consisted of one actual size Oscar and seven smaller ones ascending a staircase. It was presented to Walt by the biggest child star in Hollywood at the time, and perhaps of all time, Shirley Temple. Her comment to Disney asking him if he was proud of the award prompted him to say “I’m so proud I think I’ll bust!”
It was a nice moment, but nothing compared to the armful of real Oscars that Walt would hold 15 years later.
The 26th Annual Academy Awards Ceremony was held at the RKO Pantages Theater on March 25, 1954. It marked only the second time that the show was broadcast to a national television audience. A young comic actress named Betty White hosted car commercials during the breaks.
From Here To Eternity was the big winner, taking home 8 prizes including Best Picture, it tied Gone With The Wind for most wins ever. The telecast that night had a Rat Pack feel to it, as Frank Sinatra won an Oscar and Dean Martin sang “That’s Amore,” which was nominated for Best Song.
The evening, however, belonged to Mr. Disney. For the first and only time in Oscar history, one person won four Academy Awards for four different films, and it was Walt.
It was expected, of course, that Disney would win for animated short, which he did for Toot, Whistle, Plunk, and Boom, the first cartoon ever made in CinemaScope. It starred the now obscure Disney character, Professor Owl. in a comical history of musical instruments.
The other three wins came as a direct result of Walt’s experimental side.
One of Walt’s many risks paid off for him in a big way when he decided, in 1949, to stretch the studio’s filmmaking muscles even further by producing a short nature film. Seal Island was his first “True Life Adventure” and everyone advised him not to make it. RKO Pictures, the company that distributed Disney’s films, said that nobody would go see a half hour film about seals with no humans and no dialogue, save for the narration.
Walt persisted. He had a friend run Seal Island in a Pasadena theater for a week so that it would qualify for the Oscars. It won Best Live Short that year. Walt wouldn’t let this moment pass. He supposedly marched the Oscar down to his brother Roy’s office the next day and said, “Here, take this to RKO and bop them on the head with it.”
As a result of his continuing “True Life Adventure” series, Walt was nominated in 1953 as the producer of the full length documentary The Living Desert, the live short Bear Country and the short documentary The Alaskan Eskimo, which was actually part of an offshoot of the "True Life" series called People and Places.
He won all three.
Holding his record four statues in his hand, Walt told the press that it was wonderful to get the awards and that he should probably now retire from filmmaking.
As we all know, he did not.
Walt Disney had one last great triumph left.
Ub Iwerks Gets His Due
In 1960, an Academy Award was given to a member of Disney’s staff that helped to shine a light on someone who was as much a pioneer as Walt, yet had (and still has, unfortunately) barely any name recognition with Disney fans.
One of the fairer criticisms leveled at Walt Disney is the fact that as the head of the studio, with his name front and center on all films, he gained all of the credit while not doing much of the actual grunt work.
Walt himself agreed with this. He often said that while he worked as hard as anyone else, his job wasn’t quite defined. He saw his role as more of a king bee, going from department to department overseeing each aspect of the production and cross-pollinating ideas until they had a fine tuned product to release.
This caused tension in the studio as some of Walt’s employees, feeling undervalued and kept in his shadows, eventually left Disney in disgust. One of those men was Walt’s oldest friend in the business.
Ub Iwerks and Walt met each other in Kansas City in 1918 as co-workers in an advertising company. They hit it off right away and started a company together called Iwerks-Disney (If they did it the other way, people would confuse them for an optometrists office). Walt was the flashy showman, and Ub was the talented animator. Walt had his own gifts as an artist, but could not match his partner’s output. It was aid that Ub Iwerks could produce 700 drawings in a day, an astounding volume for an animator. When Walt left for other opportunities, their studio folded, as Ub wasn’t as good as Walt at promoting or selling.
A few years later, when Walt started his studio in California, Ub was one of the first to join his staff. Walt couldn’t pay much, so he offered shares in the company in return. They had some success. When Walt was double crossed by his distributor, who hired away his animation staff, Ub was the only one to remain loyal and stay at Walt’s side.
Together Ub and Walt helped to create Mickey Mouse as we know him now. This launched the Disney Studio to greater heights than either could have imagined. The public immediately thought of Walt and Mickey as one, giving little credit to Iwerks, despite the fact that his name was just as prominent in the titles.
Ub finally had enough and left Disney in 1930. He cashed in his shares (a move that he and his family would come to regret, as his portion of ownership in the Disney Studio would now be worth an incredible fortune) and started his own studio, with characters like Willie the Whopper and Flip the Frog. While talented, Ub didn’t have the storytelling gifts that Walt did. His Studio soon went under.
Iwerks returned to Disney in 1940, but in a different capacity. An inveterate tinkerer, Ub was put in charge of research and development for the studio. Disney was always out front with technology, adding such innovations to film like the multi-plane camera. They were now expanding to live action films, so new technologies were needed. Ub Iwerks’ blueprints and designs would ensure that Disney remained the gold standard for special effects.
After 20 years of his inventions like the multiheaded optical printer - which allowed animated characters to blend seamlessly on screen with live action, the color traveling matte – which made painted backgrounds more realistic, and novel film developing techniques, Iwerks was rewarded with an Oscar for his talent as a master movie magic technician.
When he walked up to the podium on that night in 1960 to accept his Academy Award, Ub Iwerks – for that moment at least – was the star of the night and shone as brightly as any Disney employee ever had.
Ub Iwerks won another Oscar shortly after that and then semi-retired from the film business and went to work at the Imagineering Department, using his genius to develop Disney attractions like It’s A Small World, Pirates of the Caribbean and the Hall of Presidents.
Without Ub Iwerks leading the way and creating things on screen that did not exist before, there would be no Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Avatar, or Gravity today. He is there in spirit every time an Oscar for Technical Skills or Special Effects is given out.
Walt’s Greatest Oscar Triumph
By 1964, Walt Disney had racked up an impressive amount of Oscar nominations and Awards. He had, by then, found his stride in live action films. His studio was the leader in animation and special effects. Still, he felt that he was never really respected by the industry, and viewed himself as an outsider to the major studio system that ran Tinseltown.
A Best Picture nomination eluded Walt for years. He knew he had to do something special to join the club.
Disney put all of the collective talent, knowledge and experience of his staff into one ambitious project, an adaptation of P.L Travers’ classic tales of a “practically perfect” British nanny, Mary Poppins. This would be a musical combining live action and animation, with an all star cast of Disney regulars and a few newcomers.
In previous years, Walt might have worried about taking on such a monumental project, but he said that he never did because all he saw around the Studio were smiles, especially from his brother Roy who controlled the purse strings and was notoriously skeptical of Walt’s grand visions and designs.
As depicted in the recent film “Saving Mr. Banks” (which, alas, didn’t get nominated for any acting, directing or writing Oscars, just one for its score) it wasn’t easy to convice Mrs. Travers to give permission to make the film. Walt’s team, led by the multi-talented geniuses Bob and Dick Sherman, crafted something beyond anyone’s expectations.
The faith was well placed. ”Mary Poppins” was an instant classic. Audiences all over the world went to see it again and again. When it came time for the nominations for the 37th Academy Awards, Walt thought that he would do OK, but he – and the rest of his staff – were astounded by what happened.
“Mary Poppins” earned thirteen Oscar nominations, the most that year and still one of the highest totals ever, including the long sought after Best Picture.
Finally, Walt could head to the Oscars with head held high as he competed on the same playing field as his peers. To go with the Best Picture nod, “Poppins” was included in all of the top five categories, with the exception of Best Actor (poor Dick van Dyke, you were robbed.)
Julie Andrews, who played Mary, was Walt’s big discovery. He had seen the young English actress on Broadway in “My Fair Lady” and took the chance on her when she was passed over for the lead role in the film adaptation of the play. Mary Poppins was the film debut for Julie Andrews. (Ironically, Audrey Hepburn, who was cast in “My Fair Lady” was denied an Oscar nomination, in large part because it was discovered that she didn’t do her own singing in the film.)
For only the third time in history, an actress won the Academy Award for their debut role. Andrews was speechless. She managed to get her first words out, and they were thanks to Walt Disney.
This gave hope to those who thought “Mary Poppins” would add Best Picture to its five other wins (Actress, Special Effects, Editing, Score, and Song - “Chim Chimeree” written by the Sherman Brothers) It was not meant to be.
“My Fair Lady” bested “Poppins” by three awards, including the top prize. One of those was for British film veteran Rex Harrison, who won Best Actor. This added to another notable record, as for the first time in Oscar history, all four acting honors went to non-Americans. (the other winners were fellow Brit and Disney favorite Peter Ustinov for “Tokapi” and Greek actress Lila Kedrova for “Zorba”.) The feat was matched in 2007.
Walt was, of course, sad that he didn’t win Best Picture, but the melancholy was only temporary as he gleefully basted of the five trophies and thirteen nominations. To him, it was validation of a forty year effort to be included among the people shaping the present and future of filmmaking.
Mr. Disney died less than two years after that Oscar night, but he passed away knowing that with “Mary Poppins” he and his studio staff had finally gained the legitimacy they had sought for decades.
Mickey Meets Oscar
April 1978/ 1988
Despite his standing as Walt Disney’s most famous cartoon character, and the symbol for the whole company, Mickey Mouse was only responsible for one of Walt’s Oscar wins. That came in 1941 for his animated short “Lend A Paw” which featured Pluto as a co-star.
Mickey faded from the silver screen in the 1950′s and 60′s and was pretty much done as a film star by the 1970′s. It was Oscar that helped Mickey make a big comeback, just in time to celebrate the 50th birthday for both of them.
At the 50th Academy Awards Ceremony, held in April 1978, “Star Wars” was a big winner. It didn’t nab the top prize, but took home six Oscars out of ten nominations. It was no surprise, then, that the film’s robot stars, C3PO and R2D2, were on hand to present a special technical award related to the film.
What was a surprise was who took the stage directly after them.
As the orchestra played “The Mickey Mouse Club March”, Mickey himself skipped on stage, nodding to Threepio and Artoo as he passed them by. (Little did they know they would be part of the Disney family a few decades later.)
This live costumed version of Mickey, visiting from down the road at Disneyland, was decked out in a tux. The crowd roared with applause as he soaked in the moment. After announcing that he was there to give out the Oscar for best animated short (thanks to a live voice-over by his longtime alter ego Jimmy MacDonald) he was joined by diminutive singer/songwriter Paul Williams as a co-presenter.
Jodie Foster, who had supposedly lost out on a starring role in “Star Wars” because she was locked into her Disney contract to perform in "Candleshoe", mysteriously appeared from the wings to remind everybody that it was Mickey’s 50th birthday too. Williams, after complimenting Mickey on “Steamboat Willie”, cracked that maybe they would get Mickey two more fingers for his big day. The final surreal moment was Mickey reading the list of nominees (including Garry Trudeau’s attempt at a “Doonesbury” short film) before Paul Williams opened the envelope. As soon as the winner came on stage, Mickey left.
Mickey would return to Oscar’s stage to celebrate his 60th birthday, albeit in a different form.
When the 60th Academy Awards Ceremony was held in April 1988, it was in the middle of a tense writer’s strike that affected the mood of the entire evening. It was a more subdued occasion, not as celebratory as the one ten years earlier.
Midway through the show host Chevy Chase promised a “very special guest.” When they returned from commercial break, it was revealed that Mickey Mouse was the mystery presenter. Smiles filled the room.
As Chase gave his introduction of Mickey, the camera showed the front row of the audience at the Shrine Auditorium, where Minnie, Daisy and Donald Duck were sitting. Donald was characteristically incensed when the build-up to “one of the most beloved cartoon stars of all time” did not lead to him. They then showed clips from Mickey’s 60 years, finishing with the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” scene from “Fantasia.”
At the conclusion of the clip package, an animated Mickey – still dressed in his Sorcerer outfit – jumped from the screen onto the stage and began talking to the audience.
It was an homage to “Mary Poppins” and all the other live action/animation films Disney had produced, and it was nice to see Mickey interact with the live crowd and host.
Mickey began to introduce his “distinguished co-presenter” when he was rudely interrupted by Donald, who believed that the honor was his. When Mickey apologizes (always playing the nice guy) and says that they chose a human to help him, Donald gets apoplectic. A hook then emerges from the wings to yank Donald off so that Mickey can continue. Mickey uses his magic powers to zap Donald back to his seat, still grumbling.
The human presenter in question was Tom Selleck, famous as TV’s “Magnum PI” and who had appeared in the previous year’s Disney hit “Three Men and a Baby.”
Selleck didn’t seem too thrilled at the assignment, but played along gamely. After asking Mickey to change into something more appropriate (which he magically did) Selleck led him to the podium – with almost none of the banter that Williams had with Mickey in 1978 – to read the list of nominees.
When Selleck asks for the envelope, Mickey tells him that he must have left it in the other outfit. Selleck asks him if he still has magic dust, and Mickey makes an envelope appear at the podium. After three minutes, they are done. Those three minutes, though, represented a lot of work.
It took Disney animators almost a month to create the short segment. The big headache was making it work on stage. In films like “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” and “Pete’s Dragon” the animation was matched to live action film that was already shot and processed. For this appearance, Mickey would be interacting live in the moment, something that was rarely done. Nine reels of animation had to be carefully matched by the technicians at the Awards that night to pull off the visual trick. Audience members at the Shrine saw Selleck talking to empty space. Viewers at home saw Mickey. It was nicely done and a fitting tribute to the Mouse that started it all.
Mickey made one more appearance at the Oscars in 2003, for his 75th birthday, presenting the shorts category with actress Jennifer Garner. By this time, computers had refined the live action/animation interaction process and the results were seamless.
Disney was always good to the Oscars and vice versa. That relationship was severely tested in 1989, however, with what was perhaps the worst Academy Awards ceremony opening number in history.
Oscar Insults Disney
Allan Carr was the consummate Hollywood showman, so he seemed a natural choice to produce an Academy Awards Ceremony. He was given the task for the 61st Oscars in March 1989.
Carr, who favored campy productions, was notable for producing the 1978 hit film “Grease” and the not so successful Village People film “Can’t Stop The Music” which starred Bruce Jenner. Carr decided to bring that campiness and pizzazz to the Oscars. It was a phenomenally bad idea.
Carr started by importing six million tulips to line the outside of the Shrine Auditorium. He also spent a small fortune building a lavish “green room” for his presenters. The worst mistake, however, was casting a Disney icon in a not so flattering light.
Disney’s Snow White, who had just marked her 50th Anniversary a few years earlier, was brought in by Carr to open the show. Rather than utilizing an animated version, he hired an unknown actress named Eileen Bowman to play Snow White and dressed her exactly as Disney had in the 1937 film. Bowman did a nice job capturing Snow’s wide eyed innocence, but she was put in a no win situation.
Carr’s opening had longtime awards show staple Army Archerd announcing that one of the great Hollywood legends was back, as Snow White entered to applause. She asked Archerd how to get to the theater, and Archerd told her to follow the gold Hollywood stars on the carpet.
At this point things started to go off the rails, as the camera panned down to show Snow White wearing Dorothy’s ruby red slippers from MGM’s “Wizard of Oz” (huh?) She then walked to the front of the auditorium, crooning “I Only have Eyes for You” directly into the faces of luminaries like Tom Hanks, Sigourney Weaver, Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman. To say that these celebrities, who had no idea that she was going to do that, were mortified is an understatement.
If it ended there, that would be enough to make the opening go down in infamy. The ridiculousness continued, though.
Snow White leaped to the stage, which was dressed to resemble the old Coconut Grove nightclub. Talk show host Merv Griffin launched into a rendition of his onetime hit “I’ve Got A Lovely Bunch of Coconuts” while stars like Roy Rogers and Vincent Price sat on stage with barely a mention or introduction.
At the conclusion of his song, Griffin turned to Snow White and told her that her blind date, actor Rob Lowe, was there. Lowe and Snow then began singing a suggestive version of “Proud Mary” with lyrics clearly tweaking Disney and its studio. While they sang, the tables, chairs and other parts of the nightclub came to life, thanks to dancers hidden inside, and joined the fun. (Inspiration for “Be Our Guest” perhaps?)
The conclusion of this weird spectacle was an appearance by actress Lilly Tomlin (who had dressed as Snow White herself in 1980′s “9 To 5.”) She summed up pretty much what everyone – both at home and in the audience – was thinking by saying that more than a billion people were watching, in many different languages, and were still trying to make sense of what they just saw.
The response to the opening number was almost universally negative.
Disney executive Frank Wells called Allan Carr the next morning demanding an apology for using Snow White’s image without permission and for putting her in such a negative context. Carr, who to his dying day insisted that he meant no insult and that the opening was a smash hit, refused to apologize. Wells then threatened to file a lawsuit. Before they could go to court, the Academy publicly apologized to Disney on behalf of Carr and the organization.
To make matters worse for Carr, an open letter was published in the Hollywood trade papers which called his opening number an undignified embarrassment to the Academy and to the motion picture industry. It was signed by legends like Julie Andrews, Gregory Peck and Paul Newman. Carr was subsequently banned by the Academy from being involved with Oscar shows and his film career was effectively ended.
In actuality, after things settled down, the show was pretty normal. It marked the first time that winners were announced by saying “And the Oscar goes to..” (one of Carr’s ideas.) Disney was well represented by “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” which won several awards. The voice of Roger, Charles Fleischer, appeared as a presenter with fellow comedian Robin Williams, who came out dressed as Mickey Mouse. Williams did an almost five minute risque riff on Mickey and Disney, but he didn’t catch as much flack from Wells as Carr did because Wells said it was more of a spoof and parody than a disrespectful use of the character.
One other note of interest: Pixar won their very first Oscar that year, for the computer animated short “Tin Toy.” John Lasseter, a Disney veteran, now back in the fold, accepted the award and predicted big things to come for his company and for the genre. He probably had no idea how far they would go.
The 61st Oscar Ceremony still garners attention whenever lists of “worst Oscar shows” are published. Disney held no grudges against the Academy and the relationship continued as happily as it had been. In fact, Snow White made a second appearance at the Oscars just a few years later. In 1993, she showed up in animated form to present the award for best short subject. She brought the house down with a line that poked fun at her seven dwarves, “I think I have some experience with short subjects.” Sweet redemption indeed.
Disney Animation Finally Gets To the Top
By now, everyone knows that 1937's “Snow White’ was a game changer. It was the very first animated feature film. Walt proved his doubters wrong. It also became the highest grossing film of all time to that point. Still, the Academy just couldn’t bring themselves to include a simple cartoon among the list of Best Picture nominees. Walt had to settle for special awards as consolation.
This bias against fully animated films lasted for over half a century. Film classics were ignored simply because they were populated with characters that originated in an artists inkwell rather than with flesh and blood actors.
In 1991, Disney released a film that just couldn’t be ignored and finally managed to break the Best Picture nomination barrier.
Disney had gotten their animation groove back with 1989′s “The Little Mermaid” so it was no surprise that follow up efforts would rise to the same level of quality. When Michael Eisner, Roy Disney and the other people in charge of the studio saw what they had in “Beauty and the Beast”, they knew that it deserved special treatment.
In an unprecedented move, the usually secretive Disney animation department allowed the public to see an unfinished version of a film. They entered “Beauty and the Beast” as a work in progress at the New York Film Festival. It was a risky move, as large stretches of the film consisted of the audio track set to pencil sketches against plain white background. The gamble paid off. When the screening ended, the usually stoic New York film crowd burst into a sustained ten minute standing ovation.
Buoyed by that success, Disney arranged showings at other prestigious venues and festivals. They even had surprise “double features” with showings of the Steve Martin comedy “Father of the Bride.”
The film was also unique in that its screenplay was written by a woman, Linda Woolverton, who had no connection to the studio. That had never been done with a Disney animated feature. In another first for the studio, they created a marketing campaign targeted specifically at adults and couples.
Rather than using the cartoon characters, colorful backgrounds and and cute sidekicks on their ads as they’d done for 50 years, they chose to utilize a one sheet poster with silhouettes of the main characters backed by an ethereal glow. The tag line said simply “The most beautiful love story ever told.” Quite a boast indeed. (Disney did create a more traditional cartoon poster for the film, which was used in later ads.)
It all worked, as ”Beauty and the Beast” rang up big box office numbers and critics fell over themselves to praise the film as one of the best of the year. Now the pressure was on, could Disney actually get a nomination for Best Picture?
The answer was yes.
When the nominees for Best Picture at the 64th Annual Academy Awards were announced, “Beauty and the Beast” was included among the five nominees.
Disney had finally done it.
In addition to the Best Picture nomination, the film got five other nods, the most ever for any animated film. It also got three nominations in the Best Song category, thanks to the music of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. (Both feats are still a record, though both “Enchanted” and “The Lion King” did tie the three song one and “Wall-E” tied for most nominations, they all share the record.)
Sadly the ending of the story didn’t turn out as they had hoped. Just getting there was an honor, but “Beauty and the Beast” was swept aside in what became a history making night for another film, “Silence of the Lambs”, which was only the third film to win all five top prizes (actor, actress, director, screenplay, picture. Jodie Foster, whose film career began at Disney, was named Best Actress.)
Disney did win for best song and score.
The odds were long, to be sure, but many thought that Disney had a slight shot at Best Picture. Just a few weeks earlier, “Beauty and the Beast” had won top honors at the Golden Globes, which is sometimes seen as a bellweather for the Oscars.
Speculation was rampant that Disney actually hurt their cause by refusing to follow tradition and send full versions of the film (known as “screeners”) to Academy voters. They feared the prospect of bootleg copies of their film being sold on the black market, so Disney sent just a ten minute snippet of highlights from the film. This seemed to imply that Disney thought that voters could not be trusted with a personal copy of the film in their hands. Upset at being treated like pirates, many voters sent angry letters and made calls to Disney. One guy even told them that he thought “Beauty and the Beast” was definitely the best picture of the year, but would give his vote to a studio who did trust him with their film.
It took another 18 years before an animated film was given its due, and it was yet another Disney film, ”Up.” The big differences between the two are that “Up” (and “Toy Story 3″, which also got a Best Picture nomination) was animated by computers, not traditionally hand drawn, and it was included in a list of ten nominees, not the more competitive five, as “Beauty and the Beast” had to deal with.
The Academy added a separate category for Best Animated Feature Film in 2001, which many critics argue will prevent the Academy from ever giving top prize to a cartoon. That remains to be seen, but until that day, “Beauty and the Beast” will still be regarded as the pioneer.
Disney’s Amazing Oscar Streaks
1932 – Present
When “Chim Chimeree” won best song in 1964, the Sherman Brothers were in top form, and Disney films were still box office winners. Nobody could have predicted that Disney was about to hit a huge dry streak.
From 1932 until 1964, with the exception of two years (1940 and 1963) Disney had at least one Oscar nomination. Many of those were for Best Song, though it only resulted in three winners in that particular category.
When Walt died in 1966, the Disney Studio’s creativity seemed to go with him and the Academy noticed. Walt's shadow loomed so large that a few of the Oscars given to the Disney Studio after he died still had his name listed on them as Producer.
Their time in the wilderness lasted for 25 years. While there were scattered highlights and nominations, they resulted in few awards.
In 1988, starting with “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” things began to change. The resurrection of the Disney animation department has also been widely been credited to “The Little Mermaid" the following year. Those two films started one of the most amazing winning streaks in modern film history.
From 1989 to 2001, Disney missed out on winning the Best Song category only four times. Twice it was because they didn't enter anything in that category that year, and once because they were up against the unstoppable mega-hit “My Heart Will Go On” from 1997′s “Titanic.” The only competitive loss was to Bob Dylan in 2000. Disney's entry that year was a song written by Sting for "The Emperor's New Groove."
Another streak in Oscar history that comes close to that also belongs to Disney.
From 1934 to 1940 and then from 1951 to 1956, Disney won the Best Animated Short category. Their only real competition at the time was from MGM’s Tom and Jerry, which also built a small winning streak. In all, Disney won 12 out of 22 times it was nominated for animated short. They also won 10 of the first 12 times the award was given. One of Walt’s posthumous awards was for 1968′s “Winnie The Pooh and the Blustery Day.”
In recent years, Pixar has helped Disney add to its records.
“Toy Story” was the very first animated film ever to be nominated for a Best Screenplay award. Pixar had a four year streak of screenplay nominations at one point.
“Up” was the first 3D Animated feature film to be nominated for Best Picture. It's also the shortest ever title for a Best Picture nominee, with just two letters.
Almost all of Pixar’s films produced since the advent of the Best Animated Picture Award have been nominated, losing only just a few times (“Monsters Inc.” and “Cars” being the most notable snubs. Their sequels didn’t even get nominated.)
As noted earlier, Walt Disney holds the record for most Oscars won. Second on that list is composer Alan Menken, who has won 14 (out of 28 nominations, the living record holder) all for Disney films. His partner, Howard Ashman, died just before “Beauty and the Beast” came out and holds the record for most posthumous Oscar wins (4.)
As you can see, Disney and Oscar have grown up nicely together.
Depending on what happens at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood, history might be made once again, and Disney will add to its tally. With Pixar, Henson and Marvel now in the fold, Menken still active and the people like Bobby and Kristin Lopez working on other Disney projects, the studio will continue to provide those magic award winning Hollywood films, songs and moments like only they can.