A look back at history's tackiest Oscars opening numbers


Will Leo DiCaprio finally win Best Actor? Will host Chris Rock go in hard on #OscarsSoWhite? Of all the predictions we can make for Sunday’s 88th Academy Awards ceremony, here’s something you definitely won’t see: A cavalcade of aging movie stars, some in head-to-toe sequins, linking arms for a jaunty, wobbly kickline at the top of the show.

Nowadays, Oscars opening numbers (when we have them) are strictly played for laughs—take Hugh Jackman, Neil Patrick Harris, Seth McFarlane’s characteristically tasteful “We Saw Your Boobs,” or any of Billy Crystal’s Best Picture-inspired parody songs. But once upon a time, it wasn’t that way at all. In the ’70s and ’80s, these musical acts were utterly, sometimes painfully sincere. They were unabashed spectacles.

They were also, without exception, endearingly unhinged.

1989: Snow White (Eileen Bowman) and Rob Lowe

Producer Allan Carr decided to take the 1989 ceremony in a new direction, staging a career-ending, 10-minute musical introduction that has gone down as the most notorious moment in Academy Awards history. It’s physically uncomfortable to watch. In fact, I have a theory about the Snow White performance—its universally disastrous reception may have brought about the tongue-in-cheek, disaffected tone Oscars opening numbers have taken ever since, out of a desire by the Academy to avoid future humiliation on that scale.

Snow White (played by 22-year-old Eileen Bowman—poor, young Eileen Bowman) coos “I Only Have Eyes for You” in a dog whistle-pitch voice, wandering the rows of seated celebrities, whose faces are plastered with a look of muted horror you’ll recognize if you’ve ever been pawed at by a cast member of Cats.

There is no self-awareness here: just saccharine, garish excess. The absolute lowpoint (somehow Merv Griffin trotting out “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts” doesn’t make the cut) comes when a 24-year-old Rob Lowe—whose personal charisma is matched only by his inability to sing—is introduced as Snow White’s blind date.

Together, they perform a movies-themed version of “Proud Mary” that is in every way a raging garbage fire:

Big lights keep on burnin’
Cameras keep on turnin’
Rollin’, rollin’, keep the cameras rollin’

Amazingly, no one involved bothered to get permission from Disney to use the Snow White character, and they were nailed with a copyright infringement lawsuit the very next day.

1987: Dom DeLuise, Pat Morita, Telly Savalas

Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Steve Martin, and Rodney Dangerfield were among the famous names who declined producer Samuel Goldwyn, Jr.’s invitation to perform “Fugue for Tinhorns,” a song from Guys and Dolls, to open the 1987 Oscars. Goldwyn ultimately rounded up a less glamorous trio to do the job: Dom DeLuise, Telly Savalas (a.k.a. Kojak), and Pat Morita (a.k.a. Mr. Miyagi).

To DeLuise, Savalas, and Morita’s credit, they are totally game for this craziness. Telly Savalas starts singing from the red carpet, nearly bumping into celebrities as he does. Pat Morita begins his part of the song from the theater lobby, where his voice is difficult to make out over the ambient crowd noise. Shifty men hand them each wads of cash, a bit that goes over my head until I remember that this is a song about gambling. Because sure, why not?

On the actual stage, dancers are doing some serious, totally incongruous dancing, on and around large, brightly illuminated signs displaying titles of the year’s films.

DeLuise, Morita, and Savalas are confident and likable, but it’s impossible to make out at least a third of the lyrics as they sing over each other and generally fail to enunciate—there’s a real your-dad-attempting-karaoke feel to the whole production.

Jacket colors were a great call, though!

1986: Teri Garr

In this irresistibly bonkers opening, Teri Garr pilots a plane—with women high-kicking on its wings—straight into the venue, a visual effect that must have been a remarkable technical achievement at the time. Thirty years later, not so much.

“Flying Down to Oscar” is a reference to the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers-starring Flying Down to Rio—it also incorporates footage from a variety of other movies, including, for some reason, Godzilla.

Inside the theater, Garr is joined by male dancers wearing baby-blue bomber jackets, dark sunglasses, and ascots for an elaborate dance number and some self-involved show business jingoism, as was tradition:

Hollywood is Marilyn wearing something white
Hollywood is Gable and Colbert’s famous night
Hollywood is Tracy and Hepburn, dynamite!
So when you speak of the biz
That is what Hollywood is

The 1986 opening number—with its pastel bathing suits, feathers, satin, and a tenuous medley of songs that have the word “star” in them—might very well be the campiest Oscars performance in history, which is really saying something. RuPaul, if you’re reading this, please consider assigning the cast of Drag Race to recreate this magic next season.

1983: Liza Minnelli, Richard Pryor, Dudley Moore, Walter Matthau

Unlike many of these opening numbers, which tend to be beautifully (if bizarrely) executed, “It All Comes Down to This” is an unqualified mess.

Liza, as always, is a pro, but it would not to surprise me to learn that her three costars learned they were expected to get on stage just five minutes before the cameras started rolling.

The lyrics are the standard Oscars treacle (“But here tonight, we’ll stand in the light / With that gold-plated, bald-headed guy!”), but there’s no choreography to speak of, a deficit the ensemble members compensate for by awkwardly shuffling. Richard Pryor in particular looks terrified, forgets the words, and can barely be heard above the orchestra.

All things considered, it is a must-watch.

1978: Debbie Reynolds

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Academy Awards, Debbie Reynolds sings and dances to “Look How Far We’ve Come,” but not before the announcer delivers the hokiest opening line imaginable: “Born May 16. Weight: eight pounds, eight ounces. Height: 13 and one-half inches. Name: Oscar!”

The choreography and lyrics invoke Hollywood touchstones like Charlie Chaplin, Valentino, Singin’ in the Rain (in which Reynolds starred), and Saturday Night Fever. “Look How Far We’ve Come” is the industry giving itself an extended, utterly unironic pat on the back in musical form:

Look how we’ve matured
Look how self-assured
We’ve been through pranksters and monsters and gangsters
And look how we’ve endured

Congrats on enduring, guys. That said, there’s a lot to love about this nutty performance. Reynolds defies the laws of physics by tossing what appears to be the same hat into the wings multiple times, and in a bittersweet finale, dozens of past Oscar winners—many of them elderly, and many of their names unfamiliar today—are welcomed onto the stage.

1977: Ann-Margret

The lovely and talented Ann-Margret is responsible for what may be the least comprehensible Oscars opening number of all time—and if not that, then the most likely to be confused for somebody’s master thesis in modern dance. Wearing a flowing cape over a leotard, the Bye Bye Birdie star performs an interpretative dance to a song titled “Magic Circle (It All Started in Someone’s Head).” What kind of “magic circle,” you ask? Well, this kind:

A circle woven of words and dreams
As round as it is wide
With many colored images
Shimmering inside

Leaning heavily on context, I’d guess this song is about movies, but I am not prepared to bet any amount of money on that.

The music gets more upbeat when Ann-Margret is joined by women in Victorian bonnets, at least one cowboy, and a few vaguely Pagliacci-looking dudes for some pelvic thrusts and jazz hands. Bold choices all around.

1976: Ray Bolger

“Hollywood Honors Its Own” finds Ray Bolger, the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz, cavorting outside, and later inside, the theater where the ceremony is being held.

The late Bolger’s ample charms aside, the whole navel-gazing number feels a little like a morale-boosting video a company might produce to show at their Christmas party—or possibly the Dundees—in part because the lyrics are almost comically specific:

I’m delighted you are tuned to this station
For you’re invited to a great celebration
The 48th annual Academy Awards
Tonight on the 29th of March
At the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
Of the Music Center
In downtown Los Angeles
Minutes away from Hollywood, USA

A full verse is devoted to enumerating various modes of transportation one might take to the ceremony (a bus! a bike! a chariot! a hot air balloon!).

This clip somehow feels even older than its 40 years, so it’s jarring to see—a very young-looking, but still—Jack Nicholson sitting in the audience.

Come for the obligatory Wizard of Oz references, stay for the spry 72-year-old Bolger’s tap dancing.

1974: Liza Minnelli

Liza’s back! In 1974, she and the pinkest scarf in recorded history turned in a solo performance of “Oscar,” yet another song that was seemingly written for the occasion—and a song which, for quite some time, does not seem to have anything to do with the Oscars.

After Minnelli wraps up a semi-spoken intro that I truthfully have no explanation for, she’s joined by a fleet of dancers in tails, top hats, and trousers with sparkly gold stripes. From there on out, she’s seemingly serenading the statuette directly:

Big boy, don’t you love it?
You’re the plum performers covet
You’re the summit of a consummate rise
Your glamour goes on
Though you haven’t any clothes on

Then, actual audio from Liza’s 1970 Oscar loss and 1973 Oscar win plays as she reenacts her reactions and offers a chatty soliloquy about her awards-forecasting manicurist. The future Lucille Austero sounds and looks great, but this feels a little like an ill-conceived one-woman show, or perhaps a “Rose’s Turn” mental break.

The Academy/YouTube

1973: Angela Lansbury

Eleven years before Murder, She Wrote would premiere on CBS, Angela Lansbury opened the 1973 Academy Awards ceremony. “Make a Little Magic” is a googly-eyed, seven-minute paean to show business, and it is so earnest it makes my teeth hurt.

Disembodied voices shout-sing about various aspects of the filmmaking process as Lansbury navigates through various crew members and cameras to get her hair and makeup done and attend music and dance rehearsals for some kind of unspecified ur-movie.

Finally, a chorus of leggy showgirls in cotton candy skirts and towering silver headpieces flounce around for a while before the then-47-year-old Dame Lansbury herself descends the staircase (of course there’s a staircase) in sequins and fur. It is part Mame, part Gentleman Prefer Blondes, part fever dream.

1959: Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster

Oddly enough, the very oldest televised Oscar opening number we could find has a lot more in common with contemporary tastes than those of the decades between.

In an encore to “It’s Great Not to Be Nominated,” a similarly salty song the two A-list friends performed partway through the previous year’s ceremony, Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster opened the 1959 show with “It’s Alright With Us.”

The self-deprecating, self-referential lyrics speak to how neither actor received an Oscar nod, yet both have been asked to perform:

Why should we feel obligated?
Let them use the ones they nominated
If you ain’t heard, we went and missed the bus
What we should do is cuss

The whole routine is genuinely very funny, and reaches new heights of oddball charm when—in the song’s final moments—Kirk climbs atop Burt’s shoulders, and then both men perform a somersault.

Molly Fitzpatrick is senior editor of Fusion’s Pop & Culture section. Her interests include movies about movies, TV shows about TV shows, and movies about TV shows, but not so much TV shows about movies.

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