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HOLLYWOOD’S NIGHT OF NIGHTS is rapidly approaching, and, if the history of the event is anything to go by, it’s guaranteed to deliver moments that will enter and alter the zeitgeist. If history has taught us anything, it’s that packing thousands of the world’s most recognisable people into the same room, loading them up with liberal amounts of food and booze and subjecting them to an evening of self-ingratiating rituals is bound to prompt headlines and stoke online discourse.

From political statements and iconic messages to unfortunate mistakes and physical violence (looking at you Will Smith), over the years, the Oscars have provided us with a handful of significant moments that we’ll never forget. Before more talking points emerge during this year’s ceremony—which is just four days away—we’re looking back at the times the Oscars’ biggest highlights weren’t the awards themselves.

Jennifer Lawrence trips up the stage

It’s like everyone’s worst nightmare come to life. Just imagine it: you’re accomplishing a lifelong dream with the entire world watching on, and as you go up to collect your award, you take an unfortunate tumble on some pesky stairs. It’s the kind of stuff that would keep you up at night, and it’s exactly what happened to Jennifer Lawrence at the 2013 Oscars. The trip may have actually worked in Lawrence’s favour though, she had won Best Actress and become a Hollywood favourite due to her quirks and unfiltered realness, so her tumble only reinforced these notions and further endeared her to fans.

“You guys are just standing up because you feel bad that I fell, and that’s really embarrassing, but thank you,” she would go on to say in her acceptance speech.

Alfred Hitchcock says “Thank you”… and not a word more

Alfred Hitchcock will always be remembered as one of the greatest directors of all time, but the Academy never really saw it that way. The ‘master of suspense’ was nominated for Best Director five times, but never won. Finally, something had to give, and in 1968—when Hitchcock’s moviemaking prime was behind him and his Oscar prospects were dwindling—the director was presented with the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, the equivalent of a lifetime achievement award. It’s a bit like saying, sure, you weren’t ever good enough to win, but we feel bad, so here’s a participation trophy. Needless to say, Hitchcock didn’t take it particularly well. After taking to the stage to accept his honorific trophy, Hitchcock spoke a simple “Thank you” into the microphone, returned to say something unintelligible, and figured that would suffice.

Marlon Brando rejects his award

If you were to pool all of the Best Actor Oscar winners into a single contest and have them compete for a Best Actor of the Best Actors award, Marlon Brando would have a strong chance of winning it. Brando’s role as Vito Corleone in The Godfather is one of the most memorable and frequently imitated performances in film history, and the actor was rightfully rewarded for his role with a Best Actor trophy. Except, Brando chose not to receive it. Instead, he sent Sacheen Littlefeather, an Apache activist and president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee, to decline the honour. “He very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award, and the reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry,” Littlefeather said on Brando’s behalf.

The internet-shattering selfie

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In hindsight, there’s nothing particularly special about this moment. After all, it’s just a photo of a few famous people that we see everyday. Such was the internet’s obsession with the then-burgeoning concept of a selfie—which had only been named word of the year by that sanctimonious guardian of the English language, the Oxford dictionary, one year prior—that this fairly straightforward snap became a defining cultural moment of 2014.

Maybe we’re being too harsh. The selfie did feature some serious star power, including Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Channing Tatum, Jared Leto, Lupita Nyong’o, Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, and a pre-reckoning Ellen DeGeneres, but did this really deserve to become the most retweeted photo in Twitter history within an hour of being posted? This selfie will likely be remembered more as an insight into the strange things that used to make society go wild than for being a generation-defining moment.

Leo finally gets what he’s owed

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Leonardo DiCaprio’s Oscar was a long time coming. He landed his first Oscar nomination in 1994 and would snag another three individual nominations by 2014, though he didn’t win any of them. Then, in 2016, DiCaprio’s time finally came, when he won Best Actor for The Revenant and garnered a lengthy, well-deserved standing ovation from the crowd. To date, the occasion marks DiCaprio’s only win from seven nominations. Still, he has to be happier than Hitchcock was.

Heath Ledger’s posthumous recognition

Who didn’t shed a tear during the 2009 Oscars? Heath Ledger’s unexpected death in early 2008 preceded the release of The Dark Knight, which would eventually draw widespread critical acclaim and commercial success, propped up by Ledger’s revelatory portrayal of the Joker. More than a year after his death, Ledger was posthumously awarded the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, and not a dry eye was kept. Ledger’s family accepted the award on his behalf and were met with a chorus of applause and a prolonged standing ovation.

The Moonlight mix-up

One of the most infamous moments in Oscars history, the Moonlight mix-up is what would happen if everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. At the 2017 Oscars, after a hotly contested campaign season from leading Best Picture candidates Moonlight and La La Land, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway took to the stage to announce that La La Land had won the award. The only problem was, it hadn’t.

As La La Land’s cast and crew rose to accept the award, celebrated on stage, and even started giving speeches, it became clear that something was horribly amiss. Stagehands rushed around behind the scenes to correct the mistake, eventually producing another envelope containing the actual Best Picture winner: Moonlight.  

Just how does a prestigious institution like the Oscars allow for such a colossal mistake to occur? Well, as the story goes, Beatty and Dunaway were initially handed the wrong envelope, one that was used earlier to announce that Emma Stone had won Best Actress for her role in La La Land. As Beatty explained, he and Dunaway were uncertain if there had been an error, but Dunaway made the foolhardy decision of announcing La La Land as the winner anyway.

The slap

A moment that needs no introduction. For a few years, we all collectively assumed that the Moonlight mix-up would go down as the most memorable moment is Oscars history, but Will Smith upstaged the unupstageable. At the 2022 Oscars, after host Chris Rock made an ill-conceived joke directed towards Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith sought retribution by slapping Rock on stage, for the world to see. He then returned to his seat to shout “Keep my wife’s name out your f**cking mouth!” Countless memes followed.

At first, the live audience, and everyone watching from home, wasn’t sure if the whole escapade was some sort of long-winded joke, as they sat waiting for the punchline. But Rock’s shocked reaction made it clear the moment wasn’t scripted. Rock eventually broke the silence by saying: “That was the greatest night in the history of television.” There’s an argument to be made that he’s right. Smith returned to the stage later in the night to accept the award for Best Actor, and he’s been banned from attending any Academy events since.


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