While we have our fair share of award shows this time of year, the Oscars are generally considered the biggest of them all. Millions of people across the U.S. and around the world will gather in front of their televisions to compare notes and sometimes squabble over who should win what, even though the voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts have already selected the winners and losers.
One thing that everyone can agree on is that the Academy Awards provide us with an emotional snapshot of what it means to be human. Over the years we’ve seen joy, we’ve seen laughter, we’ve seen outrage, we’ve seen gaffes of all kinds, and we’ve seen so many tears.
From the historical to the heartfelt to the hilarious, from the political to the personal to the polemical, the Oscars have been touching us annually for nearly a century. So it’s a great time to step back and take stock of the rich, glorious history of this very American institution and remember a few of the highlights – and lowlights – of Academy Award shows past. Here are a few of the most memorable moments.
Hattie McDaniel – 1940
Hattie McDaniel was the first African-American woman to be nominated for and to win an Oscar, for her role as Mammy in Gone With the Wind. The awards venue was still segregated then, and producer David O. Selznick had to fight to get McDaniel admitted to the room – where she was seated at a table in the back.
Marlon Brando – 1973
Brando may have been the first actor to make an overtly political gesture via the Oscars when he refused his 1973 Best Actor award for The Godfather. In his stead, a Native American woman named Sacheen Littlefeather took the stage and refused the award on his behalf in protest of the film industry’s treatment of Native Americans.
Sally Field – 1985
The 1980 winner for Norma Rae famously gushed “You like me!” in her 1985 acceptance speech for her role in Places in the Heart, an infamously misquoted speech. It was her second win, and she noted that the first time around she didn’t think the Hollywood elite respected her much. But in 1985 she felt the love.
Jennifer Lawrence – 2013
If there’s one person in the world who can be beautiful, awkward, clumsy, hilarious and charming all at once, it’s Jennifer Lawrence. She showed the world that adorably unique package in 2013 as she somehow fell up the stairs on her way to collect her Best Actress award for Silver Linings Playbook.
John Travolta – 2014
As presenter John Travolta attempted to welcome Idina Menzel to the stage to sing “Let it Go” from Frozen, he somehow managed to turn her name into something like “Adele Dazeem.” Menzel got him back the following year when she introduced him as her “very dear friend, Glom Gazingo.”
La La Land vs. Moonlight – 2017
Perhaps no more mortifying moment has occurred during the Oscar ceremony than when La La Land was temporarily awarded the Best Picture award, only to learn that presenters Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty had been given the wrong envelope. The error soured the proceedings and sadly cast a shadow over Moonlight’s well-deserved win.
Frances McDormand – 2018
McDormand’s acceptance speech for Thee Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was the highlight of the evening when she asked the women in the room to stand, and reminded the people who control the money and decision-making in Hollywood that “we all have stories to tell too, stories that need financing.”