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Backlash, Lawsuits, and Lore: Why the 1989 Oscars Are Considered the Worst Ever

The 61st Annual Academy Awards will forever live in infamy.

Demi Moore and Bruce Willis at the 61st Annual Academy Awards 1989
Demi Moore and Bruce Willis at the 61st Annual Academy Awards 1989

The overwhelming consensus among film historians is that the 61st Annual Academy Awards from 1989 is considered the worst Oscars ceremony of all time. Why? Academics and armchair critics alike point to numerous missteps, but the crux of the criticism largely centers around a tone-deaf, 12-minute opening duet performance by Rob Lowe and a then-unknown actress dressed as Snow White.

The blame and immediate backlash for the disastrous ceremony fell squarely on one man, Allan Carr, an unabashedly flamboyant, caftan-wearing producer who reigned over Hollywood’s social scene in the ’70s and ’80s, hosting outrageous bashes in a mansion dubbed Hilhaven Lodge, once home to Ingrid Bergman and presently owned by Brett Ratner.

Richard Dreyfus and Allan Carr (right) at the Governors Ball following the 1989 Academy Awards

Carr made his fortune in 1978 by producing the movie Grease, one of the top grossing and most profitable musicals of all time. By 1989, however, after a string of critical and financial flops, he was in need of a job.

Carr decided that producing the Oscars–even though it didn’t pay anything–would be the best way to vault himself back into the Hollywood limelight. In keeping with his ostentatious character, Carr was determined to create an evening that melded Broadway glitz with Hollywood glam. The Academy Awards, he predicted, would be a night to remember.

For better and worse, his prediction would prove prophetic. Carr introduced a number of components to the Oscar ceremony that remain tradition to this day. Some of his successful innovations include the extended red carpet coverage, the individual presentations of the Best Picture nominees, and the famous line, “The Oscar goes to … ”.

River Phoenix with Martha Plimpton at the 61st Annual Academy Awards, 1989

But those flourishes were far outweighed by Carr’s disastrous decision to do away with a host and rely on famous “couples, companions, costars, and compadres,” as he put it. The show was doomed from the start.

Enter 22-year-old Eileen Bowman dressed as Snow White in a yellow skirt. She opened the ceremony with a squeaky-voiced introduction before joining Rob Lowe on stage, where the two launched into an atonal duet.

Carr watched from offstage, wearing a black sequined dinner jacket. At first the singing pair seemed to be playing well to the live audience. But an uncomfortable mood quickly spread throughout the theater.

By the time the show was over, Carr had sweated through his dinner jacket. He had no choice but to face his peers at the Governors Ball, held in the Shrine’s Expo Hall, where Academy president Richard Kahn and his wife, Marianne, were accepting muted compliments.

Just a few hours later, hometown newspaper The San Francisco Examiner gave the show a rave review. Other publications weren’t so generous. The LA Times said the show “… wasn’t Hollywood Burning. It was Hollywood Lukewarm.” The New York Times went even further with their rebuke, stating “The 61st Academy Awards ceremony began by creating the impression that there would never be a 62nd.  The evening’s opening number, which deserves a permanent place in the annals of Oscar embarrassments, was indeed as bad as that … Snow White, played as a simpering ninny, performed a duet of “Proud Mary” with Rob Lowe, who would be well-advised to confine all future musical activities to the shower.”

Ironically, the ratings for the 1989 Oscars weren’t just good; they were great, reversing a five-year decline. The telecast was viewed by no fewer than 42 million people, earning a 29.8 rating.

But any comfort that Carr and Kahn might’ve taken from those figures was soon dashed. About the time those acerbic newspaper reviews began circulating, Kahn received a phone call from Frank Wells, president of Disney. He explained that the appearance of Snow White had not been approved by the House of Mouse. In fact, no one from the Academy had even asked for permission.

By that Thursday, Disney slapped the Academy with a federal lawsuit charging that the Oscar telecast had abused and damaged the studio’s Snow White character. It asked for unspecified damages for “copyright infringement, unfair competition, and dilution of business reputation.”

The following week, new trouble arrived in the form of a letter, signed by 17 of Hollywood’s most prominent figures including Julie Andrews, Billy Wilder, Sidney Lumet, Joe Mankiewicz, and Paul Newman.

It began, “The 61st Academy Awards show was an embarrassment to both the Academy and the entire motion picture industry. It is neither fitting nor acceptable that the best work in motion pictures be acknowledged in such a demeaning fashion. We urge the president and governors of the Academy to ensure that future award presentations reflect the same standard of excellence as that set by the films and filmmakers they honor.”

More than anything else, it was this letter that many believe destroyed Allan Carr.  To add insult to injury, almost one month to the day after the 1989 Academy Awards, Lucille Ball, who attended the Oscars, passed away. The prevailing joke in Hollywood was that the Oscar telecast had done her in.

Lucille Ball at the 61st Annual Academy Awards, 1989

For the first time in his professional life, Allan Carr gave up talking to the press, becoming perpetually “unavailable for comment.” Variety reported that he was traveling in Mexico. Carr became a hermit, retreating to Hilhaven Lodge. When he did leave the house, he also made sure to leave the country. When Mexico proved not far enough away, he’d travel to Fiji, packing a small suitcase filled with a pharmacy’s worth of drugs that he’d wash down with champagne.

When all was said and done, Carr never produced another movie or stage show again. He died of liver cancer on June 29, 1999, at the age of 62, haunted by the notion that a single, well-intentioned but ultimately disastrous night, would forever define his legacy.

If you’d like to watch the video essay Metaflix produced about the 1989 Oscars, head to our YouTube channel or watch the embedded version above.

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