In the week running up to tomorrow Oscar’s ceremony, we’ve looked at various aspects of Academy Award mania, from the best, and the worst, Best Picture winners, to the directors who went unrecognized, to our final predictions. But there’s one final element of Oscar ceremonies themselves that we wanted to highlight: the musical numbers.
Though musicals don’t always dominate ceremonies the way they used to back in the day, the Academy’s love for a good (or disastrous) musical moment has remained fairly consistent. And after a few years off, as Best Original Song performances were ignored, they’re back in force. And this year will see, for the first time in some years, all four Original Song nominees performed, with U2, Karen O, Idina Menzel and Pharrell Williams taking the stage.
That means that right now, LA is full of stressed-out dancers desperately trying to learn their interpretative dance moves to a tossed-off Bono number, so to lessen their pain, and to prepare you for your own ahead of Sunday’s ceremony, we’ve picked out five great Oscar musical numbers from previous years, and five terrible ones. We’re not making any claims to being definitive—there’s an 85-year history here, and not all that much of it is available (legend has it that the 1987 ceremony began with Telly Savalas, Pat Morita and Dom DeLuise singing “Fugue For Tinhorns” from “Guys and Dolls,” but it’s somehow defied the Internet and never made its way online). But that’s not to besmirch the quality, or lack of it, that you’ll find in the potted history below. Take a look, and speak up for your own favorites, or anti-favorites, in the comments section.
5 Great Ones
Bjork – “I’ve Seen It All” – from “Dancer In The Dark” (2001)
The ceremony can do razzle-dazzle well, but with the right song and performer, sometimes all you need is an empty stage. And, sometimes, a dress that looks like a swan. That a Lars von Trier film broke into the category that mostly celebrates mediocrity is sort of remarkable, and his bleak, yet joyful musical “Dancer In The Dark” (which might remain his best film) is certainly an atypical picture for the category, just as Bjork‘s song “I’ve Seen It All” was equally out of place. But the Icelandic chanteuse is a world-class live performer, and complete with her bird-themed outfit, she owns the stage, and probably freaked out the elderly Academy members while she was at it. If she’d performed the full duet with Peter Stormare, as in the film (or Thom Yorke, as it was on record), it would have been ever better, but even so, it’s not a moment we’ll ever forget.
Elliott Smith – “Miss Misery” – from “Good Will Hunting” (1998)
Another unlikely performer, and another (rightly) stripped down set, this is one of the more emotionally potent and memorable Original Song performances in living memory. Singer-songwriter Elliott Smith contributed a number of tracks to the “Good Will Hunting” soundtrack, but it’s the lovely “Miss Misery” that was the specially-composed one, and which in a year dominated by Celine Dion and a ballad from “Con Air,” proved to be a real standout. Smith was initially reluctant to perform, but when told that another artist would cover the tune it if he turned down, he eventually acquiesced. Smith later commented, “I enjoy performing almost as much as I enjoy making up songs in the first place. But the Oscars was a very strange show, where the set was only one song cut down to less than two minutes, and the audience was a lot of people who didn’t come to hear me play. I wouldn’t want to live in that world, but it was fun to walk around on the moon for a day.”
Hugh Jackman – Opening Number (2009)
Some kind of opening musical number has become, if not essential, than certainly traditional, usually exemplified by Billy Crystal. They’re usually big production numbers that name-check the big nominees, with a few gags thrown in. Given his status as both a Broadway song-and-dancer and A-list movie star, hopes were high for Hugh Jackman‘s hosting gig in 2009, and he didn’t disappoint, following the Billy Crystal template, but with a topical, handmade recession feel. Penned by, among others, “Community” creator Dan Harmon and “Parks and Recreation” star Ben Schwartz, the song took in the nominees, addressed the controversy that “The Dark Knight” had gone un-nominated, pulled Anne Hathaway on stage to re-enact “Frost/Nixon,” made a surprisingly cutting, electro-scored gag that acknowledged that no one really liked “The Reader,” and closed with Jackman, dressed as Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler,” exclaiming “I’m Wolverine.” Energetic and legitimately funny even when the music was a bit strained, it’s the high watermark of present-day openers.
Jack Black, Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly – “A Comedian At The Oscars” (2008)
Another familiar tradition of late is bringing up big comedy stars—Ben Stiller, Jim Carrey et al.—to do a bit for the smaller categories, to liven things up mid-show. Having teamed up in 2004 for a fairly funny illustration of the lyrics to the “Get Off The Stage” Oscar song, Will Ferrell and Jack Black returned in 2007 to sing a lament (with music by “Hairspray“/”South Park” composer Marc Shaiman, and lyrics by Judd Apatow and Adam McKay) to how comedians are ignored by the Academy Awards. “A comedian at the Oscars is the saddest, bitterest, most alcoholic clown,” begins Ferrell, before Black takes to the stage and challenges Peter O’Toole to a fight. But fortunately, John C. Reilly stands up from the audience, and tells them that “you can be in both Boogie and Talladega Nights.” It’s an ingenious and totally winning bit—how have these guys never hosted together?
Bruce Springsteen – “Streets Of Philadelphia” from “Philadelphia” (1994)
Musical legends from Michael Jackson to Madonna have all had their moments on stage at the Oscars (and Sting has done it like fourteen fucking times). But our personal favorite might be the Boss. His theme tune to Jonathan Demme‘s AIDS drama “Philadelphia” isn’t at the top of the Springsteen canon, but the moody, synthy ballad was a deserving winner, and the performance was a great one, free of gimmicks, and just letting the songwriting, and Bruce’s voice, sing out. Sure, the backing vocalist who looks like a bodyguard undermines the whole thing a bit, but it’s leagues better than most performances in the last couple of decades.
Also Worth Mentioning: Michael Jackson’s rendition of “Ben” might have made the list, but it wasn’t a live turn (and it’s also pretty treacly, though Jackson does it brilliantly). We’re also fond of Bob Dylan‘s “Things Have Changed” from “Wonder Boys” (performed live from Australia), the song from “Belleville Rendez-Vous,” Robin Williams doing “Blame Canada“ from “South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut.” And more recently, there’s Three Six Mafia‘s “It’s Hard Out There For A Pimp,” Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova doing “Falling Slowly,” and from last year, Adele performing “Skyfall,“ doubled with Shirley Bassey doing “Goldfinger.”
5 Terrible Ones
“In The Deep” – Bird York – from “Crash” (2006)
There are so many things to regret about “Crash” being such an Oscar force, but one of the main ones is its Best Original Song nomination. “In The Deep,” the nominated song by Kathleen “Bird” York (an actress/singer best known for playing Toby Ziegler’s ex-wife on “The West Wing“) isn’t bad so much as it is terribly, terribly bland, but it’s the hilariously literal staging that makes it such a disaster. York sings in front of the backdrop of a, uh, burning car, while performers of various ethnicities included in Paul Haggis‘ film walk around in slow-motion behind her. It’s quite staggeringly misjudged, redeemed only by the fact that it was beaten for the Oscar by “It’s Hard Out There For A Pimp,” which makes quite the contrast.
Ray Parker Jr. – “Ghostbusters” from “Ghostbusters” (1985)
In the week where Harold Ramis passed, it should be understood that we’re not knocking “Ghostbusters,” or the Ray Parker Jr. theme tune that was Oscar nominated (only to be beaten by Stevie Wonder‘s “I Just Called To Say I Love You”). Indeed, Parker Jr.’s spirited performance is not what was wrong with this particular production number. It’s more that it seems to have been put together by someone who not only hadn’t seen “Ghostbusters,” but that had absolutely no sense of taste. For some reason, Parker Jr. sings his track in an orange jumpsuit (?) from an forklift truck elevated above the stage (??) as ghosts dressed as Southern belles and, uh, lampshades (???) dance on stage, until out-of-work actors playing sort-of Ghostbusters come on—clearly and obviously late for their cue—and shoot them (????), followed by an appearance by Dom DeLuise as a vampire or wizard or something (?????). It looks like an unauthorized Eastern European remake of the movie by someone who only saw the trailer, and is one of the most embarrassing things we’ve ever seen on the Oscar stage.
Celine Dion & Andrea Bocelli – “The Prayer” from “Quest For Camelot” (1999)
Celine Dion‘s “My Heart Will Go On” is one of the best known Original Song winners in history, but what’s more easily forgotten is that she was back there the next year, for Warner Bros.‘ mega-flop animation “Quest For Camelot.” “The Prayer” has apparently become a bit of a Dion staple (it’s popular at both Christmas and funerals, which, uh, at least suggests it’s versatile), but the performance at the Oscars, a duet with Andrea Bocelli, is unspeakably dull. In fact, it’s so boring that we … Sorry, nodded off for a minute there. The performance sounds like two (very mediocre) different songs being sung at each other, rather than together, and Dion and Bocelli display not even an iota of chemistry together.
“We Saw Your Boobs” – Seth MacFarlane (2013)
The daring choice of Seth MacFarlane to host last year’s ceremony worried those of us who aren’t fans of his work on “Family Guy” and “Ted” and elsewhere, but a strong ‘SNL‘ hosting gig suggested that he could turn out do a pretty good job. And then came his opening number, the already-legendary “We Saw Your Boobs.” One of multiple excuses for MacFarlane to entertain his rat-pack fantasies, and dressed up as a confusing meta-thing with William Shatner as Captain Kirk that suggested it as a sort of worst-case scenario, it’s a perfectly pleasant melody, but pretty grim otherwise. For all the quote-marks MacFarlane tries to put around it, it’s objectifying, fratty and in places, incredibly questionable—hey, Jodie Foster, we saw your boobs in “The Accused,” because that’s what rape scenes are good for, enabling us to see your boobs! It couldn’t have been a worse note to start the evening on, and it says something that, while the Academy have made the bulk of Oscar openings available on YouTube, MacFarlane’s isn’t officially on there.
Rob Lowe & Snow White (1989)
Well, we were hardly going to forget this one, were we? It’s the motherload of ill-judged, disastrous Oscar musical numbers, and one that’s haunted AMPAS ever since. Poor, fresh-off-the-bus actress Eileen Bowman was selected by “Grease” producer Allen Carr (whose career was pretty much ended by the day after) to play Snow White—despite no approval from Disney, who went on to sue. The poor girl enters the theater following a parade of cardboard stars, goes to a reenactment of the Coconut Grove full of faded stars like Buddy Rogers, Tony Martin and Vincent Price, before Rob Lowe joins the stage to join her in a reedy-voiced duet of “Proud Mary.” It’s legitimately staggering, and so unbelievably awkward that it’s basically unwatchable. It wasn’t received any better on the night—legends including Paul Newman, Billy Wilder and Gregory Peck wrote an open letter calling it “an embarrassment to both the Academy and the entire motion picture industry.”
Also Worth Mentioning: Among the other dodgy ones, there were some pretty dire attempts at two songs from “The Little Mermaid,” Aerosmith‘s “Armageddon” ballad “Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing,” and Phil Collins performing his Oscar-winning song from “Tarzan.”
Do you have a favorite or a performance you wish you could scrub from your memory? Let us know in the comments section.