Here are 10 Oscar moments that left us gobsmacked. Which winners, speeches, performances, fashions, and gaffes surprised you the most? Let us know in the comments below.
10. Charlie Chaplin Receives 12-Minute Standing Ovation (1972)
It may not be surprising, exactly — after all, he earned it with “The Gold Rush,” “City Lights,” “Modern Times,” and “The Great Dictator,” among others — but the sheer length of the ovation Chaplin upon receiving an honorary Oscar in 1972 left the filmmaker himself nearly speechless. (Though he’d received a special award for “The Circus” in 1929, his remarkable career had, to that point, netted but three competitive nominations — two for “The Great Dictator” and one for “Monsieur Verdoux” — and no wins.) As perhaps the greatest of the silent cinema’s actors and directors understood, there are times when “words seem so futile, so feeble,” and this was surely one.
9. Roberto Benigni Climbs His Way to the Oscar (1999)
In retrospect, the Italian actor/director’s exuberant, mildly dangerous procession to the stage, where he accepted Best Foreign-Language Film for “Life Is Beautiful” from countrywoman Sophia Loren, may appear to be part of his shtick — but at the time, the moment came across as a genuine, spontaneous outpouring of joy. Balancing precariously on the backs of seats, guided by the hands of well-wishers, Benigni refused to disguise his delight, and in the process shook up the prim “acceptance speech” form. (At the very least, it made for good TV.)
8. The American Express Card Dress (1995)
Before Bjork’s swan was even a glimmer in its designer’s eye, “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” costume designer broke new ground in the unofficial “She wore what?!” category (pioneered by Cher’s headdress) with a dress made entirely of American Express Gold cards. An idea that originated with “Priscilla,” only to be turned down by the credit card company, the eye-catching ensemble made waves beyond the red carpet when Gardiner and collaborator Tim Chappel received the Academy Award from Sharon Stone. AmEx provided 300 custom cards printed with Gardiner’s name for the occasion, and later featured her in its ads, so the moment may also qualify as a milestone in the history of product placement.
7. Whoopi, “The African Queen” (1999)
Entering to the score of the night’s eventual (and itself unexpected) Best Picture winner, “Shakespeare in Love,” Goldberg began one of the most successful hosting stints in recent memory — and a personal favorite of mine — on a note of delicious high camp. Aping Supporting Actress winner Judi Dench’s elaborate get-up as Queen Elizabeth I in John Madden’s spry romantic comedy, Goldberg surprised and delighted the assembled stars from the first: “Good evening, loyal subjects,” she began. “I am the African queen.” If there were a school for prospective Oscar hosts, this would be the required viewing in Opening Monologue 101.
6. Adrien Brody Smooches Halle Berry (2003)
This may seem too high on the list, but if you pause to think about it, the kiss is the result of a confluence of surprising developments. Up against a murderer’s row of former winners (Michael Caine, Nicolas Cage, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Jack Nicholson), the mostly unknown Brody won Best Actor for Roman Polanski’s Holocaust drama “The Pianist,” and proceeded to land a wet one on the unsuspecting — and, let’s face it, not entirely thrilled-looking — Berry. (It was also the year that the Academy brought the absent Polanski, in exile since 1977 on rape charges, back into the fold, awarding him Best Director.) Brody made a joke of it while presenting the Best Actress trophy the following year, applying a bit of breath spray before announcing the winner, but in reality it was a strange and slightly uncomfortable moment, of the kind only live television offers.
5. “Crash” Defeats “Brokeback Mountain” for Best Picture (2006)
The upset of upsets, at least since the Weinsteins maneuvered “Shakespeare in Love” into pole position over “Saving Private Ryan,” “Crash” winning Best Picture over “Brokeback Mountain” has achieved near-mythic status in the annals of Academy errors — though I still think in pales in comparison to the long list of extraordinary filmmakers who never won Best Director, or Cary Grant’s paltry two nominations (with zero wins). Whether the result of homophobia, the revenge of the Steak Eaters, or the Academy’s oft-misplaced sense of social importance, the “Brokeback” loss seemed to shock even presenter Jack Nicholson, who raised his eyebrows so high they almost reached the rafters.
4. Jack Palance Performs One-Armed Push-ups at Age 73 (1992)
Forty years after receiving two consecutive Supporting Actor nominations (for “Sudden Fear” and “Shane”), Palance finally triumphed for his role in “City Slickers,” a celebrated the way only a Hollywood legend can: by stealing the show. The strapping actor’s ambidextrous one-armed push-ups and his good-natured jab at height-challenged host Billy Crystal (“I crap bigger than him”) are what we remember, but the demonstration of his fitness was actually part of a sweet, sincere plea not to write off older performers. “They forget to ask that you go out there,” he said of producers with an eye cast toward fresher talent, and his memorable display was proof that age really is just a number.
3. Stanley Donen’s Oscar Soft-Shoe (1997)
Speaking of showing late-career mettle, musical comedy master Stanley Donen (“Singin’ in the Rain,” “Charade”) — never once nominated for the competitive Best Director prize — received his honorary Oscar from Martin Scorsese with the most winsome acceptance “speech” this side of Sally Field. Breaking into “Cheek to Cheek,” made famous by former collaborator Fred Astaire in 1935’s “Top Hat,” Donen’s inspired tap routine was a fitting tribute to the form he made his own, and to the brilliant writers, lyricists, and performers he so humbly honored. It was, more than any Oscar moment I can remember, a complete, unadulterated class act.
2. Sacheen Littlefeather Declines Brando’s Oscar (1973)
It’s tough to draw a comparison in Oscar history to Brando and Littlefeather’s political statement here, because there’s nothing quite like it. After turning in an iconic comeback performance as Vito Corleone, the star — newly involved in the American Indian Movement — sent the Littlefeather to turn down the award, citing Hollywood’s mistreatment of American Indians. Eliciting both jeers and applause from the audience, as well as a bemused look from presenter Roger Moore, it remains an unforgettable moment more than four decades on.
1. David Niven and the Streaker (1974)
Though it’s almost too easy to have this one top the list, the full clip of host David Niven’s reaction to streaker Robert Opel is a near-perfect illustration of the ceremony’s persistent “the show must go on” attitude. (Whether this constitutes a plus or a minus is an open question.) After proclaiming the industry immune from the real world’s “nervous breakdown,” the unflappable Niven waits out the reaction to the nude man running onstage — all as the orchestra, rather bafflingly, strikes up a ditty, bringing to mind the musicians playing during the sinking of the Titanic. And then he picks up again without missing a beat, playing it off as something other than the great shock it was. “That was almost bound to happen,” he deadpans, and if this list is any indication, at the Oscars, almost anything can.