Moments before David Niven, co-host of the 1974 Academy Awards, was to introduce Elizabeth Taylor to present the Best Picture category, a man wearing only the shoulder-length hair and obligatory moustache of the era materialised and streaked across the stage – and the television screens of Sunday-night America. He offered a peace sign as he made his way. The glitterati tittered and gasped while the Oscars brass band struck up a tune of furious distraction.
Waiting for the bedlam to subside, Niven composed a line to add to his repertoire of droll and uniquely English observations. “Well, ladies and gentlemen, that was almost bound to happen,” he said airily, before adding: “But isn’t it fascinating to think that the only laugh that young man will get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?”
The response was so neat it might have been scripted – quickly leading to suspicions that it had been. Rumours soon circulated that the streaker, Robert Opel, had been hired to liven up the show. Rather than face arrest afterwards, he was given a press conference backstage. (Opel’s story had a dark end: he was shot and killed in a botched burglary of his San Francisco art gallery in 1979.)
But then, the 1970s was a louche decade and it remained perhaps the strangest Oscar moment until last year, when Will Smith strode across the stage and slapped Chris Rock moments after the comedian made a lousy quip about Smith’s wife, the actress Jada Pinkett Smith, who suffered from alopecia. “Wow,” Rock exclaimed as a dazed silence descended. “Will Smith just smacked the sh*t outta me.”
If it lacked wit, it certainly told the truth. Smith’s bizarre intervention – he received the Best Actor gong later that night and, later, a 10-year ban from the Awards ceremony – helped to revive the dismal audience ratings, which sank to an all-time low in 2021, when the pandemic left the film industry teetering on the brink.
As Maeve Higgins, who lives in New York, pointed out, some Americans of her acquaintance have been politely asking if Banshees represents what Ireland is like, even as the success of the film has been used as a launch pad for a tourism campaign
The euphoria over a record haul this week of 14 nominations for “Ireland” guarantees high national interest in an Oscar tradition that is seeking to re-establish itself. The Banshees of Inisherin, Martin McDonagh’s black and offbeat comedy (quickly dubbed “Reservoir Donkeys” on social media) exceeded expectations in earning nine nominations, including all major categories. It’s a stunning return, equalling the haul of the landmark Citizen Kane and eclipsing the nominations of established classics such as Goodfellas (six), Pulp Fiction (seven), 12 Angry Men (three) and The Remains of the Day (eight). And it surpassed the previous record haul for an Irish film, when Jim Sheridan’s powerful In the Name of the Father took seven nominations in 1994.
It remains to be seen whether Banshees will endure and mature or disappear. Prior to Tuesday’s nominations announcement, it was clear that the film had split opinion among Irish audiences. Some raved about it; others were uncertain. Comedian and writer Maeve Higgins (not a fan) asked Brendan O’Connor on RTÉ radio last weekend: “Were you laughing?” She wasn’t.
Whether or not Banshees is funny is a question of taste: as Higgins, who lives in New York, pointed out, some Americans of her acquaintance have been politely asking if Banshees represents what Ireland is like, even as the success of the film has been used as a launch pad for a tourism campaign.
Still, the goodwill for veteran actors/national treasures Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell will be general while Kerry Condon and Barry Keoghan, who both give wonderful performances, complete an ensemble Oscar-nominated cast for the film. The appearance of Maynooth’s international star, Paul Mescal, opposite Farrell in the Best Actor category for his turn in Aftersun deepens the intrigue, while An Cailín Ciuin, nominated in the best international category, is an extraordinary moment for Irish film.
Also nominated are Tom Berkeley and Ross White’s An Irish Goodbye in the live-action short category, along with Jonathan Redmond for editing Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis and Richard Baneham for visual effects in Avatar: The Way of Water.
My Left Foot
The anticipation of the Irish descending on Hollywood for the Oscar ceremony, which will take place on Sunday, March 12th, is reminiscent of the general national pride when My Left Foot, Jim Sheridan’s biopic of Christy Brown, claimed five Oscar nominations in 1990, including Best Picture and Best Director. There was a general sense of wonder that an Irish-produced and themed film could break into the Hollywood wonderland. Archival news pieces caught the late-night party at Ardmore Studios, where the ecstatic celebrations presaged the Italia ’90 scenes that would sweep Ireland that summer.
My Left Foot ultimately won two awards that night: a first of three Best Actor awards for Daniel Day-Lewis and Best Supporting Actress for Brenda Fricker. “You’ve just provided me with the makings of one hell of a weekend in Dublin,” Day-Lewis, clearly taken aback by the accolade, told the audience.
Jimmy Kimmel will host this year’s event, his third outing as compere. In a statement, he thanked the Academy for asking him ‘after everyone else said no’
The 1990s was the beginning of a golden decade for cinema and its annual ceremony. That year’s Oscars night had a Nielsen rating of 27 per cent; 70 million people watched at least part of the show. By 1998, buoyed by the global fascination with Titanic, the Oscars had a 35 per cent rating.
Last year that figure stood at just 3 per cent – the second worst showing in its history. The #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, created in 2015, quickly gained traction and presented the ceremony as just another bastion for white and male privilege.
One of the subtexts of this year’s nomination list was a return to the status quo: an entirely male directors list and just one black actor (Angela Bassett) in the acting categories. The absence of black actress Danielle Deadwyler for her turn in Till has drawn the most strident criticism. Meanwhile, the streaming revolution continues to cast doubt over the viability of the cinema experience.
With the conceit of the “movie star” beginning to fade, the Oscar ceremony is urgently seeking to recover lost ground. Jimmy Kimmel will host this year’s event, his third outing as compere. In a statement, he thanked the Academy for asking him “after everyone else said no”. It’s unlikely that Kimmel’s quirky brand of humour will do much to change the ratings, so the Academy Awards producers will need to come up with something else to lure back its lost audience.
Whatever about a streaker, dear old Oscar could use the luck of the Irish.