Looking Back on the 1989 Oscars, the Last Time The Academy Awards Had No Host
By Stacy Lambe
Randy Leffingwell/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
The 91st Academy Awards are shaping up to be the most dramatic yet -- and it's not because of the close races for the Oscars' top prizes.
No, this year has been marred by the Academy's failed attempts to boost ratings and increase relevance with the introduction of a popular Oscar award -- an announcement that was met with confusion and quickly recalled -- and the controversy surrounding Kevin Hart, who was announced as this year's host before becoming embroiled in controversy around his past anti-gay jokes. Within 24 hours, he stepped down.
Eventually, the president of ABC Entertainment confirmed that the Academy Awards would "wisely" go host-less this year. "Ironically, the lack of clarity surrounding the Oscars has kept the Oscars really in the conversation and the mystery has been compelling. People really care," Karey Burke said.
With the Oscars just days away, let's look back on 1989's 61st Annual Academy Awards, the last time the Oscars went without an official host. So, what happened 30 years ago -- aside from the notorious duet between Rob Lowe and Snow White -- and what can viewers expect this time around? We broke down the ceremony’s highest and lowest moments to give us some insight.
The Host Goes From a Group of Emcees to One to None
There’s a misconception about the tradition of hosting the Academy Awards. Since 1990, there’s only been one master of ceremonies each year with two exceptions -- the 82nd and 83rd awards hosted by duos, Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin, and Anne Hathaway and James Franco, respectively. Prior to 1989, it was not uncommon for a duo or group to host the awards. When longtime host Bob Hope wasn’t hosting solo, he was joined by a rotating group of stars, from James Stewart in 1946 to Sammy Davis Jr., Shirley MacLaine and Frank Sinatra in 1975. The last year more than two celebrities hosted the ceremony was in 1987, when Chevy Chase, Goldie Hawn and Paul Hogan -- three of the biggest movie stars at the time -- teamed up to hand out Oscars to the likes of Paul Newman, Marlee Matlin, Michael Caine and Dianne Wiest.
It’s also worth noting that four previous awards shows went on without a host, including three back-to-back ceremonies from 1969 to 1971. During those three shows, 17 to 34 “Friends of Oscar” presented the awards.
Rob Lowe and Snow White Duet
The lack of a host, however, wasn’t the most dramatic change or memorable moment of the 61st Academy Awards led by producer Allan Carr. Instead, that most famously goes to Rob Lowe and Snow White (portrayed onstage by Eileen Bowman).
The two performed during the opening number -- a parody of the musical revue Beach Blanket Babylon, in which the Disney princess arrives to Hollywood and becomes enamored by all its glamour -- alongside stars including Merv Griffin, Vincent Price, Roy Rogers and Lily Tomlin. The opening number featured a medley of reworked covers of “I Only Have Eyes for You” (Dames), “You Are My Lucky Star” (Broadway Melody of 1936), “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts,” “Hooray for Hollywood” (Hollywood Hotel) and, most notably, Lowe and White singing “Proud Mary.”
If there's any lesson to be learned here, it's not to recreate this moment. But if there's no host, then look to the 2018 Emmys for guidance, when hosts Colin Jost and Michael Che handed over the show's opening performance to a group of stars singing about diversity, in a moment that was both relevant and generally well received by audiences and critics alike.
The Stars of Tomorrow Take the Stage
Probably just as laughable was the show’s other major performance by Hollywood’s “stars of tomorrow” singing “(I Wanna Be an) Oscar Winner.” The roster included Keith Coogan, Patrick Dempsey, Joely Fisher, Tricia Leigh Fisher, Savion Glover, Carrie Hamilton, Melora Hardin, Ricki Lake, Matt Lattanzi, Chad Lowe, Tracy Nelson, Patrick O'Neal, Corey Parker, D. A. Pawley, Tyrone Power Jr., Holly Robinson Peete, Christian Slater, Blair Underwood, and Corey Feldman in a Michael Jackson-inspired outfit and recreating the singer’s signature dance moves.
Sadly, none of the performers went on to win an Oscar or even earn a nomination. Though, they do have a handful of Golden Globe and Emmy noms between them.
It’s unlikely any ceremony, let alone the upcoming one produced by Donna Gigliotti and co-produced and directed by Glenn Weiss, would recreate this number. Yet, it has been reported that Gigliotti and Weiss are trying to reunite the stars of the Avengers films onstage -- a move that would mimic the 61st Academy Awards’ attempt to bring in viewers by showcasing the hottest young stars. And considering that Black Panther is a likely nominee for Best Picture and the cast includes a few Oscar winners and nominees, they're already doing better than their 1989 counterparts.
No Original Song Nominee Performs
In a rare move for the ceremony -- though, not unprecedented -- producers decided not to feature performances by that year’s nominees for Best Original Song.
However, with no host this year, there’s no way the show can sacrifice on star power, especially considering that many fans and critics want to see all five nominees on stage, including Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper singing “Shallow” from A Star Is Born and Kendrick Lamar and Sza performing “All the Stars” from Black Panther. None of them have performed at this season's other awards -- even the 2019 GRAMMYs, where Gaga took the stage to perform “Shallow” solo.
After it was initially rumored that only “Shallow” and “All the Stars” would be performed live, the Oscars reversed course and announced that all the nominated songs will be featured during the telecast, with a special guest taking over for Emily Blunt in a rendition of “The Place Where Lost Things Go” from Mary Poppins Returns.
In an attempt to cut time, the Academy announced that four of the 24 categories -- cinematography, film editing, makeup/hair and live action short -- will be handed out during commercial breaks. (Edited versions of the acceptances speeches would be aired later in the telecast.) The move, however, was met with harsh criticism, with some suggesting there shouldn't be any musical numbers. The Academy quickly reversed the decision, revealing all awards will be handed out live.
Hollywood's Hottest Couples and Biggest Families Present
Also adding to the star power of that year’s ceremony, many of the awards were handed out by some of Hollywood’s hottest couples and biggest families at the time. Among the romances were Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson, Geena Davis and Jeff Goldblum, Demi Moore and Bruce Willis, Farrah Fawcett and Ryan O'Neal, and Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell. On the family side, Donald and Kiefer Sutherland presented an honorary award, while Beau, Jeff and Lloyd Bridges presented the award for Best Visual Effects.
Nowadays, pairings are typically likely to be co-stars promoting the same film or a dynamic comedic duo offering laughs. Though, the Oscars could take a note from the 61st ceremony and inject some drama or romance by bringing out some of today’s hottest couples or long-lasting marriages in addition to some well-liked families. We hear that Avenger Chris Pratt recently got engaged to Katherine Schwarzenegger, daughter of Hollywood icons Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver and sister to budding star Patrick.
Cher Presents Best Picture
No one is having a better year than Cher, who is enjoying another career resurgence thanks to a hit film (Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again), a Kennedy Center Honor, an ABBA cover album (Dancing Queen), a Broadway hit (The Cher Show) and another world tour (Here We Go Again Tour). In 1989, she presented the award for Best Picture to Mark Johnson, the producer of Rain Man.
After Taylor Swift and Mandy Moore gave Gaga trophies at the 2019 Golden Globes and Critics' Choice Awards, respectively, it makes sense that the Oscars will want another, even bigger singer to hand Gaga an award. With A Star Is Born and Lady Gaga among the predicted nominees and hopeful winners for Best Picture, Best Actress and Best Original Song, who better to present the singer or film with an Oscar than the most notable and successful singer turned Oscar-winning actress than Cher herself.
Oscars, do the right thing, and give her something to do this year.
Ultimately, the ratings were up, if only by one percent. But that still meant an average of 42 million people tuning into ABC (also the channel of this year’s awards). And as we know, ratings are everything -- and desperately needed.
In total, the show ran 3 hours and 19 minutes, which was shorter than the year before by 14 minutes and shorter than the 2018 Oscars by 34 minutes. The ceremony, however, has not been less than three hours since the early ‘70s despite repeated goals to limit the show to three hours -- the target run time of 2019.
The critics were harsh -- and for good reason. “I remember vividly looking out in the audience and seeing Barry Levinson, who on that particular evening was the belle of the ball with Rain Man, and I could see him very clearly popeyed and mouthing, ‘what the [expletive]?’ Lowe recalled to the New York Times about performing the opening number 30 years later. “But to be a successful actor, you have to have a big dollop of self-denial, so I managed to convince myself that I’d killed it.”
At the time, Disney didn’t own ABC and sued the AMPAS for illegal use of any likeness of Snow White. But now, the company is behind the channel and such brands as Marvel. So who knows, maybe Snow White could duet with Captain America?
Finally, the 61st Academy Awards also gave us the phrase, “And the Oscar goes to…,” which replaced “And the winner is…”
What will happen at the 91st Academy Awards? Only time will tell when the Oscars are handed out live from the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, California, on Sunday, Feb. 24 on ABC.