Hollywood got out the handkerchiefs for the 51st Academy Awards at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on April 9, 1979. Sir Laurence Olivier agreed to make his first appearance at the awards ceremony since 1959, to accept an honorary Oscar. Ruby Keeler, recently recovered from a stroke, was a Best Song presenter. And John Wayne, looking wan and thin following heart surgery, was there to announce the Best Picture.
But in the year before the event, Hollywood got out the knives. Jane Fonda, the star of Coming Home, condemned rival Vietnam War film The Deer Hunter as racist, even though she hadn’t seen it. Coming Home was criticized as a ”male supremacist film” in which ”men choose between ideas and women choose between men” — and that was from Nancy Dowd, who wrote the original script. Midnight Express was attacked for its depiction of Turks and its departure from the book on which it was based. Woody Allen was blasted for abandoning laughs in Interiors, and Heaven Can Wait director Warren Beatty was accused of ”pifflemaking” by New Yorker critic Pauline Kael. Even a film as seemingly innocuous as An Unmarried Woman came under fire for its depiction of a psychiatrist…who was played by an actual psychiatrist.
Then again, 1978 was a pretty bizarre year for moviedom. Roman Polanski had to flee to France to avoid statutory rape charges, while Pretty Baby, a Louis Malle film about a 12-year-old prostitute played by Brooke Shields, got positive reviews, and Get Out Your Handkerchiefs, a French film in which a woman finds happiness with her 13-year-old lover, was nominated for best foreign film. Richard Pryor went berserk, shooting up his wife’s friend’s Buick. Somebody kidnapped Charlie Chaplin’s corpse and it was recovered three months later. Mickey Rooney took his eighth wife. Jane Russell spent four days in jail for drunk driving. Charles Boyer committed suicide two days after his wife died, and Gig Young killed himself after fatally shooting his wife of three weeks. No wonder the Hollywood sign was replaced — for $243,000, or $27,000 a letter.
There were very few surprises when the 1978 Oscar nominations were announced. The Deer Hunter bagged nine nominations, while Coming Home came home with eight. Warren Beatty’s four nominations for Heaven Can Wait put him in the same league with Orson Welles, who got four for 1941’s Citizen Kane. Jill Clayburgh was a Best Actress nominee for An Unmarried Woman, and she might have had a better chance at grabbing an Oscar if her publicist hadn’t pulled her off The Tonight Show because the booker couldn’t reveal who else would be on the show. (”Jill could have been on with a juggler.”) Gary Busey, nominated as Best Actor for The Buddy Holly Story, didn’t do himself any favors either when he told a national magazine that Oscar night was ”just another excuse to get drunk.”
Speaking of alcohol, National Lampoon’s Animal House, the third-biggest moneymaker of the year (Grease topped the list), was literally ignored. John Belushi, who was expecting a Best Supporting Actor nomination, was so miffed that he turned down the Academy’s offer to be a presenter. He also brought to mind the immortal words of Otter (Tim Matheson) in Animal House: ”This situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture.”