An actor-turned-auteur, a boxing champ, and a gold-mining daughter shine at 1981's Oscars

By Steve Wulf
Updated February 03, 2006 at 05:00 AM EST
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The country went Hollywood, and Hollywood went country.

In a year in which former Screen Actors Guild president Ronald Reagan had been elected President of the United States, Coal Miner’s Daughter turned out to be a commercial and artistic success. Even Loretta Lynn, the subject of the film, was delighted, especially with Sissy Spacek’s performance: ”I think me and Sissy were probably twin sisters in a past life.” And as if the seven nominations for the biopic weren’t enough kisses for Hollywood to blow Nashville’s way, singer-songwriters Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton were nominated in the Best Original Song category: Nelson for ”On the Road Again” (Honeysuckle Rose) and Parton for the theme to 9 to 5.

But popular taste extended only so far. The big winner at the box office, The Empire Strikes Back, was shut out of the competitive race, getting three minor nominations. The Shining was ignored by the voters altogether, as was Airplane! On the other hand, such critical faves as The Great Santini, Resurrection, and Melvin and Howard had bombed outside of New York.

Art and life had gotten mixed up in plenty of ways in 1980. Seven of the 20 acting nominations went to portrayals of actual people: Spacek as Lynn, John Hurt as John Merrick in The Elephant Man, Jason Robards and Mary Steenburgen as Howard Hughes and Lynda Dummar in Melvin and Howard, and Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Cathy Moriarty as Jake, Joey, and Vicki La Motta in Raging Bull. Roman Polanski, on the lam for having sex with a 13-year-old, directed Tess, starring his 20-year-old former paramour, Nastassja Kinski. Mary Tyler Moore, nominated as Best Actress for her portrayal of a mother dealing with the attempted suicide of her son in Ordinary People, lost her own son a month after the film’s release in what was ruled an accidental self-shooting. Timothy Hutton tapped into his own pain at the death of his father, actor Jim Hutton, for his role in Ordinary People, and won a Best Supporting Actor nomination.

Things turned truly and frighteningly weird at 2:20 p.m. (EST) on March 30, 1981. As the ABC production crew readied for that night’s Oscar telecast at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Hollywood, John Hinckley Jr. — trying to impress Jodie Foster à la Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver — shot President Ronald Reagan in the chest in Washington, D.C., prompting the show to be postponed a day.

HAIL TO THE CHIEF
The prognosis for President Reagan was good, but the mood for the big night was subdued nonetheless. There were only a few protesters — one sign pointedly said, ”Who Will Win Best White Actress And Best White Actor?” Jake La Motta and Loretta Lynn walked the gauntlet, as did their impersonators, De Niro and Spacek. Hutton came with his mother and his date, Diane Lane. Diana Ross arrived on the arm of Michael Jackson, resplendent in a traditional tux.

For the third year in a row, Johnny Carson was the emcee, and he opened by saying, ”Because of the incredible events of yesterday, that old adage the show must go on seemed relatively unimportant.” He then introduced a welcoming message from the president, taped two weeks earlier, that spoke to the theme of the evening, Film Is Forever. Said Reagan, ”I’ve been trapped in some film forever myself.”

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