Oscar 2002: Scandals (Beautiful Mind), Stolen Statuettes, Rowdy Songs

When I was a young boy, the two seminal TV events in my family were the World Series and the Academy Awards. Harvey Weinstein, Miramax’s co-president

Joyce Millman tried to explain in Variety the significance of awards in general, and the Oscar in particular: “We sneer at awards shows, we second-guess them. We hold viewing parties and yell catty comments at the tube. We complain about how long and dull they are. Yet, every year, when the awards telecast cycle begins anew, we’re there.”

For Millman, the Oscars, the Emmys, the Grammy, and the Golden Globes “invite us into the inner circle of the gods and goddesses, allowing us to witness them at their vulnerable moments when the envelopes are opened and the tribe has spoken.” Perhaps more importantly, “awards are the canvas upon which we project our desire for fame, beauty, and, above all, popularity. Who hasn’t experienced that fantasy moment in front of the bathroom mirror, where you clutch a shampoo bottle in lieu of a bronzed statuette and deliver the witty yet gracious acceptance speech you’ve been working on since you were a kid”

The hype and hoopla about and around the Oscars have only increased. Every year, during the crucial Oscar season,¬†from mid-December, when the first critics groups announce their selections, to late February, when the Oscar ceremonies are broadcast, the whole film industry–and the rest of the country–seem to be talking about one issue, the Oscars–their fairness, their meaning, their effect–and, of course, the scandals and controversies.

A long production process begins in December, as soon as the field of potential Oscar nominees is narrowed down, and moves into high gear after the nominations. The countdown to Oscar night, known in the industry as Super Sunday, begins as soon as the nominations are made, in mid-January.

For six interminable weeks, the Oscar candidates, from the frontrunners to the underdogs, flood the airwaves with ads, tearing to shreds the campaign tactics of their opponents.

This was most evident in 2001, which saw a particularly nasty mudslinging over A Beautiful Mind alleged distortions of the real-life they celebrated, that of schizoid mathematician John Nash. Unfazed, the film’s co-producers (Universal and DreamWorks) reacted with just as an effective counter-campaign that brought the Best Picture to their fold.

Racial issues, both on screen and off, featured prominently last year. As EW noted: “In the dizzying and downright nasty weeks of campaigning leading up to this year’s Oscars, race had become both a cause for celebration and rebuke.” Race is the proper word, both describing the contest and the issue at its center: white versus black contenders in the acting categories.” The color breakthrough that took place inside Oscar’s new home may be one of the most significant moments in Oscar’s history.

The 2002 show, to quote E.W. again, pitted Old versus New Hollywood: “Old, sturdy, clubby, dependable Hollywood was acknowledged with win for an old-fashioned Hollywood biopic–A Beautiful Mind, directed by Hollywood’s favorite son, Ron Howard. But a fresh prince and princess (Halle Berry and Denzel Washington, recipients of the top acting awards) of a modern era in progressive Hollywood also reign.”

There are scandals and there are scandals–you can always count on them and on the blitz coverage by all the international media, not just our gossipy tabloids. In 2001, the deadline to turn in the ballots was extended by two days, when new ballots were mailed out to replace wayward ones that had been mistakenly diverted to another location.

There was another disgrace that year: 55 Oscar statuettes were stolen. A few days later, fifty’two of them were rescued by Willie Fulger, a man who rebuilds car parts. Three were still missing. Fulger, who found the missing Oscars in a trash bin, was promised a fifty’thousanddollar reward. Significantly, Fulger called the media before notifying the police and, sure enough, he became an instant hero. Later, the police arrested two suspects in connection with the theft. Both men worked for Roadway Express, which had shipped the Oscars. The Oscar host that year, Billy Crystal, was handed a readymade issue that screamed for jokes–and he used the opportunity well.

Another potential embarrassment almost occurred when the Academy confirmed that actor Robin Williams would croon “Blame Canada,” the Oscar-nominated Best Song from the rowdy and profane comedy, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. The tune’s raunchy lyrics caused some consternation and gave the show’s producers a workout. However, without giving specifics, producers Richard and Lili Fini Zanuck gave assurance that even conservative audiences would be O.K. with the presentation.

Earlier that evening, Trey Parker, who cowrote the song with composer Marc Shaiman, arrived at the Oscar ceremonies dressed in a copy of Jennifer Lopez’s green tropicalprint, lowcut gown she wore for the Emmys; befuddled, the security guards gave him hard time and a thorough inspection. Lopez’s scandalous attire had occupied the national headlines, salons’ talk, and bedroom gossip for weeks, as if there were no other pressing issues on the national agenda.