The 52nd Academy Awards was one for the ages. For instance, 8-year-old Justin Henry (Kramer vs. Kramer) was up against 79-year-old Melvyn Douglas (Being There) and 59-year-old Mickey Rooney(The Black Stallion), a former child star himself, in the Best Supporting Actor category. An 18-year-old, Mariel Hemingway, was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as Woody Allen’s lover in Manhattan. The former Gidget, Sally Field, was among the Best Actress nominees for her role in Norma Rae. The generation gap that had colored the ’70s seemed to be playing itself out in the last year of the decade, and at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion no less.
In retrospect, 1979 was a truly memorable year for the movies. Besides Manhattan and Being There, it saw the opening of such fresh and lasting films as Apocalypse Now, All That Jazz, Alien, The China Syndrome, Breaking Away, La Cage aux Folles, The Warriors, The Marriage of Maria Braun, Wise Blood, Monty Python’s Life of Brian, North Dallas Forty, and The Jerk. Unfortunately, Hollywood didn’t know what it had at the time — all those movies produced a grand total of eight Oscars, and only one in the six major categories. The big winner, with five statuettes, was the sentimental Kramer vs. Kramer, signaling a retreat by the industry into safer, friendlier fare. Either that, or Hollywood was recognizing the importance of Kramer‘s box office receipts ($106.3 million, back when tickets were $2.50) on the eve of Income Tax Day.
Who better to welcome back into Oscar’s embrace than Dustin Hoffman, who had famously savaged the awards in years past and had lost out as Best Actor three times before (The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, Lenny). Not only was he winning as workaholic-turned-superdad Ted Kramer in the weepie but he also poured on the charm plugging Kramer (and himself). He reportedly even accepted the Los Angeles Film Critics’ best-actor award on The Merv Griffin Show.
Hoffman arrived at the Oscars with his parents and his soon-to-be new bride, Lisa Gottsegen. Sally Field walked down the red carpet with comedian David Steinberg, having recently broken up with her boyfriend, Burt Reynolds, who could not bear the thought of going to the ceremony in a year when he was snubbed for Starting Over. Other celebrity couples: Best Actress nominee Jill Clayburgh (Starting Over) and playwright David Rabe; Best Actress nominee Marsha Mason (Chapter Two) and playwright Neil Simon; Best Actress nominee Bette Midler(The Rose) and actor Peter Riegert; and Best Director nominee Bob Fosse(All That Jazz) and actress Julie Hagerty. Bo Derek, the star of 10, showed up alone, without her Svengali-like husband, John Derek, because, she said, ”It’s not his thing — he took Shirley Temple when he was 16. That was his first and last time.”
Producer Howard Koch’s decision to tap The Tonight Show‘s Johnny Carson as Oscar host was a no-brainer. Carson had wowed everybody in his first stint as emcee the year before, and he wasted no time in getting down to funny business this night. On Justin Henry: ”He has the distinction of being the only Hollywood actor not in Britt Ekland’s memoirs.” On Bo Derek’s braids: ”Forty years ago, Butterfly McQueen wore the same hairdo and nobody cared.” On Motion Picture Association of America president Jack Valenti: ”He’s filled the charisma void left by the passing of Conrad Nagel.” But his best lines were ad-libbed after the winner of the Special Achievement Award for Sound Effects Editing, Alan Splet (The Black Stallion), failed to show. Said Carson, ”First, George C. Scott doesn’t show, then Marlon Brando, and now Alan Splet.” Throughout the evening, Carson kept the audience apprised of Splet’s whereabouts in and around Los Angeles.