Put down those Pop Rocks and Diet Cokes. We’ve got some A-list myths to examine! Ahead of this Sunday’s Oscars, we’ll be taking a look at some of the most famous myths to rise out of the annual awards ceremony. Want to know if being nude will get you a Best Actress statue? Or if the Best Supporting Actress trophy is indeed a curse? You’re in luck -- we’ll be investigating one Oscars-related urban legend each day this week. Today, we’ll see if we can bust the presenter-winner nepotism myth: Over the past 25 years, has everyone been as connected as, say, 1994 presenter and winner Harrison Ford and Steven Spielberg? Read on to find out. (And click here for more of EW’s Oscars Myth Busting.)
Oscar myth: Presenter-winner nepotism
What Is It?: In some quarters, there is a belief that Oscar presenters are handpicked to deliver the award to their A-list buddies or former costars.
Origin of the Myth: None.
When It’s Come True: The late 1980s and early ’90s were lousy with presenter connections. In 1987, Michael Caine was presented his Best Supporting Actor trophy by Jeff Bridges and Sigourney Weaver; Weaver and Caine had just appeared together in 1986’s Half Moon Street. That same year William Hurt presented Best Actress to Children of a Lesser God’s Marlee Matlin. Though technically Hurt was only doing his duty as the man who had won Best Actor (for Kiss of the Spider Woman) the year before, it made it no less awkward since he and Matlin had ended a tumultuous relationship just months before. (I’d like to believe Oscar wouldn’t have planned that matchup on purpose.) Two years later, Goldie Hawn and partner Kurt Russell handed over Best Director to Rain Man helmer Barry Levinson, seven years after Hawn was in Levinson’s 1982 film Best Friends.
Taking the cake for presenter-winner connection that took the longest to create, Gregory Peck presented Best Actress when Jessica Tandy made history as Oscar’s oldest winner for Driving Miss Daisy in 1990. The two had worked together 45 years before on The Valley of Decision. When Jodie Foster took home Best Actress for Silence of the Lambs in 1992, she was greeted on stage by Michael Douglas, her Napoleon and Samantha costar from 20 years before. Steven Spielberg had a big year in 1994 when he took home Best Picture and Best Director statuettes for Schindler’s List. Admittedly, for these intents and purposes, longtime friend Harrison Ford seemed a more legitimate connection to hand out the night’s biggest award than Best Director presenter Kevin Costner, who was directed by Spielberg in a 1985 episode of a TV show Spielberg created called The Mission.
It was a full five years before another coincidence, though it was a delightfully rambunctious one: Sophia Loren famously screamed “Roberto [Benigni]!” when she announced the winner for 1999’s Best Foreign Film Life Is Beautiful. When Benigni took home the Best Actor award later that night, he joined Loren as one of the few actors in Oscar history to score an acting statuette for a foreign-language role. (Loren had achieved the feat a full 37 years before.)
In the early 2000s, Michael Douglas handed Gladiator’s Best Picture award to Ridley Scott, his director on 1989’s Black Rain. Two years later, Douglas also announced the top honor when Chicago took the trophy. Earlier that evening, his very pregnant wife Catherine Zeta-Jones was handed the Best Supporting Actress trophy for Chicago by her Entrapment costar and fellow Brit Sean Connery. A Beautiful Mind’s domination of the 2002 ceremony had two connections: Producer Ron Howard’s old pal Tom Hanks gave Howard the Best Picture statuette, and former colleague Mel Gibson (whom Howard directed in 1996’s Ransom) handed over the Best Director to the actor formerly known as Richie Cunningham.
The next year, Best Director Roman Polanski received his award in absentia by Ford, who starred in his 1988 thriller Frantic. In 2005, Clint Eastwood did a double take when Barbra Streisand (alongside Dustin Hoffman) doled out his Best Picture award for Million Dollar Baby – 12 years before, Streisand presented Eastwood with the 1993 directing award for Unforgiven. The next year, George Clooney’s Peacemaker costar Nicole Kidman handed him the Best Supporting Actor award for Syriana.
Martin Scorsese’s long overdue Best Director acknowledgement for The Departed, though, seemed a particularly purposeful selection, as the Scorsese’s contemporaries Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, and George Lucas – all of whom made their names in 1970s cinema – wished him “Mazel tov!” as he strode to the stage. Scorsese’s Departed star Jack Nicholson wasn’t down in the seats to congratulate him – he was waiting in the wings to present Scorsese with the Best Picture trophy just minutes later.
In 2010, the Academy made a point of inviting presenters who had a connection with the nominee for Best Actor and Actress, so winners Sandra Bullock and Jeff Bridges were introduced by former colleagues and Oscar winners Forest Whitaker and Michelle Pfeiffer, respectively. On the other hand, the links in 2011 seemed to be pure coincidence. Tom Hooper’s former Red Dust star (and two-time Oscar winner) Hilary Swank gave him the Best Director trophy for The King’s Speech, and 2006 Best Actress winner Reese Witherspoon, who just happened to star with Christian Bale in 2000 slasher satire American Psycho, presented Bale with his Best Supporting Actor statuette for The Fighter.
When It Hasn’t: As many connections as there have been (18 instances out of a possible 151), they’re still statistically insignificant, totaling only 11.9 percent over the last 25 years. Less than one-eighth of the time does not a myth a-make. The more-often-than-not disconnect between the presenter and winner is purposeful because the Academy observes a mostly set-in-stone policy of inviting back the prior year’s winners to present the acting and directing awards (and, in the case of acting, they reverse the gender in case an actor or actress is nominated two consecutive years). In the case of illness, or if the previous winner is unavailable, they’ll call on another Oscar favorite, but that presenter has rarely had a strong personal or professional connection to the winner (though occasionally a happy coincidence occurs, like when fellow comedian-turned-serious-actor Robin Williams presented the Best Supporting Actress trophy to Mo’Nique in 2010).
What was the strangest fit of all? For my money, when Eddie Murphy presented the 1987 Best Picture award to Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor. There was also a bit of an “oops” moment in 1999 when Ford, perhaps expecting a repeat of Spielberg’s 1994 success, had to hand over the Best Picture award to Shakespeare in Love instead of heavy favorite Saving Private Ryan.
So, Is It True?: Not so much. At the end of the day, Hollywood is a really small town, and the pool of Academy winners-presenters is even smaller. AMPAS favors tradition, looking to the same group of people year after year, though its bookers have had an uncanny sixth sense for when a popular favorite might win. Then again there’s always dumb luck. A more interesting question is, why hasn’t Meryl Streep ever presented a Best Picture or Director award? A new myth is born!
Which Brings Us to This Year: Though a growing list of presenters (Michael Douglas, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, the cast of Bridesmaids, and even the Muppets) have been announced, producers Brian Grazer and Don Mischer were still holding back who would present which awards as of early this month. At this point, there’s nothing set in stone, but if Best Picture long-shot Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close sees its star Hanks presents the night’s top honor (as he did in 2001 and 2009), it could be one of the biggest upsets in Oscar history…or just really uncomfortable.
Come back tomorrow, when Darren Franich will investigate whether the oft-cited Best Supporting Actress curse is indeed true.
EW Special Coverage: Oscars 2012