''A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...''
Actually, it was April 3, 1978, and the star system was swirling around the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for the 50th anniversary of the Academy Awards. Janet Gaynor, the very first Oscar winner for Best Actress (1927-28, for three films), was there, as were some 40 past winners, wrangled by Allan Carr, the executive creative consultant. But the previous year's Best Actress, Faye Dunaway, couldn't make it because of a car crash. That turned out to be a harbinger for an evening that became something of a wreck -- witnessed by the largest television audience in the history of the awards.
As you might expect of someone turning 50, Oscar was undergoing a midlife crisis. Hollywood produced two of the most enduring and successful films of all time that year, namely Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, yet all the prestigious awards would go to films that appealed to New York sensibilities: Julia, The Goodbye Girl, and Annie Hall. Even though everyone was discoing to the Bee Gees-driven sounds of Saturday Night Fever, that film couldn't buy a nomination in the Best Song category (see page 76).
One thing was for certain, though. With Alec Guinness, Jason Robards, Maximilian Schell, Richard Burton, Marcello Mastroianni, Vanessa Redgrave, Jane Fonda, Anne Bancroft, and Shirley MacLaine all nominated for their performances, this was a vintage year for acting.
Not to mention a vintage year for acting out. Columbia Pictures chief David Begelman was placed on leave for embezzling thousands of dollars from, among others, Cliff Robertson. Nick Nolte was sued for palimony, Linda Blair was arrested for trying to buy cocaine, and Roman Polanski was convicted of statutory rape. Even in death, Joan Crawford took center stage by leaving two of her children out of her will ''for reasons which are well known to them.'' And Farrah Fawcett-Majors' camp tested her stardom by reportedly demanding that either Cary Grant or Sir Laurence Olivier be her copresenter for film editing.
It was against this backdrop of conflict that Howard W. Koch, Academy president and the show's producer, had decided to bring Bob Hope out of mothballs to host the festivities. ''We will attempt to bring back the old Hollywood,'' said Koch. He had also beseeched outspoken Vanessa Redgrave, a Palestinian sympathizer, to just say ''Thank you'' should she win a Best Supporting Actress for Julia. In short, the evening was an accident waiting to happen.
The most preoccupied man in Hollywood that night was director Herbert Ross. He had two movies nominated for Best Picture, The Goodbye Girl and The Turning Point; he was up for Best Director for the latter, and his goddaughter, Leslie Browne, was a candidate for Best Supporting Actress. But Ross had something else to think about: He was filming Michael Caine and Maggie Smith as they came up the red carpet for his upcoming California Suite, and the Redgrave protesters -- pro and con -- complicated the shot.