Every year just before the Academy Awards I like to travel 50 years back in time and get a feel for the hoopla leading into that year’s Oscars broadcast. Last year, I was surprised to learn that the host of the 1964 show, Jack Lemmon, someone I assumed was beloved by all, got mostly bad reviews for his performance on the show. Who knew? Everyone was praying that Bob Hope would return to his gig (he’d already hosted 13 of the previous Oscar ceremonies) and he did just that for the April 5, 1965 broadcast which was held at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium for the fourth year in a row. I also found the reason Hope had taken a three-year break from his duties:
The movie industry’s big Oscar awards show tonight could be subtitled “The Return of Bob Hope.” The ABC network managed to come up with three sponsors (toothpaste, watches, and motorcycles) whose products don’t conflict with the cars Hope sells on his own TV series this year, so he was okayed to emcee the Oscars.
So that was it — advertisers! The locale of nearly every Academy Awards presentation during the 1960s was the decidedly unglamorous and recently closed Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. I much prefer the locations that came before: fancy hotels such as the Hollywood Roosevelt, the Ambassador, and the Biltmore, and elegant movie palaces such as the Pantages and Grauman’s Chinese. Beginning in 1969, the event would take place either at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion or the huge Shrine Auditorium (made famous for its many scenes, including an Oscar broadcast, in the Judy Garland version of A Star Is Born). That switch-off would continue until the Academy’s permanent home, the Dolby Theater (formerly the Kodak) opened in 2002.
If you have a few minutes, watch the opening of the 1965 Academy Awards. It’s so much fun to see the arrivals (so many stars from different eras — but oy, was there ever a worse year for women’s hairstyles?), the overture which was surprisingly geared towards My Fair Lady, an opening speech from Academy president Arthur Freed (famous MGM musical producer), and a hilarious monologue from Bob Hope which included many jabs at the fact that the Brits were taking over the festivities (“Welcome to Santa Monica on the Thames”).
The biggest story of the 1965 Oscars was the Battle of the Two Fair Ladies. Julie Andrews had become a star following her brilliant portrayal of Eliza Doolittle on the stage opposite Rex Harrison in Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady (a musical version of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion). When Warner Bros. bought the rights to film the musical, they approached Cary Grant for the role of Henry Higgins, but he refused, saying that not only would he not play the role, he wouldn’t even go see the film if they didn’t hire Rex Harrison to reprise his wonderful performance from the play. Harrison was hired, of course, but nothing could convince Jack Warner to cast Julie Andrews, who had never made a film, as Eliza. Audrey Hepburn was offered the part instead, and she initially refused, thinking that it belonged to Andrews. It was only after Warner assured her that Julie would never be cast in the role, even if Hepburn turned it down, that she relented.
On Oscar night, the joke ended up being on Jack Warner (although he did quite well himself). Though bitterly disappointed that she was not given the role, Julie Andrews ended up getting cast as everyone’s favorite nanny in Disney’s Mary Poppins. The result? Sidney Poitier handed Julie the Best Actress Oscar while Audrey Hepburn wasn’t even nominated. Hedda Hopper predicted Julie would win (over Anne Bancroft for The Pumpkin Eater, Sophia Loren for Marriage Italian Style, Debbie Reynolds for The Unsinkable Molly Brown, and Kim Stanley for Séance on a Wet Afternoon). Hedda explained that Hepburn’s absence from the nominees was because she did not sing in My Fair Lady and therefore “gave only half a performance.” Poor, Audrey. She worked for months with a vocal coach and was promised she could sing in the film but in the end they decided her pipes just weren’t up to snuff so Warners got Marni Nixon to dub most of her songs, the same woman who was the singing voice of Deborah Kerr in The King and I and Natalie Wood in West Side Story. Hepburn was furious and said she never would have accepted the role if she knew she’d be dubbed.
As fate would have it, when it was time to announce the Best Actor winner, normally presented by the previous year’s Best Actress winner, Patricia Neal was not present because she had recently suffered three debilitating strokes so Audrey Hepburn found herself handing the Oscar to her co-star Rex Harrison (who won over Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole in Becket, Anthony Quinn in Zorba the Greek, and Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove). Hepburn and Andrews were all smiles backstage. Audrey Hepburn had already won a Best Actress Oscar 12 years earlier for her very first film, Roman Holiday, and she had been nominated three times since then. She’d get one more nomination three years later (for Wait Until Dark) and she’d win the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1993, just weeks after her death at the age of 63. Julie didn’t blame Audrey for accepting the role that many thought as rightfully Andrews’. And it was even easier for the actress to be magnanimous when she was the one standing there with the top prize of the year. The supporting awards that night also went to non-Americans: Angela Lansbury announced British actor Peter Ustinov as the winner (for Topkapi) and his Oscar was accepted by Jonaathan Winters while Karl Malden handed the Oscar to Russian-born French actress Lila Kedrova for Zorba the Greek.
Fred Astaire presented the Best Song Oscar to Richard and Robert Sherman for Mary Poppin’s “Chim Chim Cher-ee” beating out composers such as Jimmy Van Heusen, Sammy Cahn, Frank De Vol, and Henry Mancini. The nominated songs were sung on the broadcast by a range of artists including Nancy Wilson, Andy Williams, Patti Page, and the New Christy Minstrels, but the real treat was having Judy Garland sing a great medley of songs from the recently deceased Cole Porter. 43-year-old Garland sounded great that night, but you need to see and hear that, not read about it:
The Oscars broadcast won the Nielsen ratings that week, beating out NBC’s Bonanza by half a point, and followed closely by Gomer Pyle, Bewitched, The Fugitive, and Peyton Place.
Not everyone was thrilled with Julie Andrews’ win, including some of her own countrymen. Several British critics suggested Andrews’ win was a consolation prize. “What did Julie get her Oscar for,” wrote Leonard Mosley of the Daily Express. “Because she gave a delightfully happy-go-lucky performance as a sunshine governess? Or because Hollywood’s technicians felt sorry for her and wanted to get back at Jack Warner for cheating her out of My Fair Lady?” Sorry…I think Julie Andrews deserved her Oscar, and I think anyone who really understood Mary Poppins would not reduce Andrews’ character to “a sunshine governess.”
Tonight there are just five Brits among the 20 acting nominees and I think only one of them (Eddie Redmayne) has a strong shot at the Oscar. Good luck to everyone! If you need me, I’ll be backstage chatting with Julie Andrews and Audrey Hepburn.