By Robert Pius
This year won’t be the first time the Oscars were held while the nation struggled through a tragic episode. The global pandemic has thrown all aspects of life off-kilter. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences announced that the Oscars would be an in-person event with no Zoom screens of any kind, but it remains to be seen how all of that will play out. It’s been relatively smooth sailing for the Oscars for the last 40 years, with only occasional glitches happening. While the “La La Land/Moonlight” debacle seemed major at the time, it looks somewhat less catastrophic considering the times we live in now and what was happening forty years ago.
On March 30th, 1981, preparations were in full swing for that evening’s Oscars when the newly inaugurated president, Ronald Reagan, was shot in the street while getting into his limousine. Chaos then ensued as authorities scrambled to figure out who and why the young man who did the shooting did what he did. The press room of The White House was equally chaotic as Secretary of State Alexander Haig erroneously declared himself in charge while Reagan was in surgery and Vice President George H.W. Bush was returning to Washington from Texas. As the news media raged on about the day’s events, it became clear that holding an awards ceremony that night was the last thing on the country’s mind, so the ceremony was postponed.
The Oscars that year looked to be a pretty unsurprising year. The acting categories all had heavy favorites: Best Actor: Robert De Niro (“Raging Bull”), Best Actress: Sissy Spacek (“Coal Miner’s Daughter”), Best Supporting Actor: Timothy Hutton (“Ordinary People”) and Best Supporting Actress: Mary Steenburgen (“Melvin and Howard”). Hollywood golden boy Robert Redford was expected to take home a golden trophy for his directorial debut (“Ordinary People”), and the film was favored to win Best Picture. In retrospect, this year sometimes gets labeled as being a battle between “Ordinary People” and “Raging Bull” for Best Picture, but that really wasn’t the case. “Raging Bull” and Martin Scorsese’s acclaim only grew as time went by. In 1980 while some critics praised the film enthusiastically, others thought it too violent and foul-mouthed. The then more conservative academy was not thought even to be considering the film for its highest honor. Honoring De Niro was seen as enough reward for that film, along with Thelma Schoonmaker’s first Oscar for Best Film Editing.
De Niro and Scorsese would soon find themselves in a mass of press coverage unrelated to “Raging Bull” that was probably unfathomable for them. When FBI investigators arrested the would-be presidential assassin John Hinckley, they quickly discovered that his motivation for the shooting was to impress actress Jodie Foster who was then a college student at Yale University. He had repeatedly shown up at her dormitory and made phone calls to her, where she politely asked him to stop contacting her. Desperate to impress her, he decided to reenact a scene from another De Niro/Scorsese film, “Taxi Driver.” In that film, a political assassin’s attempt on a politician’s life is thwarted, so instead, he turns his gun on a pimp, thus freeing a teenage prostitute and runaway from the pimp’s criminal grip. He is then hailed as a hero, and Hinckley thought he might win over Foster, who had played the teenage prostitute in that film, if he did the same thing. The stalking of celebrities was a bit of a new phenomenon at this time. Hollywood had a contentious couple of years with The White House, what with the Vietnam War, Watergate, and the politically conservative Reagan election, so there actually was some suspicion that Foster may have actually somehow been involved with the plot to kill the president. She and her representatives quickly denied this.
Reagan survived the shooting and subsequent surgery, and the word was relayed to Hollywood that the Reagans wanted the Oscars to proceed the next day as a sign that the country was once again stable. Reagan had been an actor and President of the Screen Actors Guild, so his connection to the film business was to be celebrated with an opening greeting from him. Host Johnny Carson explained that The White House had asked them to use the taped greeting and proceed with the telecast. The show then proceeded rather uneventfully, with all the predicted winners winning. However, Robert De Niro did face some tough questions in the press room afterward regarding whether the violence of “Taxi Driver” should be held accountable for the prior day’s events.
And thus ended the 53rd Academy Awards. Reagan recovered and served two terms as president, but the tentacles of John Hinckley’s violence would wind their way through Academy history and will still affect this year’s awards. After college, Foster tried to make the transition from successful child and teen actress to adult actress with limited success. She seemed to struggle for several years until landing a plum role in the follow-up film from the producers of the prior years blockbuster “Fatal Attraction.” “The Accused” tells the true story of a woman who is gang-raped in a bar, and she and her lawyer’s attempt to bring all involved in the incident to justice. Kelly McGillis, fresh off the blockbuster “Top Gun,” played the lawyer while Foster played the victim. Reports circulated before the film’s release that Foster had great difficulty making the film, especially during the courtroom testimony scenes. Foster herself had been summoned to be deposed by Hinckley’s defense attorney’s which ended in an ugly incident when he became enraged and had to be forcibly removed from the room when Foster stated she had never been involved with him and was never his girlfriend. The story was that the courtroom scenes were so trying for Foster that she thought she had given a terrible performance and started applying for graduate school programs to become a college professor since she feared she’d never work again as an actress.
The stories of Foster’s trouble making the film ended up giving her a highly appealing Oscar narrative. Here we had a beloved child star going through dark times and returning to the big screen and competing for cinema’s top prize. The sympathy factor (as well as a stunning performance despite Foster’s doubts about her own acting) worked, and Foster won her first Oscar for the film in 1988, a unique accomplishment since she was the only nominee from the film which received only mixed reviews and a less than blockbuster box office. This win uniquely still reaches all the way through time, many more Oscar ceremonies, and today’s pandemic since without John Hinckley’s gunshots, Glenn Close may have never earned her dubious stature of most nominated actress never to win and her overdue narrative for this year’s “Hillbilly Elegy” wouldn’t even be a topic of discussion. That’s because Close, despite all her nominations, was only in real discussion for a possible win twice. Once, of course, just two years ago when she lost for “The Wife.” The other time was in 1988 when some thought she stood a good chance of winning since she was in a Best Picture contender with multiple nominations (“Dangerous Liaisons”) and gave a highly acclaimed performance which many argue to this day was her best film work, but she lost to Foster.
It’s fascinating how Foster’s sympathy by what she went through at the hands of John Hinckley has affected Oscar in so many Oscar races. Had Close won for “Dangerous Liaisons,” she probably wouldn’t have even been considered a strong contender for “The Wife,” and probably Lady Gaga (“A Star is Born“) would have been considered eventual winner Olivia Colman’s (“The Favourite“) chief rival. Things just got even odder with Foster, Close (and Colman oddly) having just faced off in this year’s Golden Globe race for Supporting Actress with Foster scoring a shocking upset for “The Mauritanian” that she described as “a mistake.” (She tends to doubt her own work, it seems). Close won’t have to worry about Foster at the Oscars, though, since Foster didn’t receive a nomination. This is the first time a Supporting Actress Globe winner has missed an Oscar nomination since Katharine Ross (“Voyage of the Damned”) in 1975. As the Oscars push forward in this tragic year, Foster and Close’s interlinking careers because of Hinckley bring to mind the holiday classic “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Each life touches so many others. In this case, a tragedy has linked Close and Foster in Oscar lore. While Foster’s awards run won’t continue to the Oscars, Close still stands a chance at getting the prize that has eluded her for so many years. Even if Close loses again, this nomination has put her in the company of a pretty stellar list of actresses with eight or more Oscar nominations (Meryl Streep, Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, and Geraldine Page). Not bad company to be in.
You can follow Robert and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @robertpius_