Sometimes, watching the Academy Awards on TV can be a trying experience—and by that, I mean trying to stay awake. So what is it that keeps audiences watching? The potential to watch a train wreck unfold. Let’s face it, the Oscars are a group of egotistical, unpredictable, and privileged people who are used to having everything they say written for them in a script. On their biggest night of the year, these people are unscripted, nervous, and usually in need of a drink: the perfect recipe for controversy. Let’s dive into the biggest scandals in Oscar history and decide once and for all who gets the award for the Academy’s most controversial moment.
1. Red Carpet Madness
Sometimes controversy erupts before we even get into the auditorium. Sacha Baron Cohen isn’t one to shy away from a little shameless—and usually embarrassing—self-promotion. On the 2012 red carpet, Cohen appeared in character as dictator General Aladeen from his movie The Dictator. What he was carrying horrified his fellow guests. Cohen was holding an urn he said was filled with the ashes of Kim Jong-il, the former dictator of North Korea.
OK, just a bit of fun, right? Well, it’s what he did with the ashes that went down in Oscar history.
2. Dust To Dust, Ashes To Seacrest
The Academy had actually given the green light to Cohen appearing in character, but not to what happened next. Ryan Seacrest was doing his thing on the red carpet, asking everyone who they were wearing…then he got to Cohen. The comedian dumped the ashes—which turned out to be pancake mix—all over an absolutely confused Seacrest. Cohen’s parting line? “Now when people ask who you’re wearing, you will say Kim Jong-il!”
Even better, Cohen wasn’t the only one acting crazy on the red carpet that year…
3. Angelina Got A Leg Up
Also in 2012, Angelina Jolie wore a black dress that featured a-now iconic, leg-revealing slit. But it wasn’t the dress that was controversial—it was Jolie’s pose. It started on the red carpet, where Jolie seemed to feel obliged to stick her leg through the slit every chance she got. As time progressed, Jolie’s desire to show her leg became almost pathological. She did later give a reason—but it was completely baffling.
4. There Was A Last Minute Wardrobe Change
After the awards show, reporters asked Jolie why she was letting her leg see the light of day so regularly. Her excuse was a little hard to follow. It seems she was originally going to wear a different dress. At the last minute, she opted for a more comfortable gown, and this made her want to embrace life—which apparently means showing a whole lot of leg.
A little while later, however, a more sane and likely reason surfaced.
5. It Was The Battle For The Dress
Some believe that Jolie was strutting her stuff in the dress to outdo her nemesis—and previous lover of Brad Pitt—Jennifer Aniston. Jolie’s frock had more than a few similarities to Aniston’s one at the Golden Globes a few years previous. So, why the leg show? Jolie assumed fashionistas would compare her and Aniston—and she needed to be sure that she’d receive the crown as the one who wore it best.
Next, a presenter who needed to something more important than a dress: the correct envelope.
6. It Was A Nightmare
How does it feel when, halfway through your Academy Award acceptance speech, someone taps you on the shoulder and says: “Sorry there’s been a mistake”? Sounds like one of those nauseating nightmares, but it’s exactly what happened in 2017. Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, who played outlaws in Bonnie and Clyde, were the ones giving out the award for Best Picture. When Beatty opened the envelope, he didn’t see what he expected.
7. There Was Clearly Something Wrong
Beatty knew something was wrong and clearly hesitated on stage. He wouldn’t name the winner, but members of the audience assumed he was just trying to ramp up the tension. Dunaway thought the same thing and grabbed the card, saying something like: “You’re impossible.” Dunaway just likely wanted to get the job done, and so she looked at the card and saw this: “Emma Stone, La La Land” In the heat of the moment, she announced La La Land as the winner.
What happened next was the most shocking moment in Oscars history—well, until recently…
8. They Couldn’t Stop Them
While the elated producers, cast, and crew members of La La Land descended on the stage, it was mayhem backstage. The stage manager knew that La La Land wasn’t the winner, but it wasn’t exactly clear how to stop what was going on on stage. Two producers had already made their acceptance speeches and the third, Fred Berger, was in the midst of his. Berger heard what was going on behind him and ended his speech in despair: “We lost by the way.” But his nightmare was only beginning.
9. It Wasn’t A Joke
La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz took the correct card from a befuddled Beatty’s hand and announced Moonlight as the winner. He had to add, “This is not a joke,” as no one was sure what was going on. The Moonlight team, some showing almost a concerning amount of shock, took to the stage. It was an Oscar moment unlike any other, but the question remains: What the heck happened that night?
Turns out, there’s one very obvious person to blame.
10. He Couldn’t Help Himself
You may have noticed that almost every Academy Award broadcast makes some reference to Price Waterhouse accountants; usually making fun of them as boring. Well, it was one of these accountants who was responsible for the La La Land debacle. Price Waterhouse employee Brian Cullinan was backstage handing out the envelopes, but he had a serious addiction problem…to social media.
The Academy had already told him he couldn’t post anything from backstage, but Cullinan couldn’t resist the temptation. If only he’d known just how poorly it would go…
11. He Was Tweeting
Moments before Cullinan handed Beatty and Dunaway the wrong envelope, Cullinan had snapped a photo of Emma Stone and posted it on Twitter. Cullinan was star-struck and, in his confusion, made an error that would go down in Oscar controversy history. And what of Cullinan? He’s still a partner at Price Waterhouse, but he received an ultimatum: stay clear of the Oscars.
But, to cut him a little slack, sometimes chaos can still reign even when you have the correct envelope.
12. He Was Frank
In 1934, Frank Capra sat in the audience of the Academy Awards and was hoping for a Best Director win for his Lady For A Day. When his category came up, he heard presenter Will Rogers say, “Come on up and get it Frank.” Capra was on cloud nine and stood to make his way to the podium. Capra then became incredibly confused when the people sitting behind him told him to sit down, as he was blocking their view. The truth slowly dawned on him. The winner was another Frank, Frank Lloyd.
Okay, first you’ve got to make sure you’re the real winner—but even then the road to the podium can be a struggle.
13. She Stumbled
The last thing that should be sabotaging your Oscar night is your wardrobe. Sadly, that’s what happened to Best Actress winner Jennifer Lawrence. The Silver Linings Playbook star was heading up to the pedestal to accept her award and make her speech when she tripped over her Dior Haute Couture gown. Both Bradley Cooper and Hugh Jackman were soon rushing up to assist—not a sad sight at all. But Lawrence was not about to show she needed rescuing. She took a moment, and proudly made her way to the stage.
Well, there’s proudly going to the stage, and then there’s just plain too proud.
14. He Thought He Was The First
In 2016, UK singer/songwriter Sam Smith picked up an Oscar for Best Original Song, but he thought he was even more original than his music. In his speech, Smith—who won for his song “Writing’s on the Wall” in 007’s Spectre—mentioned that he was the first openly gay recipient of an Oscar. Now, just off the top of my head, Elton John for Lion King, Dustin Lance Black for Milk…need I go on? Smith also went on…to profusely apologize.
But don’t expect an apology from Angelina Jolie—or her brother.
15. It Was All In The Family
The new millennium began with a cringe-worthy Oscar moment that will go down in history. Angelina Jolie was up for Best Supporting Actress for her role as a mental hospital patient. When she won, she turned to her date and gave him a big kiss on the lips. Sounds pretty normal except for one thing…her date was her brother. Things then somehow went even worse.
16. Oops, They Did It Again
When Jolie got to the microphone to accept her Oscar she said: “I’m just so into my brother right now.” Some critics thought maybe Jolie had gotten too into her character and was off the deep end. The two siblings again locked lips at the Vanity Fair Oscar party. The brother, James Haven, later said that he was congratulating her on winning and saying goodbye at the same time. Which makes you wonder what they did at Christmas and on birthdays…
And speaking of kisses, here’s one no one asked for—not even the recipient.
17. This Kiss Was Not Just A Kiss
Maybe Best Actor winner Adrien Brody knew it was his only chance at an Oscar. That’s the only logical reason for wanting to seize the day. But, instead of the day, he actually seized presenter Halle Berry. Brody was in the moment and gave Berry a very passionate kiss. Berry wasn’t in the same moment and was very confused. A reporter later asked her if the kiss was good. Berry said she just remembered it was wet.
Berry had learned a valuable lesson—steer clear of the winner. Others chose to steer clear of the stage altogether.
18. The No-Show
Dudley Nichols, a screenwriter back in the golden age of Hollywood, had a problem with the Academy: They wouldn’t accept the legitimacy of the Screen Writers Guild. In 1936, Nicholas won for The Informant, but unlike the other winners that night, Nicholas didn’t bother to show up. Not until the dispute with the SWG was settled. So, the Academy mailed it to him—but they didn’t get the reaction they were expecting.
19. Take It Back
Nicholas didn’t like the Academy and he wanted to make his feelings plain. He angrily put a stamp on his Oscar and mailed it back. Confused employees back at the Academy thought there had been a mistake, so they sent it back again. Nichols eventually did accept his Oscar in 1938. Perhaps he’d run out of stamps.
20. A Whiter Shade Of Pale
People were up in arms when, in 2015, there were no Black actors nominated for any acting categories. So, imagine the outrage when it happened again in 2016. Well, the Academy did try to make up for it by hiring African American Comedian Chris Rock to host the event. During the event, Rock said, “You do realize, if they nominated hosts, I wouldn’t even get this job!”
People were hot under the collar, and they needed something, anything, to bring them all together. And what’s better than a hashtag?
21. She Wasn’t Invited
April Reign, a campaign finance lawyer and movie fanatic, had had it. She coined the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite in response to the Oscars being…well…so white. This led to Jada Pinkett Smith giving the whole Oscars a big “not interested.” Apparently, she didn’t even watch them on TV that year. This didn’t stop host Chris Rock from poking fun at Pinkett Smith: “Jada boycotting the Oscars is like me boycotting Rihanna’s panties. I wasn’t invited.”
And that was the last anyone heard of Chris Rock and Jada Pinkett Smith at the Oscars…
22. She Announced Her Battle
It had been eight years since Chris Rock had insulted Jada Pinkett Smith at the 2016 awards show. The #OscarsSoWhite campaign seemed to have worked, as her husband, Will Smith, had a nomination for Best Actor for his performance in King Richard. A few months before the ceremony, Pinkett Smith had gone online to discuss her battle with alopecia—the disorder that caused her hair loss. Her posts were upbeat and humorous.
Well, let’s just say, the humor stopped there.
23. They Kept Their Cool
Will and Jada Pinkett Smith were front and center at the 2022 ceremony. Co-host Regina Hall got the first dig in at the royal couple by including Will Smith on a list of available men. This was a jab at the couple’s much talked about open marriage. This came just weeks after Rebel Wilson made a similar dig at the BAFTAs. Somehow the Smiths kept their cool with these intrusions into their private life. At least until Chris Rock took to the stage.
24. A Resounding Smack
With the microphone in front of him, Rock turned to face Pinkett Smith and said these famous words: “Jada, I love you. GI Jane 2, can’t wait to see it.” Somehow this second straw became Will Smith’s last one. Smith got out of his seat, got onto the stage, and hit Rock with an open hand. The hit resounded throughout the auditorium—and has been echoing around the world ever since.
25. He Wasn’t Woke
First of all, what was the joke? Rock was referencing GI Jane, a 1997 film where Demi Moore sported a shaved head. Was he making fun of Pinkett Smith’s alopecia? Rock has claimed he had no idea about it—after all, Pinkett has sported short hair for years. But there was something that Rock should have known: There is a whole controversy out there regarding talking about Black women’s hair. In fact, he did know it. In 2009, Rock produced and starred in a documentary about how Black women’s hair has been styled and perceived.
But was Rock even responsible for this controversial Oscar insult?
26. He Hit the Wrong Guy
It is unlikely that Rock actually wrote the GI Jane joke. The person responsible was probably one of the writers. But is that really the point? Smith was angry and expressed his anger with a hit, and what many people are saying is that that’s not cool. Well, Smith lost his cool at a very public awards show, which leaves me with the question, if he can’t control his temper in front of millions of viewers, what does he do when he’s alone?
Rock’s joke clearly wasn’t funny, but it’s hard to tell what’s going to make people laugh.
27. There Was The Sound Of Silence
David Letterman usually has no problem making people laugh, but when he started his gig as 1995’s host, he got nothing but stony silence. His first joke was about how weird celebrity names were. His gag where he introduced Oprah Winfrey to Uma Thurman had exactly one fan—himself. When Letterman added Keanu Reeves’ name to the list, the auditorium just got quieter. Sorry Letterman, you just learned the hard way that the Oscars is the toughest crowd in show business.
At least Letterman made it to the stage. Kevin Hart got stopped before he even got there.
28. He Missed His Chance
The 2019 awards got off to a bad start days before they even began. Funnyman Kevin Hart was in place to host the awards, and then something came back to haunt him: inappropriate tweets. Hart had previously let loose on Twitter about how he certainly did not want his son to be gay. Then he added: If his son wanted to play with a dollhouse, he’d break it over the poor boy’s head. The Academy saw the tweets, and they asked Hart to stay home on Oscar night.
The next host on our list at least made it to the show—but if he’d known what was going to go down, he’d wish he hadn’t.
29. He Had Nothing
The Academy Awards are infamous for running rather long, but in 1959 they actually came up short. Wacky comedian Jerry Lewis was the host and found himself in the unenviable position of having 20 minutes to fill after the Best Picture Award was safely in its proper hands. Yikes! Lewis was a famous improviser, but I’m sure the heat was on as America watched him on air with absolutely nothing to do.
It was sink or swim. And Lewis sank.
30. He Failed The Stress Test
Lewis had 20 minutes to kill, and faced the audience with no idea what to do. First he got the orchestra to replay some of the night’s musical selections—encouraging some of the presenters to dance a bit. The sweat was soon pouring off of Lewis’ forehead. He then offered to do 300 choruses of “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” The announcer began listing all the winners, even though the audience had just witnessed the wins firsthand. You can hear Lewis in the background playing a trumpet—badly. If you ever need a definition for stress: this is it.
The Academy never again asked Lewis to return as presenter. After the 1989 awards, another controversy would ban another performer: Snow White.
31. Not So Proud Mary
The 1989 Oscars were set to go hostless, but the producers thought a big musical number might make the audience forget that there was no one holding down the fort. Well, they were right that no one worried about having no host, but they were wrong for the reason: The musical number was beyond awful. The number followed Snow White through several songs, the worst being a rendition of “Proud Mary,” sung with a very inexperienced brat packer named Rob Lowe.
Think that sounds bad? Well, it was even worse.
32. He Was Tone Deaf
First of all, Lowe has no singing experience and was, in my opinion anyway, only good at holding a microphone. The lyrics of the song were likely written in about ten minutes. A favorite excerpt is this: “I used to work a lot for Walt Disney, starring in cartoons every night and day.” Do they give a Pulitzer for parody songs? Lowe later said he was just trusting the Academy’s wisdom.
But there was more than just bad singing and dancing. The Academy’s bad taste actually broke the law.
33. It Was Against The Law
You’d think that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences would know a little about licensing. It turns out that Snow White is not in the public domain and, in fact, is owned by Disney. Maybe if the number had been a success, Disney wouldn’t have threatened a lawsuit. It wasn’t, and they did. In the end, the Academy got down on their hands and knees and apologized and Disney did them a favor: dropped the lawsuit. Phew.
But speaking of controversial music numbers…
34. They Needed To Get A Room
Answer this riddle: When is a piano a bed? When Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper sing a duet on it. In 2019, the stars of A Star Is Born performed the song “Shallow” for the awards’ audience. The duet became quite hot and heavy as the chemistry between the two stars started to leak and spread all over the auditorium. Gaga was single, but Cooper had a girlfriend. Let’s just say…she wasn’t pleased.
35. It Started A Storm
After Cooper went gaga over Gaga, the Twitter storm began. “Get a room” was a popular tweet. Funnyman David Spade suggested that there was no way the two weren’t doing it behind closed doors, to which Cooper’s ex, Jennifer Esposito simply commented: “ha.” The most revealing response came from Cooper’s then-girlfriend—and mother of his child—Irina Shayk. She dumped him a short time later and then headed somewhere further west—to Kanye West.
Gaga also suffered—but in much a more public way.
36. She Went Head-On With The Audience
Lady Gaga also had a hard time after the song, but it wasn’t with an individual—it was with a whole crowd. When performing in Las Vegas, fans kept calling out to her about the Cooper rumors. Gaga had had it and told the audience in no uncertain terms that there was no romance between her and Cooper—let’s just say her language was a lot more colorful than what I’d use.
And speaking of language, at Oscars 2014 it wasn’t clear what dialect John Travolta was speaking.
37. He Needed Special Help
It seems that John Travolta should’ve been sent back to remedial class—like the one in TV’s Welcome Back Kotter— because he clearly needed pronunciation lessons. Producers of the 2014 Academy Awards told him he needed to introduce the musical theater performer Idina Menzel. Before going on stage, Travolta took one look at the name and asked for special help: He wanted them to spell the name phonetically.
Kudos for thinking ahead—but things did not go as planned.
38. He Was Starstruck
Once on stage, Travolta looked at the teleprompter and saw a real mess; it was just a bunch of letters that didn’t make sense. But that’s not going to stop a movie star like John Travolta! With all the confidence in the world, he proudly announced the wickedly talented…Adele Dazeem. Is that even close? Travolta, who apologized to Menzel many times, later gave an excuse for his mistake.
Apparently, he’d just seen Goldie Hawn and was starstruck. Okay, that’s a good excuse, but what about Laurence Olivier’s blunder?
39. He Edited
One of the tensest moments in any award show is the announcement of the Best Picture nominees. At the 1985 awards, the usually articulate and, let’s put it bluntly, long-winded Laurence Olivier was about to list the nominees but decided to do a little self-editing. Instead of making everyone squirm in their seats with anticipation, Olivier simply yelled out the winner: “Amadeus!” Maybe it was past his bedtime?
I guess it’s better to be rushed over than be mistaken for dead…
40. They Messed Up
The most somber moment in any Academy Awards show is the In Memoriam Reel. Imagine being film producer Jan Chapman. When she was watching the slide show of the recently deceased, she saw something shocking: Her own picture on the screen! The woman who had passed was Janet Patterson, and her loved ones were horrified to see her name beside the wrong picture. All in all, it was a major “in memoriam” mess up.
But few years earlier, the Academy had screwed up something worse.
41. They Came Head To Head
In 2006, Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain was battling it out with Crash for Best Picture. The gay cowboy flick seemed to have an edge over Paul Haggis’ Crash, but most thought that a movie about gay guys on horseback would not appeal to the oldsters in the Academy. Well, they were right. Both Poseidon Adventure’s Ernest Borgnine and Tony Curtis of Some Like It Hot said something strange about Brokeback Mountain that would go down in Oscar controversy history.
42. And The Loser Is?
Borgnine and Curtis both had to share their belief that John Wayne wouldn’t like a movie about gay cowboys. You might say, “Why would that matter?” Well, apparently it did. When it came to Oscar night, the haters prevailed: Crash took home the trophy. Many critics thought the result was a sham. They thought that, not only was Brokeback Mountain the better film, Crash might just be the worst Best Picture winner ever.
Seven years earlier, however, something similar—but more deceitful—had happened.
43. Losing Private Ryan
In 1999, when Steven Spielberg took home the Best Director trophy for Saving Private Ryan, it seemed like the Best Picture award would also be his. A few minutes later, something unexpected happened: Shakespeare in Love took the top honor. There was quite a variety of speculation as to why this happened, but there was one common belief and it was a big one: The responsible person was Harvey Weinstein, who had used his malevolent influence over the entertainment industry to get his picture into the top spot.
And speaking of disgraced monsters, let’s talk about Roman Polanksi.
44. He Ran Away
In 2003, Roman Polanski received a nomination for Best Director. Polanski, whose wife, Sharon Tate, was a victim of the Manson Family, was unable to accept the award for a dark reason: He was living in Paris to avoid going to prison. Back in the late 1970s, Polanski had drugged and assaulted a minor. And what did the Academy think about Polanksi’s past sins? Well, they gave him the trophy for his film The Pianist.
45. He Read Carefully
In 1964, Ocean’s 11 star Sammy Davis Jr. was handing out the award for Best Score. After reading out the nominees, Davis Jr. opened the envelope and announced that the winner was John Addison for Tom Jones. Horror slowly crept over Davis Jr.’s face—Addison wasn’t even one of the nominees. It turned out that they’d given him the wrong envelope. Davis Jr. then made an elaborate production of pulling out his glasses and carefully reading the correct winner.
This little faux pas was nothing, however, compared to the train wreck that happened at Oscars a decade later.
46. He Was Missing Something
There’s no drier wit than David Niven, so it was best he was on stage when this happened. It was 1974, and Niven was about to introduce Elizabeth Taylor, who was giving out the Best Picture Award. Before Taylor could get on stage, a man rushed out. The fact that he wasn’t supposed to be there was only half of the controversy—the other half was that he wasn’t wearing any clothes.
47. He Was Ready With The Perfect Line
When Niven saw what was happening his dry wit came into play. He famously said: “But isn’t it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?” Which led some to believe that the thing was set up. I mean, who comes out with a perfect line like that on the spot. Well, David Niven, for one.
So, what was the story behind the guy in his birthday suit?
48. He Had A Plan
The man with no clothes turned out to be Robert Opel, photographer and owner of a gay art gallery in San Francisco—and, in complete contrast, an ex-speech writer for Ronald Reagan. Opel’s reasoning for his naked ambition was twofold. He wanted to celebrate the human body, and he wanted something more selfish: to launch his career. Tragically, even though he tried his best, it never came to be.
Opel later lost his life in a robbery gone wrong when thugs invaded his gallery.
49. It Got Political
California Apache activist and actress Sacheen Littlefeather hadn’t acted in a movie, but there she was, at the 1973 Oscars, accepting an award. Although, once she started speaking, it was clear she wasn’t accepting anything. Marlon Brando, whose name had just been announced as the winner for Best Actor for The Godfather, had sent her to the stage as a form of protest.
Brando would not accept his award because of the way Hollywood was depicting Native Americans in film, and to draw attention to the situation at Wounded Knee. And what about the audience’s reaction to this? Well, let’s call it mixed.
50. There Were Cheers And Boos
Littlefeather had a four-page speech written by Brando, but the award night producer said she had exactly 60 seconds to give it. During the speech, there were both cheers and boos. Cowboy actor John Wayne was livid—it took six security guards to keep him from rushing the stage. Clint Eastwood, who later took the stage to give an award, said that he was presenting the award “on behalf of all the cowboys shot in John Ford Westerns over the years”. Well, the joke was on him. The award he was presenting went to The Godfather.
51. She Didn’t Clap
After presenting an award to a recipient it’s pretty common for the presenter to step into the background and applaud the winner. In 2017, when Room’s Brie Larson handed the trophy to Casey Affleck for Manchester By The Sea, she refused to put her hands together. Why? Well in Brie Larson’s film she played a woman who was a victim of assault. Meanwhile, in real life, Affleck had been accused of harassment on set.
Larson used her position on stage to make a point. But the next winner nearly didn’t make it on stage.
52. She Couldn’t Enter
In 1940, Hattie McDaniel received a nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in Gone With The Wind. Great news for her, but there was just one problem: McDaniel, a Black woman, wasn’t allowed to attend the ceremony. The producers of the film eventually convinced the theater operator to let her enter the ceremony—on one humiliating condition: She had to sit at a table away from her costars.
But sometimes, there actually is justice in the world: McDaniel won the award last night, the first time a Black performer ever took home an Oscar.
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