Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Heading into the holidays, there still was no host for the 2019 Academy Awards, following the withdrawal of Kevin Hart over his controversial Twitter history. Next year’s ceremony will be the 30th anniversary of the last time the Oscars went emcee-free, in 1989.
The telecast’s producer, Allan Carr (“Grease,” “Can’t Stop the Music”), tried to fill the void by staging a kitschy opening number that is now considered the most cringe-worthy moment in awards-show history: Rob Lowe’s duet with Snow White on a reworked version of “Proud Mary.” (Sample lyric: “I used to work a lot for Walt Disney, starring in cartoons every night and day.”)
“It’s fitting and proper that we continue to honor the dark and tragic event that befell our nation 30 years later,” Lowe deadpanned. “I’m particularly looking forward to the candlelight vigils.”
By phone, the actor, now 54, talked about why he agreed to the number, the looks he was getting from the audience and real lessons he took from the episode. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
What were you thinking?
The academy asked me to do it. I was young and naïve, and I thought, “Well, it’s the academy, they must know what’s best.” I was also a huge fan of [the Oscar-winning composer] Marvin Hamlisch, who wrote the number, so I figured he would be writing something great.
At what point did you know the number was tanking?
I remember vividly looking out in the audience and seeing Barry Levinson, who on that particular evening was the belle of the ball with “Rain Man,” and I could see him very clearly popeyed and mouthing, “what the [expletive]?” But to be a successful actor, you have to have a big dollop of self-denial, so I managed to convince myself that I’d killed it.
What was the reaction like backstage?
I got to the green room and Lucille Ball told me she didn’t know I was such a good singer and made me sit next to her and hold her hand and watch the next 20 minutes of the Oscars. That ended up being my all-time favorite memory because a lot of people didn’t like it, but Lucy did. If it made Lucy happy, it made me happy, because I love Lucy.
When did you realize this was becoming a national controversy?
One thing people forget about this whole thing is the academy for some reason decided they didn’t need to license Snow White. Disney threatened to sue, and when that got into the press, there was a revisionist blowback. When people really examined the number, they saw it for what a disaster it was.
Why do you think people got so upset?
I made a huge mistake. I had always thought the Oscars were a bit of fun escapism for America where we celebrate and honor the craft of making movies. What I didn’t realize was the grand solemnity and profound seriousness and the contribution to society at large that the evening represents to a lot of people, and that’s on me. That’s my bad.
There were other tacky aspects of the show: Merv Griffin crooned “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts,” and Corey Feldman did a Michael Jackson-style dance. Why do you think you were singled out for scorn?
That’s a really good question because I never did really figure out what Lily Tomlin was doing dressed as Carmen Miranda. I don’t know what’s more amazing — the concept of the number, or the fact that nobody was high who came up with it.
Do you think the Oscars learned a lesson from this debacle?
[Sarcastically] It’s always been a huge relief to me that after Snow White, the Oscars got their act together and avoided any further controversy and embarrassment. By the way, it’s basically a show that nobody wants to do. It’s really sad. But honestly, they’ve got nobody to blame but themselves.
Why do you say that?
Making movies is about the audience, and when the audience starts voting with their feet, like they have been, only people who take themselves so seriously and self-reverentially would be incapable of making the kind of changes that one would need to make to be relevant to the times.
What did you learn from the experience?
I learned that sometimes even the experts need to be questioned. I couldn’t imagine a world where a 25-year-old would stand up to Marvin Hamlisch and go, “You know what? Your lyrics are a little cheesy, sir.” But clearly, that might have been a good idea.
Did you have any contact with Eileen Bowman, the unknown who played Snow White, after the ceremony?
This whole Snow White story occupies a big place in my [touring] show, “Stories I Only Tell My Friends: Live.” When I brought the show to San Diego, she came. I brought her onstage, and the place went wild. She was a champ. It was really sweet.
How have you managed to maintain such a good sense of humor about this?
On one hand, if you don’t take yourself seriously, don’t expect anybody else to. But on the other, anybody I take seriously gets the joke, has a good sense of the room, and is not precious or ponderous about anything having to do with this business. Because at the end of the day, we’re putting on makeup for a living.
Do you feel like you’ve gotten the last laugh?
I do. Eighty percent of America can’t tell you what won best picture in any given year. So in an era when staying in the conversation is as important as anything else, I for sure have gotten more money and acclaim out of being in that Oscar opening number than if I had won an Oscar. And that’s fitting.