The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been handing out awards for 86 years now, but the Oscars ceremony continues a tradition millennia in the making. Long before Joan Rivers started heckling stars about their eveningwear, the modern movie awards were prefigured by the ancient Greeks, who were doling out drama trophies—and even deploying the red carpet—some 2,500 years ago.
The circus surrounding the Academy Awards may seem like a uniquely modern nuisance, one reducing the cinematic arts to a popularity contest and a claws-out race to the trophy. But drama prizes have been around almost as long as the art form itself. To celebrate Dionysus, Greek god of wine and ritual ecstasy, ancient Athenians held an annual festival, the Dionysia, during which three playwrights each presented four new works. Ten judges, chosen by lot, would declare a winner, who received an ivy wreath and an automatic spot in the following year’s competition. Aeschylus, the father of tragedy and precursor to Greek playwrights Sophocles and Euripides, won his first Dionysia in 484 B.C., beginning a winning streak that would make Meryl Streep green with envy. Although he racked up at least a dozen more victories, only seven of his estimated 70 to 90 plays have survived. Taking top honors in 458 B.C. was his Oresteia cycle (Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides). Far from the simple performances Greeks were used to, Aeschylus’s rich productions used multiple actors, realistic sets, flamboyant costumes and special effects so evocative that some pregnant women in his audiences allegedly miscarried from sheer fright.
Joan Rivers has dished about fashion tragedies on the Oscars red carpet for decades, but the tradition of rolling out a lush ornamental rug for a special welcome began millennia ago. One of its first recorded appearances is in Aeschylus’s tragedy Agamemnon. In the play, vengeful queen Clytemnestra welcomes her husband, Agamemnon, home from his Trojan War victories by having a crimson carpet spread from his chariot to their door—a rug symbolically red as his blood, which will soon be spilled. Agamemnon, afraid of displaying hubris and the resulting swift retribution from the gods, rebuffs the offer: “Such state becomes the gods, and none beside. / I am a mortal, a man; I cannot trample upon / these tinted splendors without fear thrown in my path.” Clytemnestra convinces him to come inside, then stabs him to death in the bathtub less than 400 lines later. The tradition of donning couture and millions in diamonds and parading down a red carpet at the Oscars is a good demonstration of hubris today. And if stars should feel a little godlike in the process, they may experience an evisceration almost as brutal at the hands of Hollywood’s own Clytemnestra, Joan Rivers.
Designed in 1928 by MGM studios art director Cedric Gibbons, the art deco–style Academy Award statuette depicts a knight clutching a sword while standing atop a reel of film. Sans clothes or facial features, the knight was also nameless, and no one knows exactly when he was christened Oscar. The Oxford English Dictionary claims the award reminded one Academy executive of her uncle Oscar. In 1934 Hollywood columnist Sidney Skolsky was first to use the nickname in print; he claimed to have been inspired by a vaudeville joke featuring the line “Will you have a cigar, Oscar?” but many believe Skolsky just heard the term around town, perhaps even at the 1934 ceremonies. The most fun—if not necessarily the likeliest—explanation comes from Academy darling Bette Davis. In her 1962 autobiography The Lonely Life, she wrote of her first trip to the podium, in 1935: “I stared at the little gold-plated man in the palm of my hand. He was a Hollywood male and, of course, epicene; but in a kind of madness his backview was the spit of my husband’s. Since the O. in Harmon O. Nelson stood for Oscar, Oscar it has been ever since.”
In Hollywood, if you don’t have anything nice to say, wait until the Oscars and say it in front of millions of viewers. Acceptance speeches have especially become vehicles for advancing political ideologies. In 1973, when he won best actor for The Godfather, Marlon Brando refused the trophy, instead sending young activist Sacheen Littlefeather to protest Hollywood’s misrepresentation of Native Americans. Five years later, while accepting the best supporting actress award for her role as an anti-Nazi agent in Julia, pro-Palestinian Vanessa Redgrave railed against the Jewish Defense League, labeling it a “small bunch of Zionist hoodlums whose behavior is an insult to the stature of Jews all over the world.” The screed was misconstrued as generally anti-Israel—or worse, anti-Semitic. Most recently, director Michael Moore bashed then-president George W. Bush in his 2003 acceptance speech for best documentary for Bowling for Columbine. Moore said (to applause as well as a chorus of boos), “We like nonfiction, and we live in fictitious times. We live in a time where we have fictitious election results that elect a fictitious president. We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons.”
Joan Rivers and Bob Hope are undisputed comedy royalty who will forever reign in Oscars history, though in dramatically different ways. Proving himself the consummate Hollywood insider, Hope hosted or cohosted the award ceremonies more times than anyone else (18!), while Rivers has taken a supporting role on the red carpet by gossiping about celebrity fashion faux pas. So why has Rivers never been invited to host and is perennially left out in the cold—or the L.A. heat, as the case may be? One reason may have been the pair’s differing comedic styles. Hope tended toward the jolly, rapid-fire one-liners he picked up on the vaudeville circuit, which were easily adapted to the Academy Awards stage with just a few topical punch lines. Rivers, who got her start in downtown Manhattan clubs, is more brash and acerbic. Her cutting tone and tendency to go for the jugular could quickly alienate an auditorium full of self-important actors. But perhaps Rivers never made it past the red carpet because the Oscars has historically been a boys’ club. Though several women cohosted over the years, only two have emceed solo: Whoopi Goldberg (1994, 1996, 1999, 2002) and Ellen DeGeneres (2007, 2014).
From 1940 to 1978 Bob Hope hosted or cohosted the Academy Awards a whopping 18 times—nine times more than the second-place host, Billy Crystal. During his tenure, Hope often shared the stage with Bette Davis, she of the emotive hawk eyes. By 1962 Davis had become the first woman to earn 10 acting nominations, winning for Dangerous (1935) and Jezebel (1938). As Hope quipped at the 1938 ceremonies, “All these Oscars! Looks like Bette Davis’s garage.” And although she could disappear into such roles as heiress, spinster and southern belle, Davis garnered four of these nods for playing a performer, in Dangerous, All About Eve (1950), The Star (1952) and the campfest What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). Davis achieved a few other industry titles, including first woman to earn a Life Achievement Award from the American Film Institute and first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In 1999 she ranked number two on AFI’s list of the greatest female movie stars of all time, after Katharine Hepburn—who, as luck would have it, also took the Oscar crown from Davis, earning 12 nods and four wins.
The Academy often attempts to shake things up when choosing a new Oscars host, but some recent choices have misfired, such as the off-color Seth MacFarlane in 2013 and the awkwardly mismatched duo of prim Anne Hathaway and seemingly stoned James Franco in 2011. Overall, the safest MC candidates have been comedians—performers more than qualified to keep things humming, react spontaneously to onstage events, provide witty banter and sell even the hokiest of punch lines by Bruce Vilanch, broadcast scriptwriter since 1989. Mid-century marvel Bob Hope and low-key latter-day charmer Ellen DeGeneres can do genial and good-natured in their sleep, even when being provocative. Witness Hope’s 1978 jest following a star-studded tribute to past winners: “They all have their Oscars. But are they happy?”
While the Oscars scored big with many other comics (including Jon Stewart, Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg and Steve Martin), one does rank among the worst hosts. In 1995 ordinarily droll David Letterman never got into the Oscars groove and delivered some dead-on-arrival gags like the infamous “Uma, Oprah” bit, repeatedly introducing Thurman and Winfrey as they sat bemused in the audience. A New York Times headline summed it up best: “The Winner Isn’t David Letterman.”
When Ellen DeGeneres emceed the 79th Academy Awards, in 2007, she became the first openly gay host in Oscars history, a decade after she famously came out on The Oprah Winfrey Show. As host, DeGeneres could easily have capitalized on the Oscars’ immense global audience to publicize an important cause in a year when Massachusetts was the only state with legal same-sex marriage. Instead she kept the evening relatively breezy. This ceremony was also notable for the record-breaking ethnic diversity of its nominees. Among the 20 acting contenders were five African Americans (including winners Forest Whitaker and Jennifer Hudson), two Latinos and one Asian. DeGeneres told a typically understated joke as one of her few acknowledgments of the evening’s historic importance. “What a wonderful night,” she said. “Such diversity in the room, in a year when there’s been so many negative things said about people’s race, religion and sexual orientation. And I want to put this out there: If there weren’t blacks, Jews and gays, there would be no Oscars—or anyone named Oscar, when you think about it.” Critics gave her high marks, not least because she kept the show bopping along without any stunts or controversies.