For the first time in my TV-viewing herstory, I didn’t watch the Oscars last year — and thus reclaimed nearly four hours that would otherwise have been spent suffering through the most narcotizing tedium. I plan on liberating myself from the dull, decorous pageantry again this Sunday, even if it means missing out in real time on ceremony host Chris Rock’s digs at the roster of blindingly Caucasian nominees. I admit that I’d be pleased if two of those contenders, Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett, had respective wins in the Best Supporting Actress and Best Actress categories for Carol, Todd Haynes’s exquisite adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s great 1952 lesbian romance. Their victories (or those of Carol‘s nominees in four other categories, which conspicuously do not include Best Director or Best Picture) will doubtless be celebrated by some as further proof of how “progressive” Hollywood has become, at least regarding LGBT issues. But they will never restore the Oscar telecast to what it once was, when many people still lived in the closet: an overt-ops mission to advance the most outré homosexual agenda, one that turned susceptible American youths into inverts and tribadists.
I say this with firsthand experience: I grew up during the 1970s and ’80s, transfixed every year from my childhood through my post-adolescence by the televised derangement endorsed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — viewing that unquestionably led to my becoming a practitioner of the sapphic arts. Oscar ceremonies from 1970 to 1989 were the opposite of conversion therapy; the telecasts from that era served as an ex-straight ministry.
The Seventies in particular were the golden years of Oscar outrageousness and homo insurrection, exemplified by the 1974 streaking of Robert Opel, who flashed the peace sign and scurried past David Niven as the English actor was introducing to the stage Elizabeth Taylor, among the biggest of gay icons, then as now (as forever). Opel had gained access to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where the ceremony was held for many years between 1969 and 1999, thanks to his press credentials with the Advocate, the national gay magazine; his nudie infamy helped him establish Fey-Way Studios in San Francisco, a gallery that specialized in homoerotica (and where Opel would be murdered in 1979).
I was a kindergartner at the time of this prank — surely I had been in bed hours before Opel’s full-dong assault? But I remember it vividly, even if only a version constructed in my tiny fevered brain from my parents’ descriptions of the one-man flash mob. Could Mom and Dad also have told me (already, at age five, completely movie-mad) about Edith Head’s win during that same 1974 show for Best Costume Design for The Sting, the eighth and final time she took home an Oscar in that category? It must have been the 1982 awards ceremony — which would have included Head, who died in 1981, in its ghastly “In Memoriam” segment — that sparked my longtime obsession with the costuming legend. I’ll never forget being completely fascinated with, perhaps even slightly terrified by, the incongruities of Head’s signature prim look — bangs, bun, and glasses — with her filthy- and queer-sounding name. Seventeen years after this primal early-Eighties encounter with the costumier, I’d face a room of po-faced academics, many unconvinced by my graduate-school paper arguing that Head’s designs for the actresses in Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Marnie were among the lezziest ever created.
Other moments from the 1982 ceremony also served as key episodes in my homosexual indoctrination. The mighty Barbara Stanwyck, previously unknown to me, was awarded the Honorary Oscar for four decades of screen roles, several of which — as a jailbird in Ladies They Talk About (1933), a dragoon leader in Forty Guns (1957), and a lavender-leaning madam in Walk on the Wild Side (1962) — cemented her status as eternal dyke idol. The musical acts featured on that late-March night of ’82 also kept the annual AMPAS ritual maximally fruity. Resplendent in sequined, floral-patterned white suit, Liberace performed a medley of the compositions nominated for Best Original Score. Even more outlandish than Mr. Showmanship’s ivory-tickling was the production number showcasing Best Song contender “For Your Eyes Only,” from the James Bond film of the same name: Sheena Easton makes her entrance by emerging from an intergalactic vehicle, surrounded by 007 villains — Dr. No, Odd Job, Blofeld (stroking a toy cat), and Jaws — plus a battalion of astro-dancers. A Bond surrogate arrives onstage in a white Lotus Esprit, setting off explosions and green laser beams. Easton, now packing heat, finishes the number before lifting off into outer space with the spy who loves her. Only the Oscars of this era could transform the most dully heterosexual movie genre — Bond films — into the swishiest cabaret act.
This unhinged flamboyance seemed to be everywhere in the culture at the time, not limited to just one long evening at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Even AM radio embraced extreme-camp peacocking, as the Village People charted two top-ten singles in the late Seventies. Proof of my own tween proto-homosexuality is evidenced by my sketch, which I carbon-date to 1980 and which can be seen on this page, of four-sixths of the synthetic disco group. As it happens, Can’t Stop the Music, the 1980 box office disaster that purported to tell the origin story of the gaudy sextet, was co-written and co-produced by Allan Carr, the proudly out, obese, caftan-loving impresario who went on to oversee the 1989 Academy Awards.
The opening number of that show, which I, spellbound, watched on a dinky TV in a college dorm, still endures as the nadir — or apex — of Oscar lunacy. Carr paired a helium-voiced Snow White (played by Eileen Bowman) with a tone-deaf Rob Lowe in a cracked version of “Proud Mary.” But that was only part of this deranged Mary’s vision: Merv Griffin, singing “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts” in a Cockney accent, introduced the Disney character to the Brat Packer on a set made to look like the Cocoanut Grove, where Tinseltown geriatrics (some barely mobile) like Roy Rogers and Dorothy Lamour were trotted out onstage and where the tables soon became animated dancing machines. According to Robert Hofler in Party Animals, his 2010 book about Carr, after the broadcast, Hollywood eminences such as Paul Newman, Gregory Peck, and Billy Wilder sent a letter to AMPAS calling the show “an embarrassment to both the Academy and the entire motion picture industry.”
And so began the regrettable era of Oscar restraint and respectability. But that ’89 show, produced by a man whose “unspoken goal,” per Hofler, was “to bring gay into the Hollywood mainstream,” succeeded in converting me into a card-carrying daughter of darkness: Less than a year after Carr’s fiasco, I was fully initiated into same-sexing, my place on the Kinsey scale undoubtedly the result of overexposure to decades of shameless exhibitionism.
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