Remembering the ’78 Oscarcast

While many of the Academy Award shows tend to fade into one another, there is one that remains memorable to many.

It was for the Oscar’s 51st Anniversary, the presentation for the 1978 Academy Awards, which took place on April 9, 1979 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

It was an unforgettable night at the movies because the Oscar nominees and the show itself represented a collision course of sorts between Old Hollywood and New Hollywood, and of political beliefs on different ends of the spectrum. But at the same time, the show was packed with sentiment the likes of which are rarely seen these days at the Oscars. And all of it was set against the backdrop of a disco buzz.

Johnny Carson was the host and, in his inimitable style, the “King of Late Night” had a grand time ribbing the plastic surgery of the folks at the Dorothy Chandler and the inevitable elephantine running time of the show.

Donna Summer performed “Last Dance” from Thank God, It’s Friday amidst a glitzy mirror-encrusted setting. Later in the evening, the dance hit would be named the Best Song of the Year.

The parade of the Young Turks and the Old Guard was a consistent theme through the night, as the likes of Brooke Shields, Robin Williams, Richard Dreyfuss, Robby Benson, Ricky Schroder and Steve Martin, representing the new generation, shared stage time with Maggie Smith, Maureen Stapleton, Kim Novak, Ruby Keeler, Audrey Hepburn, Lauren Bacall, Cary Grant, Steve Lawrence, Ginger Rogers, Sammy Davis, Jr. and George Burns that night.

The suspense angle of the night, however, was how two big Oscar nominees would fare. They were The Deer Hunter and Coming Home, films about the Vietnam War. Fueling the evening’s tension were a group of protesting Vietnam veterans outside the venue, who claimed The Deer Hunter was racist and the events depicted in the film were not true-to-life. In fact, the advance word about the protests was reportedly enough to scare Robert De Niro, nominated for Best Actor for The Deer Hunter, away for the night.

The Deer Hunter was an epic from a little-known director (Michael Cimino) that split time between a small Pennsylvania factory town and a prison in North Vietnam. Coming Home mostly centered on the effects of the war as experienced by veterans and their families in Southern California. Both had superior casts, but one had battle scenes and harrowing depictions of violence, while the other used big emotional moments between its characters and a love story to powerfully make its points.

During the night, the two split the awards regularly with The Deer Hunter taking home Oscars for Best Editing, Best Sound and Best Supporting Actor (Christopher Walken), while Coming Home’s trophies included Best Original Screenplay, Best Actress (Jane Fonda, who used sign language during her thank you speech) and Best Actor (Jon Voight).

Cimino’s win as Best Director was the harbinger that The Deer Hunter would take the Best Picture prize, and it did. But it sent chills down everyone’s spine that the person presenting the award turned out to be John Wayne.

Carson introduced the Hollywood legend appeared after a film clip from the previous year showed emcee Bob Hope addressing the absent Wayne, saying “Duke, we miss you tonight.”

Wayne gingerly ambled onto the stage, frail and obviously suffering from his treatments for stomach cancer. He said a few words about his career—that he and Oscar started out the same year, 1928—and proceeded to announce the nominees. As if to underline the seriousness of the Duke’s illness, Wayne went on to mispronounce the names of the directors whose films were nominated for Best Picture. It was sad.

And then when he announced The Deer Hunter as the winner of Best Picture, something seemed eerily wrong. Not as wrong, perhaps, as if Coming Home, a more stridently liberal effort, copped the prize. That film, after all, was directed by Hal Ashby and photographed by Haskell Wexler, among the movie business’s leading lefties, and starred “Hanoi Jane” Fonda, an actress vehemently opposed to the war that Wayne backed in public and glamorized America’s role in throughout 1968’s The Green Berets.

But while The Deer Hunter’s politics has been debated since the film’s release, it was still a depiction of the Vietnam conflict much different than John Wayne’s gung-ho vision. And there was Wayne—aka The Ringo Kid, Sean Thornton, Ethan Edwards, Davy Crockett, Tom Doniphon, George Washington McLintock and Rooster Cogburn—handing out a gold statue to “Michael Chipino” and the producers of a movie about the severe impact combat and, the Vietnam War specifically, had on a group of friends who enlisted to fight overseas.

The irony of the moment was driven home when Carson appeared and told the actor that some friends wanted to say hello. He was soon surrounded by all of the presenters and winners of the night, including Jane Fonda.

Two months later John Wayne passed and this was his last public appearance.

Alas, John Wayne was not the only one making his farewell to Hollywood. Jack Haley, who played the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, came out with Ray Bolger, who played the Scarecrow in the same film, to present the Academy Award for Best Costume Design. It was a nice moment, but Haley would pass away soon afterwards.

Still, the appearance of the shadow of the man who was John Wayne amidst the throng of Hollywood elite, both young and old, is an image that stays with you.

Whoa. Take ‘er easy there, Pilgrim.

  • Jim

    I thought The Deer Hunter was a much better movie than Coming Home. And I thought Robert De Niro should have gotten the Oscar… his performance was much more subtle than Voight’s.

  • Susan

    It was a tough night for film lovers. Those of us who wanted to look at the merits of both films were thrown into the very controversy we avoid by watching films. Viet Nam protests and sorrows were everywhere including our own homes. Then to have to watch Mr. Wayne’s obvious suffering brought the struggles of life and death into the forefront, made that night terribly painful. Many of we Liberals loved his contributions. To have to listen to his polital beliefs was again painful. As movie fans we don’t necessarily want time to pass, but it seemed to leap forward that night. Conservatives aren’t the only ones who lost the Duke. Viet Nam hit all of us hard every day. Hollywood did the best it could that night. We all did.

    • Irv Slifkin

      Thanks, susan, for sharing your enlightening and compassionate thoughts on the subject.

  • Ron

    Since I’m an obviously proud conservative and supporter of our troops today and then, I look at war film in a slightly different context. To me, a good war movie is always about why wars shouldn’t be enabled, but if they are, we must support those fighting them. John Wayne’s war movies during most of those conflicts had to glorify the fight in the same way “Pride of the Marines”, “Air Force” and “Destination Tokyo” did.

    Call it propagaganda or needed awareness if you like, but we have to stand behind our troops and not aid the enemy like Jane Fonda obviously and stupidly did and hopefully regrets. But Wayne was mostly making his movies during an american conflict. Unless you are against that particular war, you should embrace the effort for what it is and not be critical out of hand. Wayne was a patriot in his way and I’m sure Hanoi Jane felt she was too, but her actions “may” have prolonged the conflict and cost american lives. At that point, it aided the enemy regardless of the politics of the day. In the end, Wayne’s politics didn’t embolden the enemy troops who were trying to kill our brave boys. No John Wayne movie ever empowered a person to spit on our brave soldiers when they returned either.

    • chris

      Don’t get me wrong-I’m a big John Wayne fan- but,I think that John Wayne’s “The Green Berets” probably contributed to the war lasting longer and costing more American lives in addition to “Hanoi Jane”. The movie helped to perpetuate the myth that we were winning in Vietnam and had the Vietnamese people on our side, which kept many Americans believing that we should stay til we win instead of cutting our losses and getting out of the middle of someone else’s civil war.

    • wade

      I think “Hanoi” Jane Fonda did a lot to support the troops by trying to end that needless war early and bring the troops home alive. Her big mistake was going to Hanoi for which she later apologised.Protesting what you believe to be a needless war does not mean you don’t support the troops it just means you would like to see that conflict ended before more needless deaths. John Wayne unfortunately was never a soldier due to football injuries and never experienced the reality of being a soldier but he did make some great movies about fighting

      • Susan

        Thank you for putting all these points into words. Excellent effort and success. Thank you again, I am grateful.

  • Ron

    Now the movie “Deer Hunter”. I think it was probably in the handful of great movies that transcend the theme of war. It was almost a horror movie in how frightening war actually is and how unfair it is to the kids put in the position of fighting it. In my opinion it was the forerunner of “Saving Private Ryan” that conveyed the impartial horror and reality of death and the dying that results from all wars. That is hard to put on the screen in a believable manner.

    • Irv Slifkin

      Ron, great points. In a pocast post on this site, I talk about how The Deer hunter is the movie I have never seen again since I saw it way back when. The terror and the experience I recall from watching it is unequaled in my life. Thanks for sharing…

  • Jim Chadwick

    Great article, Irv. Brought back some memories. Totally forgot that this was the year Wayne made his last appearance. I do remember the Deer Hunter win being something of a surprise, as relatively few people had seen it at the time. This was in the era when some “big” movies still opened in limited release in a couple of theaters in New York and L.A. And I also recall The Deer Hunter being released at the very tail end of 78 just to qualify for Oscar consideration.
    But to me, 78 wasn’t about either of those films. 78 was the year of one of maybe my five favorite films of all time, Days of Heaven, which I felt got robbed at the Oscars that year. I think it maybe only won for cinematography, if I recall correctly.

    • Irv Slifkin

      Jim. Thanks for the kind words. I agree with you about Days of Heaven: A great film, one of the most beautiful ever made and a first-time moviegoing experience I will never forget. It was overlooked that year at the Oscars. Thanks again for chiming in.

  • Susan

    I hope that my statements that I didn’t always agree with John Wayne and that i am a Liberal doesn’t bring an avalanche of protests that address old arguments. The point I was attempting to make was that 1978 was a painful period. That Oscar broadcast reflected our anguish not only from political differences, but from time marching on whether we liked it or not. When my father was dying of cancer in 1998, he and were having a talk on his front porch. He said that looking back he didn’t have anything to complain about in his life. “I’ve had my dear wife, great kids, a nice home and John Wayne…” I don’t know what his end of that sentence was because I started laughing. I said, “Really Dad?, You put the Duke right up there with Mom and the rest? That really is great”. He said, “Of course, with all the pleasure he’s brought me, that’s where he belongs”. With all the gratitude I have that my dad had that pleasure, I agree. Seeing the Duke in so much pain that night wasn’t easy. He was a dear man. It was a night when time was passing for all of us.

    • irv slifkin

      Wow, Susan. thanks for sharing this poignant and personal moment.

  • fred buschbaum

    An opinion….I think Coming home was about a soldiers pain of dealing with the pain of readjustment in returning home from a war which many people hated and laid the blame on the troops instead of the polititions who screwed up our post wwii meddling. While deer hunter tried to picture the personal horror of war and how ordinary people felt about their sons and friends pain that seemed alien to what was being spread in news and was the first time that americans so vocally split in their support of the governments policies. In all our history, the citizens backed up our troops in all the wars we fought until vietnam, but instead of pointing their vitreol at the polititions they put blame on the soldiers who were dying for our country. I feel that while our policies were wrong, to do things that contributed to the deaths of our troops was plain treason.

  • fred buschbaum

    As to The Duke, He nevered wavered in his beliefs, And his love of country. His career spanned many decades and near the end we found that he really could act. True Grit showed him completely outside his character, And the Shootist allowed him to go out with class.

    • irv slifkin

      I saw Wayne more as a personality than an actor, but after The Shootist I took another look at a lot of his films and was really impressed. People say he didn’t the Oscar for True Grit, that it was a career award, but I disagree. He’s great in the picture as he is in many others, including Liberty Valance, my favorite.

      • irv slifkin

        didn’t “deserve” the Oscar

        • Susan

          I may be alone in my opinion, but John Wayne’s performance in The Searchers set his abilities apart from his other works. He had a look in his eyes of anguish and anger in several scenes that mad him look crazed nearly to the point of lost control. When he came back to Nathan and his neice Lucy’s intended after finding her Indian ravaged body in a canyon, his eyes caught fire. He screamed “Don’t you ever ask me..”, I was thrown a little because I didn’t like seeing John Wayne so close to the edge of sanity. It made me uncomfortable, but at the same time very impressed that he wasn’t always the same big strong and immovable hero. Throughout the film he, as Ethan, was lonely and unable to put his life back into perspective after the Indian raid murders of his brother’s family. The depth of a character’s despair wasn’t something he was asked to demonstrate in most of his other roles. Take a look at his eyes again. Maybe being that close to the edge of sanity wasn’t something that the Duke wanted to visit again so he repeated his performances thereafter. WOW, he was scary.

  • William Sommerwerck

    I rarely watched the Oscars, and stopped altogether after you-know-what movie failed to get Best Picture. I did, however, watch to see Jeff Bridges receive his long-overdue Oscar.

    I have a favorite /moment/, however. It was Julie Andrews getting her sympathy-award Oscar for “Mary Poppins”: “I’d like to thank the man who made this possible… Jack Warner.”


    • Lorraine

      Okay, you have to tell us. To which film are you referring? My vote goes to “Brokeback Mountain”–I could not believe it didn’t win, especially after Ang Lee won Best Director–but maybe you had something else in mind??

  • Mark

    The 1968 Oscars telecasts in 1969 – I knew all the movies (well most of them) and Natalie Wood was a host along with Roz Russell and Jane Fonda, who did a wicked frug with the people in Planet of the Apes costumes. Sinatra sang “Star!” which was a big flop that year and Aretha tore into the lackluster title song from “Funny Girl”.

  • Lenny Cassioppi

    All of the Oscar telecasts that Bob Hope Emceed.

  • Lorraine

    I don’t remember which telecast it was, but the year Dustin Hoffman won for Best Actor and after a pause hilariously described the golden statuette he was clutching: “He has no genitalia, and he’s holding a sword…” was a high point for me.

  • Roger Lynn

    1992 when Jack Palance won for City Slickers and Billy Crystal adlibbed all night it was the best one,,he even won an EMMY

    • irv slifkin

      That would also be the one where Jack did the pushups–a truly funny moment. Another good one was when silent producer Hal Roach’s microphone failed to work (or did he not talk into it properly?) and Crystal said somemthing to the effect of “That’s appropriate because he started in silent movies.”

  • mrmovie

    mine was 1961 james steward accepted some kind of award for gary cooper telling the world that coop couldn’t make it because of illness. it was when we learned coop was dying he lived about one more month. most touching moment until wayne in that deer hunter moment when world could see the duke was failing too.

  • Frank

    Thank you (and everyone else who has posted) for the recollections of that Oscar telecast. I’ve missed out on many of them entirely over the years, but that particular year I was living in the Washington, D.C. area while working on Capitol Hill, and I watched the show in its entirety at the home of a retired woman who was friends with the couple from whom I rented a room — my own little “generational” overlap. I have many recollections of that evening, particularly as amplified (or skewed) by the comments in the next day’s Washington Post from its acid-penned television and movie critic, Tom Shales.

    I do recall John Wayne’s last moments up there on stage, although what’s stayed with me was his response to the rousing ovation he got — after the applause had died away, he said something like, “I guess that’s all the medicine a fellow really needs.” Shales also commented on his mispronunciations of some of the producers of the Best Picture nominees, including “Warner Beatty” for Warren Beatty (for “Heaven Can Wait”) and “Paul Mazurki” for Paul Mazursky (“An Unmarried Woman”). Shales suggested that Wayne might well have been thinking of Warner Baxter and Mike Mazurki, two of his compadres from his movie-making days.

    There was also a poignant moment when Cary Grant gave a special Oscar to Laurence Olivier. They had a lovely moment when Olivier greeted him with, “Cary — my old friend.” Still, Olivier then launched into a loopy ad lib that made no sense whatever — presaging Roberto Benigni’s Oscar comments a generation later. Shales needed only to quote Olivier’s speech verbatim to suggest that perhaps the greatest actor in the history of the universe had indeed gone off the deep end (or maybe that his old friend Cary had shared a tab of LSD with him).

    Shales was also unkind to Jane Fonda, who did the sign language during her acceptance speech as mentioned — she said that her experience in making “Coming Home” had raised her awareness of many kinds of disability, and that she wanted to spotlight deafness — “the invisible disability” (although many deaf people don’t consider themselves disabled at all). Shales’ response was something like, “Perhaps Ms. Fonda will demonstrate next year that she’s learned to lip-read” — the kind of comment one expects from Shales, I suppose, although he ignored her point about the disabled entirely.

    Still, I have to agree with some of the other commentators here that, in the Academy’s excitement to exalt the “new era” of movies explicitly about the Vietnam War (unlike Wayne’s misguided “Green Berets” or “coded” movies that were really about Vietnam while the war was raging, like “M*A*S*H”), it didn’t even nominate “Days of Heaven,” my all-time favorite movie, for Best Picture. Its slot, perhaps, went to that largely forgotten other movie with “heaven” in the title; and its magnificent score, by Ennio Morricone, also lost. It did at least win for cinematography — which considering the unforgettable images that constitute that film, is at least fitting.

    Cimino also won the best director award over Woody Allen, who was up for one of his best (though least-loved) efforts, the Bergmanesque “Interiors.” Terrence Malick wasn’t even nominated for “Days.”

    Perhaps it’s just as well — Cimino’s directorial career more or less ended the following year with the disastrous “Heaven’s Gate” — his endless spending on that movie was likely caused, in no small part, by the overblown ego he got from the excessive praise of “The Deer Hunter.” Not that it was a bad movie — but it certainly wasn’t “Gone with the Wind” or “Bridge on the River Kwai,” either. Thirty years on, both “Days of Heaven” and “Interiors” have a freshness that never fades, while “Coming Home” and “Deer Hunter” seem curiously frozen in their era. It may also explain why both Woody Allen and Terrence Malick have Best Picture nominees up this year — whereas Cimino hasn’t been heard from in a while.

  • richard finn

    My favorite Oscar night was the one in the 1970′s when Liz Taylor was about to present somethiong and some guy streaked across the stage. I’ll never forget the look on her face.

    • William Arthur Grove

      It was not Elizabeth Taylor, but David Niven, who said something about the streaker’s shortcomings.

  • Joe Gregorio

    In 1970 Cary Grant got a special Oscar for his body of work to make up for the fact that the Academy unbelievably never voted him a competitive award. He received a long standing ovation and he responded to it simply and humbly with the expected class and grace which seems to define him. What I particularly remember was a wonderful montage of scenes from his many wonderful movies followed by his appearance on the stage to accept his award. A memorable moment in Oscar telecasts.
    By the way, I wish they would show more film clips during the Oscar telecasts since it is, after all, supposed to be a celebration of film.

    • William Arthur Grove

      I wholeheartedly agree.

    • Nicolas

      They show a lot more film clips than they used to. I remember complaining about that in the 1970′s. Believe me, it is a big improvement now.

  • William Arthur Grove

    I keep wishing that it will come, but then what would I have left to watch?

  • Fred Baetz

    I grew up with John Wayne and have been a fan as long as I can remember. One of my favorite films of his is “Tall in the Saddle”. The love scenes with Ella Raines are Hot for those days and in a “B” Western and another great fight scene with his buddy Ward Bond. A bit of sad trivia.. John Wayne died 10 years to the day that “True Grit” was released..
    “True Grit” released June 11, 1969..
    John Wayne dies June 11, 1979…

  • Gayle Feyrer

    I don’t think Deer Hunter is a perfect film, and really feel it’s more about violence than war, but it’s one of the greatest ensemble casts ever and I think it deserved Best Picture. I don’t think it’s racist, but I have no trouble reversing the villains and the good guys. We did some stuff that was horrible as well. No one ever praises the fabulous performance of the lead villain in the hut. He was great.

  • classicsforever

    John Wayne is one of my favorite actors and I enjoy “The Deer Hunter” every time I watch it.