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.