Remembering the Best Oscar Telecast Ever

It all started with Billy Crystal’s entrance: Dressed in a tuxedo and Hannibal Lecter mask, the third-time Academy Awards host was wheeled onto the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion by two men in white coats, a nod to Best Picture nominee (and soon-to-be-winner) Silence of the Lambs. The moment, with its not-so-subtle message of “we’re all mad here,” set the tone for what was arguably the best Oscar telecast of all time. It was March 30, 1992, the 64th Annual Academy Awards. And while the ceremony had the usual share of over-inflated pageantry and awkward banter, it also had a sense of fun – and more importantly, spontaneity – that has rarely surfaced in the years since.

Billy Crystal makes his entrance.

Take a look at Crystal’s opening monologue (below). Yes, there are groaners about “real imitation butter” and Dan Quayle. But Crystal, who went on to host a total of nine times, was the only emcee who really made the opening monologue his own. He works the room like it’s a high-end nightclub, and since it’s his third time at bat, you can feel the audience relax into the familiar routine. Not that everybody loves his schtick: When Crystal jokes about skipping his usual Best Picture song medley, he’s greeted with applause. And yet, when he winkingly reverses course and launches into a new medley, what a terrific performance he gives. Crystal doesn’t just hit every note: He dances, does impressions, and throws out a terrific dig at the Academy for passing over Prince of Tides director Barbra Streisand (a snub that’s set, of course, to her signature Funny Girl tune “Don’t Rain on My Parade”).

Billy Crystal delivers his opening monologue.

Which brings us to Jack Palance. A Best Supporting Actor nominee in both 1953 (Sudden Fear) and 1954 (Shane), Palance finally won his Oscar at the age of 73 for City Slickers, in which he starred opposite Billy Crystal. His acceptance speech – opening with the words “Billy Crystal, God, I crap bigger’n him” – is one for the ages. Palance steps away from the podium to do one-armed push-ups, comes back to crack a dirty joke, and acknowledges the first producer who predicted he would win an Oscar. (“Can you believe it? Forty-two years later, he was right!”) And with one perfunctory “thank you,” Palance is done.

Jack Palance accepts his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

But Billy Crystal had just begun. Over the course of the evening, the host would take his co-star’s glorious moment of live television and run with it, turning Palance’s feats of manliness into a running gag. Between awards presentations, Crystal informed the audience: “Jack Palance just bungee-jumped off the Hollywood sign.” And after the crew of the space shuttle Atlantis made an Oscar cameo via satellite: “The shuttle just rendezvoused with Jack Palance, who somehow launched himself into orbit.” And after a production number from Hook featuring a child chorus: “Jack Palance is the father of all those kids.”

Jodie Foster accepts the Oscar for Best Actress.

Crystal’s improvisatory skills also salvaged the telecast’s most awkward moment, when 100-year-old Hal Roach rose from the audience to make a speech. Since the famed producer had no microphone, viewers heard nothing but dead air. “I think that’s fitting,” Crystal said, “because Mr. Roach started out in silent films.” (Hal Roach did get a chance to deliver a fully-mic’d “back in my day” speech when he received his honorary Oscar in 1984.)

Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor present Best Picture to ‘Silence of the Lambs.’

Other highlights of the 1992 Oscars included Best Actress winner Jodie Foster thanking the Academy for “embracing an incredibly strong and beautiful feminist hero” (see above); Mercedes Ruehl excitedly accepting Best Supporting Actress for The Fisher King; screenwriter Callie Khouri joking that her Oscar was the “happy ending” to Thelma and Louise; and a live performance of songs from Best Picture nominee Beauty and the Beast featuring the voice actors from the film (including Jerry Orbach, mercifully not dressed as a candlestick).

Voice actors from ‘Beauty and the Best’ perform songs from the film.

Even in 1992, the Academy struggled with some of the same controversies and challenges it faces today. Outside the theater, the LGBT activist group Queer Nation was staging a protest against Hollywood’s portrayal of gay characters in recent films like Silence of the Lambs, JFK, and Basic Instinct. The red ribbons on guests’ formalwear are a reminder of the toll that the AIDS epidemic took on the arts community. And throughout the evening, female presenters continually went off book to express their disgruntlement that Barbra Streisand, director of the Best Picture-nominated Prince of Tides, wasn’t nominated for Best Director, a rare slight that was widely blamed on sexism. (It would be more than a decade until a woman received a Best Director nomination.)

That said, the 64th Annual Academy Awards telecast was a great show. And given that the Oscars are, at their core, about entertainment, it’s an excellent reminder of how entertaining the ceremony can be. Between Jack Palance’s bravado, Billy Crystal’s quick wit, and a Best Picture winner that audiences actually liked, it was a wonderful night for Oscar, indeed.