'I Was Rob Lowe's Snow White': The Untold Story of Oscar's Nightmare Opening
This story first appeared in the March 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Once upon a time -- March 29, 1989, to be exact -- a 22-year-old aspiring actress named Eileen Bowman thought that all her dreams were about to come true. She was very wrong.
By all accounts, a global debut on ABC's telecast of the 61st Academy Awards should have been an auspicious launching pad. Instead, playing Snow White alongside Rob Lowe in a musical debacle, she instantly found a place in Oscar infamy.
The campy live number, arranged and conducted by Marvin Hamlisch, was as over-the-top as the man who masterminded it, Grease producer Allan Carr, a bombastic Hollywood oddball famed for wearing caftans and hosting debauched parties at his disco-equipped house in Benedict Canyon. (That residence, Hilhaven Lodge, is the current home of Brett Ratner, leading some to joke that the place is cursed, at least where producing the Oscars is concerned.)
As a costume-clad Bowman made her way through the Shrine Auditorium, chirping a high-pitched take on "I Only Have Eyes for You" and greeting such mortified stars in the audience as Tom Hanks, Dustin Hoffman, Michelle Pfeiffer and Sigourney Weaver, it quickly became obvious that Carr had laid a dinosaur-size egg.
"She had a look on her face, if I remember correctly, of pain," Martin Landau tells THR. Nominated that year for best supporting actor for Tucker: The Man and His Dream, Landau, now 84, was one of the few who gave Bowman a warm reception. "It wasn't her fault," recalls Landau. "I empathized with her. Poor Snow White. She didn't have the dwarves to support her."
As the sketch bombed on for 15 agonizing minutes, dancing tables wackily re-created the post-Prohibition Cocoanut Grove nightclub, Merv Griffin performed his 1950 hit "I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts," and a befuddled parade of decrepit screen stars emerged before Lowe took the stage as Snow White's "date."
The actor, then 24, still was working overtime to rehabilitate his image after a sex-tape scandal had derailed his career a year earlier. When the Academy approached him to play Prince Charming, Lowe later explained, "I was a good soldier and did it." A shower-caliber singer at best, he struggled to stay on key as he duetted with Bowman on an extended "Proud Mary," its lyrics changed to, "Keep the cameras rollin', rollin', rollin'." By the time a kick line of movie theater ushers sang, "Whenever you're down in the dumps, try putting on Judy's red pumps," the audience had endured all they could take. As the camera panned the room, Robert Downey Jr.'s look of disgust summed up the reaction.
In its review, The New York Times declared the show had earned "a permanent place in the annals of Oscar embarrassments." Carr was uniformly shunned at industry canteen Morton's the following day. Disney, which then had no stake in ABC, was furious over the unauthorized use of its copyrighted version of Snow White and filed a lawsuit against the Academy. And 17 Hollywood heavyweights -- among them Paul Newman, Gregory Peck, Julie Andrews and Billy Wilder -- signed an open letter deriding the telecast as "an embarrassment to both the Academy and the entire motion picture industry."