Though Star Wars: The Last Jedi isn’t given an odds-on chance to win any of the four Academy Awards it’s up for on Sunday, there was a time when the action-adventure franchise owned Oscar night. And that time was a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.
The year was 1978. The occasion was the Academy Awards’ 50th anniversary. Woody Allen’s Annie Hall earned four big wins, including Best Picture, but no film took home more gold than George Lucas’s Star Wars, which earned six. The record-shattering, box-office champ was a presence throughout the ceremony, with its 10 nominations ranging from the technical categories to the top prizes.
To watch the 40-year-old 1978 Oscars — the Star Wars Oscars, if you will — courtesy of the Oscars’ own YouTube channel, is to travel back to an era when it was perfectly plausible for silent-film stars to share a stage with Stormtroopers, and entirely normal for crowd-pleasing films, even one with space blasters and hair buns, to be rewarded with prime nominations and wins.
“Welcome to the real Star Wars“
Bob Hope, as he had done 17 times before, hosted the ’78 Oscars. The icon was 74, and this would be his last show as emcee. But he was as quick as ever with the lecherous gag, and the rat-tat-tat monologue that had been punched up with current events. (“1977 will be known as the year of Star Wars, which has grossed over $200 million,” one Hope line began. “That’s more than even some baseball players make.”)
The honor of opening the telecast went to Debbie Reynolds, who sang, discoed, and represented for Old Hollywood, though she was just 46 years old. TV viewers would be excused for being wholly unaware that Reynolds was the mother of Star Wars star Carrie Fisher, and that the 21-year-old Fisher was in attendance in support of her Best Picture contender. There were no references on the telecast to the Reynolds-Fisher connection; there were no shots of Fisher watching her mother on stage. (One possible explanation to the latter omission: Fisher’s Oscar-night date, Tom Coleman, wrote in the Hollywood Reporter that the couple didn’t take their seats in Los Angeles’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion until Reynolds’s number was underway.)
Enter the droids
The Star Wars Oscars didn’t begin in full until nearly 30 minutes into the telecast. (Pity the poor, impatient children of 1978.) Mark Hamill, cleaned up nicely from his Luke Skywalker exploits and joined by a bow-tie-wearing C-3PO and a squawking R2-D2, presented special Oscars for sound effects to the craftspeople behind Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The segment featured the first cutaway of the night to the 33-year-old George Lucas, who was up for two awards, Best Director and Original Screenplay, as well as the inevitable “May the farce be with you” pun. The surprising thing about the Force-farce gag was that Hamill, not Hope, delivered it.
Before Adele Dazeem
In its first two competitive categories, Sound and Visual Effects, Star Wars went two for two. There’s a lot to love in this section of the show: on a non-Star Wars level, there’s rugged Barbara Stanwyck appearing to be genuinely moved by kind words from fellow presenter and former co-star William Holden; and, there’s Hollywood doyenne Joan Fontaine, an Oscar winner for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1941 thriller Suspicion, maintaining her cheerful, upper-crust-y composure even while mispronouncing the names of three of Star Wars‘ five Visual Effects honorees.
The Oscar tradition of pairing a new star with a, well, seasoned star brought presenters Henry Winkler, the Fonzie of Happy Days, and Greer Garson, the 1942 Best Actress winner of Mrs. Miniver. The fun couple was tapped to present Art Direction. Star Wars — or, “Staaaaar Wars!!” as Garson read it from the envelope — scored its third straight win.
This is not the winner you are looking for
In the press and public-opinion polls leading up to the show, 64-year-old Alec Guinness, the Star Wars universe’s original Obi-Wan Kenobi, was the pick to win Best Actor in a Supporting Role. But the statuette went to Julia‘s Jason Robards, who triumphed in the category for the second consecutive year. (Like four of the five nominees, Guinness and Robards were absent.)
A cavalcade of something or other
Star Wars was back at it with a win for Costume Design. Natalie Wood presented. Hope told a joke about “[doing] the body makeup for the strippers” on Wood’s Gypsy. Straw Dogs‘ Susan George paraded onstage in Leia garb (minus the hair buns) while Darth Vader and Stormtroopers mingled and vogued with folks doing the same on behalf of Airport ’77, Julia, A Little Night Music, and The Other Side of Midnight. Now that’s entertainment.
John Williams forever
The Star Wars theme was heard yet again when John Williams, who wrote it, prevailed in the Original Score category. It was Star Wars‘ fifth win of the night, and the 46-year-old Williams’s third Oscar. At the upcoming 90th Academy Awards, the now-86-year-old Williams will vie for his sixth statuette (from 51 nominations); he’s up for his score for the latest Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi.
Everyone needs an editor
Defeating Close Encounters of the Third Kind (and also Smokey and the Bandit), Star Wars took its night-best sixth award for Film Editing. Paul Hirsch delivered the acceptance speech for the crew of three, which included Marcia Lucas, then-wife of George Lucas. Hirsch began by thanking director Brian De Palma for believing in him. Years later, Marcia Lucas told the San Francisco Chronicle that the shout-out surprised her. “He was up there taking the Oscar because of George,” she said. (Hirsch, who went on to work on Empire Strikes Back, thanked George Lucas at the conclusion of his remarks.)
The end of the road
After a long-ish stretch of non-Star Wars categories and presentations, the film soared back into contention for three of the night’s most glamorous categories: Best Director, Original Screenplay, and Best Picture. And then it sputtered. And the Star Wars Oscars turned into the Annie Hall Oscars.
Woody Allen, another of the ceremony’s no-shows, defeated Lucas for Best Director and Original Screenplay (an honor Allen shared with his co-writer, Marshall Brickman), while Annie Hall scored Best Picture. Star Wars received no sympathy from The Turning Point, the Shirley MacLaine-Anne Bancroft drama set against the world of ballet, which set a record for Oscar-night ineffectiveness, failing to win even one award from its 11 nominations.
Since that Oscar night 40 years ago, the Star Wars movies have gone on to collectively earn 23 more nominations. But the franchise has never again competed for Best Picture or produced an acting nomination and has scored only one competitive win (a Best Sound victory for The Empire Strikes Back). Global blockbusters on the whole have fared poorly in the major Oscar categories this century. No matter what happens going forward, at least Star Wars will always have 1978. And Greer Garson bellowing, “Staaaaar Wars!!”
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