With the Academy Awards being handed out this Sunday (March 4) it’s a good time to look back at the greatest moment in Oscar history. Which isn’t Jack Palance doing one-armed push-ups. Or Roberto Benigni jumping up and down on the chairs. Or Adrien Brody kissing Halle Berry. Or Marlon Brando sending a Native American activist to refuse his Oscar. Or Bjork wearing a swan.
Rather, it’s this golden moment. Not because of what happens. But due to the magnificent response from one of the greatest ever Oscar hosts…
Who is David Niven?
David Niven was overseeing proceedings on the night in question; the 46th Academy Awards in 1974. Niven was the quintessential English gent, both onscreen and off. He made some of the greatest war films of all-time, including The Guns of Navarone, The Dawn Patrol and A Matter of Life and Death. He played Sir James Bond in the original Casino Royale. And is perhaps best known for his role as Phileas Fog in Around the World in 80 Days.
Niven was also a fantastic storyteller and raconteur. His first autobiography — ‘The Moon’s a Balloon’ — is one of the all-time greats, filled with amazing stories about his service during WWII and hilarious tales of his time in Hollywood. It also made him a mainstay on chat shows, where his charm and quick wit made him pretty much the perfect guest. And the right man in the right place at the right time when the unthinkable happened at the Oscars.
Robert Opel was a conceptual artist and gay rights activist who had previously streaked Los Angeles City Council meetings to protest a ban on nudity at local beaches. Opel got himself backstage on Oscar night by posing as an entertainment journalist. Wearing a jumpsuit, he patiently waited for his moment, which came when the ceremony was getting to the big one — Best Picture.
As Niven was busy introducing Elizabeth Taylor to hand out the Oscar, Opel pegged it onstage, naked as the day he was born. He ran past Niven while the audience was going crazy, gave the peace sign — mercifully with his hand — and quick as a flash, he was gone. The audience still in audible shock.
Niven can hear the audience screaming but doesn’t immediately know why. Then he clocks Opel, but amazingly, doesn’t bat an eyelid. As if it’s the kind of thing he’s used to seeing every day. He pulls on the top of his shirt as if he’s hot under the collar. Laughs. Says, “Ladies and gentlemen, that was almost bound to happen.” Then delivers one of the greatest one-liners in history…
“Isn’t it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life was by stripping off and showing his shortcomings.”
The audience erupts, and if Niven had been holding a microphone, then would have been the time to drop it. But being the cool, calm and collected cat that he is, he quickly gets the show back on track by bringing out Liz. Who calls it, ahem, “a hard act to follow,” then duly gives Best Picture to The Sting. Though while that film was a worthy winner, it’s what preceded it that the world has remembered.