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Academy Awards: 10 of the most memorable moments for women at the Oscars

Jessica Regan takes us through the top 10 moments in history for women at the Academy Awards. For more juicy details about Oscars history, check out her new book, written with John Dorney and Tom Salinsky, Best Pick: A Journey through Film History and the Academy Awards.

The 94th Academy Awards takes place on Sunday 27 March. Is it shaping up to be a glamorous return to form after last year’s muted ceremony was hamstrung by Covid protocols? Well, if by ‘form’ you mean fiercely debated and mired in all kinds of controversy before the red carpet has even hit the LA tarmac then yes… Oscar is back with bells on.

When it was announced that several categories would be dropped from the telecast, including such feted awards as Editing, Sound, and Hair and Make-up Design, many expressed their disappointment. Indeed, the Academy is still being urged to reverse that decision by prominent industry creatives and film buffs alike, even at this eleventh hour.

Jane Campion appears to be riding high all the way to a Best Director win for The Power Of The Dog but her sweep is somewhat tainted by her recent gaffe at the Critics Choice Awards where she told tennis legends Serena and Venus Williams that they “do not play against the guys like I have to”. Condemned as tin-eared, offensive and the epitome of “white feminism”, Campion has since apologised profusely, and she may use her speech if she wins to say sorry again.

Just this week we learned that Rachel Zegler, the talented lead of Best Picture-nominated West Side Story, did not receive an invite to the ceremony when a fan on Instagram commented: “Can’t wait to see what you’ll be wearing on Oscar night,” to which Zegler replied: “I’m not invited so sweatpants and my boyfriend’s flannel.” Outrage was swift as many asked how could the Academy make such an omission. Zegler has since not only been invited to the ceremony but has also been asked to present.

It’s enough to give you whiplash… but it was ever thus. The Oscars has a history as flawed as it is fabulous, so before Sunday’s festivities, let us look back at 10 unforgettable times when women triumphed, spoke up or acted out at the most famous awards ceremony of them all.

  • Hattie McDaniel, "Trailblazer"

    Hattie McDaniel with her Oscar

    Hattie McDaniel won the 1939 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, the first Black performer to have been nominated and to win an Oscar for her portrayal of Mammy in the epic Gone With The Wind. Racial segregation meant that McDaniel couldn’t sit with her own co-stars and instead was seated at a table at the back of the venue. She didn’t let this spoil her triumphant, historical win, telling the audience: “I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything that I may be able to do in the future. I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry.” It would be 20 years before the law was changed which meant racial groups no longer had to be separated in public and 50 years before a Black actress would be similarly rewarded. Whoopi Goldberg won the same Oscar for Ghost in 1991. 

  • Katharine Hepburn, "Big Winner"

    There are far fewer roles for women than men in movies, which makes the following achievement all the more incredible. In 1982 Katharine Hepburn won her fourth acting Oscar for On Golden Pond, still the record for any actor in any category. Katharine Hepburn was a true Hollywood pioneer. From the tailored trousers she rocked on screen and off to her producing skills and fearless pursuit of quality roles, she subverted and expanded what a Hollywood heroine could look like and what an actor could achieve independently. Meryl Streep may be the most nominated performer but the late great Hepburn can still claim to be the Oscars GOAT.

  • Joan Crawford, "Revenge Queen"

    There’s nothing as juicy as a Hollywood feud and this one between legendary actors Bette Davis and Joan Crawford spawned its own glossy Ryan Murphy series. Their notorious rivalry was exploited for critical and commercial success with the release of Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? in 1960, a fabulously gothic, campy melodrama. When the nominations for the 35th Academy Awards were announced, Davis was successful and Crawford was not. Crawford was fuming. So, she hatched a plan. She volunteered to collect the award for any absent winner, so when Anne Bancroft’s name was announced (Bancroft was onstage in New York), Crawford glided onstage to accept, leaving Davis raging in the wings. Crawford even got herself photographed with the other winners while holding Bancroft’s Oscar. Petty? Yes. Iconic? Undeniably.

  • Sacheen Littlefeather, "Stage Invader"

    Winners sometimes use their platform to bring awareness to issues close to their hearts. When Marlon Brando won for his performance in The Godfather in 1973, he not only declined the award but he sent Sacheen Littlefeather in his place. She told a stunned audience that she was Apache and that Brando couldn’t accept because of “the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry – excuse me – and on television in movie reruns and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee”. Rumours abounded that she was fake, but she was genuine and her speech was one of the most talked-about moments in Oscar history, shining a light on Hollywood’s shameful treatment of Indigenous people. 

  • Whoopi Goldberg, "Host extraordinaire"

    The role of an Oscar host is a heady mix of instant global reach, poisoned chalice and double-edged sword. This year, three of the most hilarious women in Hollywood are sharing duties: Regina Hall (Scary Movie), Amy Schumer (Trainwreck) and Wanda Sykes (Not Normal). But in 1994, Whoopi Goldberg walked so they could run. The first female host of the Oscars and the first Black host, she delighted audiences by describing herself as an “equal opportunities offender”. She went on to host four more times and, according to Hall, her advise was “to have fun and celebrate why you’re there. Celebrate the nominees, the movies, the films and keep the show moving.” Sound advice indeed.

  • Björk, "Fashion Icon"

    Bjork at the 73rd Academy Awards at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles on Sunday March 25, 2001. (Photo by Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

    What to wear to the Oscars? Channel old Hollywood glamour or go chicly understated? In 2001, singer Björk went all-out editorial, giving us the most talked about fashion moment in Oscars history. Her famous swan dress, designed by Marjan Pejoski, caused an astonishing storm of controversy and unprecedented vitriol. As Björk opined at the time: “It’s just a dress.” Her symbolic rather than sexy look infuriated and bewildered commentators, proving there’s nothing as threatening to the establishment as a woman who doesn’t care what you think.

  • Halle Berry, "Torchbearer"

    Halle Barry is the first African American actress to win the Best Actress award, for "Monster's Ball" at the 74th Annual Academy Awards at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood on March 24, 2002. (Photo by Ken Hively/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

    In 2002, Halle Berry became the first Black woman to win a Best Actress Oscar for her harrowing performance in Monster’s Ball. Looking out at her standing ovation she went on to say: “This moment is so much bigger than me… this moment is for every nameless faceless woman of colour that now has the chance because this door tonight has been opened.” It’s become one of the most celebrated speeches in Oscars history. The moment remains bittersweet, however, as she remains the only performer of colour ever to have won in this category.

  • Kathryn Bigelow, "Herr Director"

    Katherine Bigelow wins Oscar for The Hurt Locker

    At the 2010 awards, Kathryn Bigelow and James Cameron led the way in nominations with The Hurt Locker and Avatar respectively. The fact that both frontrunners had previously been married to each other lent an extra charge to an already black swan event: a woman being nominated for best director for only the fourth time in 80-odd years. Would the box-office success of Avatar thwart Bigelow’s chances of an unprecedented win? Bigelow carried the night, however, winning Best Director and Best Film for the brilliant and brutal Iraq war film The Hurt Locker. A worthy, historical win, even Cameron heartily applauded. 

  • Frances McDormand, "Speech Smasher"

    Frances McDormand at the 2018 Oscars

    2018 was a strange year. Hollywood was still reeling from the #MeToo scandal and it seemed inappropriate, perverse even, to celebrate an industry so riven with harm and abuses. When Frances McDormand won for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri she used the opportunity to get every female nominee in every category in the room to stand up, urging executives to look around, telling them: “We all have stories to tell and projects we need to finance.” She ended her speech with two words: “Inclusion rider”, challenging those with power and influence to ensure diversity and fairness on their film sets.

  • Chloe Zhao, "The New Auteur"

    Last year, Chloe Zhao not only doubled the tally for Best Director Oscars won by women, but she was the first woman of Asian descent to do so. Her exquisite film Nomadland explored a post-recession America viewed through the eyes of a woman who’s lost everything and is travelling in search of temporary work in an RV. After a year in which the whole world stood still because of the pandemic, Zhao dedicated her Oscar to those “who had the faith and the courage to hold onto the goodness in themselves and to hold onto the goodness in each other” and in doing so gave us words to live by. 

Best Pick: A Journey through Film History and the Academy Awards, by John Dorney, Jessica Regan, and Tom Salinsky is out now. Order your copy today at Rowman & Littlefield.

Images: Getty