Oscars flashback 45 years to 1974: Katharine Hepburn, Liza Minnelli and the infamous streaker

I was three years old in 1974. I’m giving away my age, but I love the fact that I can remember the 1970s and 1980s. The classic film stars who many young people today don’t recognize were still popping up on award and variety shows. One such very memorable occasion was the 1974 Academy Awards telecast. Granted I was too young to remember this awards show, and it would be another decade before my passion for movies took hold. However, it is one of the ceremonies that has multiple special moments that are still discussed on this anniversary 45 years later. And it took place during an era when over-the-top, cheesy broadcasts were in full bloom. This particular ceremony provided the only appearance by Katharine Hepburn at the Oscars, the youngest Oscar winner ever, an odd quartet of hosts with an opening musical by Liza Minnelli and a very shocking but amusing “visitor.”

Although she holds the record for winning the most Oscars in any acting category (she had already won three times by this point), Hepburn had never attended one of the ceremonies, because to her “prizes are nothing. My prize is my work.” She made an exception in 1974 when she made a stunning appearance (watch the video above) to present the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award to her friend Lawrence Weingarten, who produced several movies for MGM and actually worked under Thalberg. As she strode across the stage the delighted audience gave her a standing ovation, to which she commented, “Thank you very, very much. I am deeply moved. I’m also very happy I didn’t hear anyone call out, ‘It’s about time’.” After another round of applause, she quipped, “I am living proof that a person can wait 41 years to be unselfish.”

Hepburn holds the record for wins, but another actress made Academy Award history that night by becoming the youngest winner in any category ever. And 45 years later, Tatum O’Neal still holds that title for winning Best Supporting Actress Oscar for “Paper Moon” at age 10. Spunky in her little tuxedo and her face beaming, she marched to the stage, and simply stated, “ All I really want to thank is my director Peter Bogdanovich and my father.”

Another memorable feat was Marvin Hamlisch’s historical triumphs in all three music categories, including Song (“The Way We Were”), Original Dramatic Score (“The Way We Were”) and Scoring (“The Sting”). He became one of only a handful of people to win three or more Oscars in one evening (and the only one who wasn’t a director or screenwriter). He is also one of only 15 EGOT recipients, and only one of two who also received a Pulitzer Prize.

Yet another legend who made an appearance at the event was Liza Minnelli. It is true that these were the years the Academy went a bit overboard with the musical numbers. But the opening sequence with Minnelli in her prime, just a couple of years beyond her “Cabaret“ win, is a fun watch. Also interesting is the combination of four hosts: Burt Reynolds, Diana Ross, John Huston and David Niven. Who thought to put these four together? The opening monologue by Reynolds is surprisingly funny, but Niven ended up involved in the biggest laugh of the evening.

People today are frustrated with “how political awards shows have gotten” as though it’s a new thing. However, on the ceremony date of April 2, 1974, political activism was probably at one of its all-time highs. Our country was only a year out from the Roe vs. Wade decision and our withdrawal from Vietnam. The Watergate scandal had broken, with Richard Nixon only months away from resigning the presidency. As Niven was introducing Elizabeth Taylor as the presenter for Best Picture, political activist Robert Opel tore across the stage as the infamous streaker completely naked, flashing the peace sign. Streaking was a huge fad at the time, and Niven famously quipped, “Well, ladies and gentlemen, that was almost bound to happen. Isn’t it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?” When the laughter finally subsided, the still-stunning Taylor floated onto the stage in a froth of yellow, received her standing ovation with her usual grace, and remarked, “That’s a pretty hard act to follow!”

During this evening, Oscar-winning actress Susan Hayward (one of my personal favorites) appeared publicly for the last time before her death, the legendary Groucho Marx received an honorary Oscar and George Lucas made his Academy debut with “American Graffiti”. This ceremony is a wonderful piece of nostalgia. One of the perks of the internet and channels like Youtube is that we can go back and revisit some of these times go by. As 19-time Master of Ceremonies Bob Hope would say, “Thanks for the memories.”

And by the way, “The Sting” took home the big prize that year.

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