You Show Good Taste: STAR WARS at the '78 Oscars
Tepid, timid, yet not quite tranquil. It was nearly 40 years ago when a younger George Lucas watched from his seat in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion as his own little space opera and many of his collaborators that helped make it a reality received Oscar after Oscar. One can almost feel his combined discomfort with and indifference toward the entire situation in the fleeting cutaways to him in the telecast. Though Lucas was not a newcomer to the Academy Awards having been nominated for writing and directing American Graffiti four years prior, his lack of outward enthusiasm on the night that Star Wars won six Oscars (plus a Special Achievement Award) should come as no surprise. Visible excitement would seem unnatural from Lucas in any situation, and sure, the awards for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay ended up going elsewhere, but personal accolades have just never seemed to matter all that much to him. Assembling and enabling innovative filmmaking talent always has, and it is clear just how much George mattered to Star Wars and his crew from their acceptance speeches that night of April 3rd, 1978.
But before we get to thanking the Academy, this post will be tracing the original film's Oscars process from the initial campaign to the ceremony and its aftermath.
The first step towards one of those gold statuettes is for the movie to actually be seen by Academy members. While it was likely more difficult not to see Star Wars that year, special screenings for voting members were arranged leading up to the Awards, much like they are today. The example above is a fractional ad from the November 15th, 1977 issue of The Hollywood Reporter for screenings for members of the Film Editing and Cinematography branches at the 20th Century-Fox studio lot.
As the Awards Season went into full swing, 20th Century-Fox was also doing its part to remind the industry of the film and its achievers vying for award consideration by running a series of ads in trade publications. The above color key layout was used for printing an ad that ran in the January 18th, 1978 issue of Variety advocating for George Lucas as Best Director at the 35th Golden Globes, which took place ten days later on January 28th (in a bit of Oscars foreshadowing, Lucas did not win). The layout is comprised of two layers which form the composite image when combined with the white background.
The studio utilized the same campaign style as the Academy Awards approached, with numerous single page ads highlighting individual nominees as well as the entire ensemble as depicted in this yearbook-style two-page spread, which is noticeably lacking ILM's visual effects team of knuckleheads.
Oscar nominations were officially announced on Tuesday, February 21st with Star Wars receiving 10 nods. Lucas' hometown Modesto Bee featured the film's Academy recognition with a headline and photo the following day, classifying Chewbacca with the common early misnomer of "Wookie" and apparently mismatching Han Solo and Luke Skywalker (played by none other than "Pete Hamill").
With the exclusive toy and game license to the biggest blockbuster in history in their grasp and the Star Wars Early Bird Action Figure Packages finding their way to eager kids across the country, Kenner Products was feverishly in production of its main toy line that was bound to benefit significantly from the movie's immense success. The company ran this ad in the February 22nd, 1978 edition of Variety to congratulate their business partner George Lucas on his hit's recent Oscar nominations.
One of the film's honorees happened to have two nominations in one category: composer John Williams. As the the Milwaukee Sentinel noted, Williams held "two of the five cards" with his scores for Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (the latter of which the Sentinel columnist Lawrence B. Johnson deemed the more creative and Oscar-deserving work).
The cover of the TV Magazine guide that came in the weekend edition of The Detroit News promoted the Oscars telecast that coming Monday, showcasing the five Best Picture contenders with Star Wars big, front, and center.
On April 3rd, Oscar Night had arrived, and it was a special one for the Academy being the organization's 50th Anniversary. The Boca Raton News was one of many to get in on the "Star Wars" headline puns.
Press kits and photos were distributed by the Academy and ABC Press Relations to media outlets to publicize the ceremony and telecast. The primary publicity image above can be found on various promotional materials, including the cover of the press kit and a poster. It was also reproduced in print publications such as the following story from the Reading Eagle in Pennsylvania, which constitutes an expanded version of the United Press International (UPI) article seen in the above Boca Raton News piece.
Ceremony attendees were given a program to commemorate the Academy's Golden Anniversary. Artoo-Detoo leads the alphabetical list of presenters, coming in ahead of Fred Astaire with the phonetic spelling of his name/serial number.
Academy Awards shows, much like any scripted entertainment award presentation, are full of fascinating, bizarre, and downright awkward moments. In addition to serving as a time capsule of the mainstream film industry in the late 1970s, the 50th Oscars also had some interesting tertiary connections to Star Wars as a new popular culture giant. Carrie Fisher's mother Debbie Reynolds opened the show with a "Look How Far We've Come" musical number, while future franchise star Billy Dee Williams appeared onstage to present a Scientific & Technical Award for the invention of the Steadicam.
And the Nominees are...
How did Star Wars and its 10 nominations fare? The answer lies in how often the orchestra filled the auditorium with the film's main theme. It was frequent, with 6 competitive Oscar wins achieved by the night's end.
Special Achievement Award
Preceding all of the nail-biting of those categories, a bright-eyed Mark Hamill joined Master of Ceremonies Bob Hope for a jumbled comedy exchange before presenting a pair of Special Achievement Awards. Hamill's nervous, giggly energy is endearing. True to form, Threepio interrupts, but this time saving the audience from more misfired jokes between Hamill and Hope, who makes a quick exit as R2-D2 rolls onstage. Frank Warner first received a Sound Effects Editing Award for Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The second award is presented to Ben Burtt "for the creation of the alien, creature and robot voices featured in Star Wars." Rocking a slick mustache, Burtt lovingly pats Artoo on the head as he comes on stage to accept his Oscar. On a related note, the Droids would make an Oscars onstage comeback (along with newcomer BB-8) at the 88th Academy Awards in 2016.
Sound & Visual Effects
William Holden and Barbara Stanwyck presented the Sound Award to Don MacDougall, Ray West, Bob Minkler, and Derek Ball (who was not present). MacDougall's calm, composed, and concise acceptance speech brings just a hint of a smile from Lucas in the audience. Next, Joan Fontaine fumbles names that many had likely never heard of when announcing John Stears, John Dykstra, Richard Edlund, Grant McCune, and Robert Blalack as the winners for Visual Effects. The gang literally bolt for the stage for a group hug, genuinely stoked. The free spirit vibe of ILM is clearly on display as Fontaine insists that one of them has to say something. Stears puts in a good word for the British crew and Dykstra thanks his fellow nominee Douglas Trumbull (who had been up for Close Encounters) for getting him started in the business.
Easily the most entertainingly mismatched duo of presenters, Greer Garson (Star WARS) and a bearded Fonz ("I'd say you show good taste") announced John Barry, Norman Reynolds, Leslie Dilley, and Roger Christian as Oscar recipients for Art Direction. Listen closely as a muffled Winkler tries to add in Set Decorator Roger Christian's name before Garson catches her mistake.
The year's Costume Design nominees were introduced by Natalie Wood and personified by a myriad of live models wearing all of the designs onstage. British actress Susan George shows off Princess Leia's costume while holding hands with Kermit Eller as Darth Vader. Eller served as the Dark Lord's public appearance touring model of the 70s and 80s, so it seems fitting that he'd be donning the helmet at the Oscars. Stormtroopers and Tusken Raiders flank the main duo. What follows is some sort of fashion parade where the entire cast of costumed characters meander around the stage, which at this moment bears a strange resemblance to the carbon freezing chamber from The Empire Strikes Back. Seeing Stormtroopers and Sandpeople bumble about amidst glamorous garb from historical dramas really accentuates just how wacky the Star Wars costumes were, especially at that time. They most certainly stood out. Costume Designer John Mollo went up against and topped the legendary Edith Head, describing the film's costumes as "really not so much costumes as a bit of plumbing and general automobile engineering."
Just as Lawrence B. Johnson (we can call him Larry now that we're familiar) of the Milwaukee Sentinel predicted, Star Wars and "its grandly soaring title theme and poetic evocations of Princess Leia and her fellow space voyagers" did in fact carry the day for John Williams, beating out his own effort for Close Encounters and the rest of the film music field. The Maestro's acceptance speech is brief and understated, especially for someone nominated twice that year. But he'd already been nominated 11 times and had won twice – Adaptation Score for Fiddler on the Roof (1971) and Original Score for Jaws (1975) – so this was nothing he was unaccustomed to.
Farrah Fawcett (then Farrah Fawcett Majors) and Marcello Mastroianni presented the Oscar for Film Editing to Paul Hirsch, Marcia Lucas (who recently made a rare and welcome appearance at ILM's 40th Anniversary Reunion to discuss her experience editing the film), and Richard Chew. Hirsch complemented George's skill as an editor in his own right, stating "We had a director who, apart from his many other obvious talents, is himself a fine editor, George Lucas." This may be the film's most significant and underappreciated Academy Award, given the production's trials and tribulations and its polished, lean, and perfectly constructed final form.
Artifacts from the Oscar ceremony itself represent meaningful mementos from that night and are understandably incredibly challenging to acquire from a collecting standpoint. Below is one such piece in the original envelope and card announcing John Mollo's Costume Design win.
From the Collection of David Mandel
Congratulatory ads celebrating the film's post-Oscars glory ran in the trades, such as the following example from EMI Elstree Studios where filming for Julia and Star Wars took place. The ad appeared two days after the Awards in the April 5th, 1978 issue of Variety.
Though the movie was still in the midst of its original theatrical run at Week 45 heading into the Academy Awards, its Oscar triumphs sparked a 45% boost in box office grosses from $543,897 to $790,452 for Week 46. Logically, the film's freshly earned Oscars were a selling point in theater ads such as this one from the Detroit suburb Northland Theatre.
Though each and every (domestically released) theatrical entry in the saga has since been nominated for at least one Academy Award, there will almost certainly never be another Oscar Night for the franchise that comes close to the first in terms of its sheer presence and stockpile of statuettes. Regardless of how much this all really means from an achievement standpoint, seeing Star Wars and its contributors juxtaposed with elite Hollywood at large helps provide a different perspective on its place in wider entertainment history for those of us that may entrench ourselves too deeply in that galaxy far, far away.
Also of Interest:
Be sure to watch the Star Wars Original Film Memorabilia Collecting Track Panel presented by Gus Lopez, Duncan Jenkins, and Michael Novak and check out producer Gary Kurtz' scrapbook on the Star Wars Collectors Archive for some additional incredible Academy Awards-related items for the original Star Wars.