Oscars Shockers: The Most Controversial Moments Of All Time

Since 1929, the Oscars has been the crème de la crème awards show for the filmmaking industry. Hollywood stars spend hours getting primped, coiffed, and dressed to the nines for their red carpet photo ops, and the rest of us watch the event with bated breath year after year. But at Tinseltown's biggest celebration of the season, it's several hours of live (much of it unscripted) TV, so you can never totally predict what's going to happen that evening.

And no, we are not just talking about trying to pick the winners for your Oscars party ballot. Every now and again, a controversial moment unfolds at the Academy Awards before our eyes, incidents that leave us wondering, "Did that just happen?"

Without further ado, here are some of the wildest things that left the planet buzzing for better or worse on Oscars night and beyond. We even have one that slipped through before the days of the seven second delay. We trust that we've piqued your interest, without giving too much away. All of these show-stopping scene stealers deserve your attention.

Joaquin Phoenix ranted against animal cruelty

When "Joker" star Joaquin Phoenix accepted his Best Actor trophy in 2020, his Oscars speech had little to do with his DC Comics character. Instead, the proud vegan took some time to rail against animal cruelty. "We feel entitled to artificially inseminate a cow, and when she gives birth we steal her baby, even though her cries of anguish are unmistakable," he said. "I think that when we use love and compassion as our guiding principles, we can create, develop, and implement systems of change that are beneficial to all sentient beings and to the environment."

The reactions were mixed. Outlets like Vox and USA Today were impressed by the moment, and Twitter users applauded the actor for using his platform to advocate for animals. On the flip side, the Independent believed he missed the mark, and Farms.com pointed out his message didn't sit right with people who work the dairy farmers.

In an interview with The Sunday Times, the "Walk the Line" star admitted he was afraid to speak out during his speech, but understood the power of his platform. "I was in that situation and there was a part of me that just wanted to say, 'Thanks so much, great, goodnight,'" he said. "But I felt like I had to...If I'm up here, I can't just thank my mum." It all worked out well for the "C'Mon C'Mon" star, who subsequently signed on to executive produce "Gunda," a critically-acclaimed documentary about the lives of farm animals.

Will Smith slapped Chris Rock

It all started with a joke. While presenting an award at the 2022 Oscars, comedian Chris Rock spotted Best Actor nominee Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith. Rock made a crack about Jada's shaved head, saying, "Jada, I love you. G.I. Jane 2, can't wait to see it." Moments later, Will walked on stage and slapped Rock across the face. Will sat back down and shouted at Rock, warning him, "Keep my wife's name out of your f***ing mouth!" Barely missing a beat, the comic managed to put his stamp on the moment. "Oh, wow. Wow," he said. "Will Smith just smacked the s**t out of me." After the shock wore off, celebrities and regular citizens alike took to the internet share their take on Chris Rock and Will Smith drama.

The following day, Smith, who won the Best Actor award for his work in "King Richard," apologized to Rock directly on Instagram. "My behavior at last night's Academy Awards was unacceptable and inexcusable," he wrote, noting that he was offended by Rock's joke about Jada, the latter of whom suffers from alopecia. As of this writing, Rock has yet to really talk about the incident.

So, can Will move past all of this? Can the three ever reconcile? Well, one thing we know is the "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" star won't be back at the Oscars for some time. Per People, the Academy has banned him from the ceremony until 2032.

Kevin Hart withdrew as host over homophic slurs

Kevin Hart was the scheduled host for the 2019 Oscars, but after his past anti-gay tweets surfaced on Twitter, he pulled out of the gig. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the comedian's announcement came two days after he signed on. "I sincerely apologize to the LGBTQ community for my insensitive words from my past," he tweeted. This decision came after he disclosed in an Instagram video that the Academy told him to apologize for the tweets or drop out, and he chose the latter. "The reason why I passed is because I've addressed this several times," he said.

In one of the since-deleted tweets from 2011, Hart wrote, "Yo if my son comes home & try's 2 play with my daughters doll house I'm going 2 break it over his head & say n my voice 'stop that's gay." In another one, he used a homophobic slur. Billy Eichner was one of many celebrities who tweeted their concerns about Hart's posts. "What bothers me about these is you can tell its not just a joke-there's real truth, anger & fear behind these," he wrote.

On his Sirius XM radio show "Straight to the Hart" (via Entertainment Weekly), the comic said he wants the LGBTQ community to know he has learned from his mistakes. "I'm riding with you guys. I understand you," he said. "I think that in the times that we're living in, we have to be understanding and accepting of people and change."

The Moonlight mixup

It was probably the most dramatic Oscar mixup ever. At the 2017 Academy Awards, with Warren Beatty by her side, Faye Dunaway announced "La La Land" as the Best Picture winner. As producer Fred Berger gave his acceptance speech, some commotion bubbled up behind him. Then, Jordan Horowitz, another "La La Land" producer broke the news: "No, there's a mistake. 'Moonlight,' you guys won Best Picture. This is not a joke."

Beatty, in his defense, said there were two envelopes. "I opened the envelope and it said Emma Stone, La La Land... I wasn't trying to be funny." In the heart-pounding, awkward moments that followed, statuettes changed hands. "Moonlight" director Barry Jenkins explained, "It was an imperfect situation and it was an imperfect statement that didn't come out the right way but it is what it is."

Jenkins said he was stunned by the result, not about his win, but because the "La La Land" team had to hand over their awards. Although the "Dear White People" director never had the chance to deliver his acceptance speech, he told Entertainment Weekly he just wanted to hug the guy who caught the snafu. Now that it's in the rearview mirror, he said about that Oscars ceremony, "It will be remembered and I think in a beautiful way."

The other time Chris Rock joked about Jada Pinkett Smith

In 2016, there was another Oscars joke that reportedly rankled Will Smith. In his opening monologue, Academy Awards host Chris Rock wasted no time in drawing attention to the lack of Black nominees that year, the stars who'd spoken out against the ceremony, and #OscarsSoWhite. At one point, he poked fun at Jada Pinkett Smith, who declared that she wouldn't be going to the event in support of the movement. "Jada boycotting the Oscars is like me boycotting Rihanna's panties," he said. "I wasn't invited." A few lines later, he added, "Jada's mad her man, Will, was not nominated for 'Concussion.'" 

Ahead of the award ceremony, Will told "Good Morning America" that the boycott had nothing to do with the Academy failing to recognize his work that year. "This is so deeply not about me. This is about the children that are gonna sit down and they're gonna watch this show and they're not going to see themselves represented," he said. 

At the time, it seemed like the Smiths were unfazed by Rock's jabs at their expense. Following the ceremony, Jada said of Rock's quip to X17 Online (via Page Six), "It comes with the territory. We got to keep it moving." While it seemed like water under the bridge, a source claimed to People in 2022 that Will was still not over Rock's joke from six years prior.

Patricia Arquette addressed the gender pay gap

In 2015, Patricia Arquette won the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her work in "Boyhood." Her rousing acceptance speech, which called for gender pay equity, quickly went viral, and brought Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez to their feet cheering her on. "To every woman who gave birth to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else's equal rights," Arquette said. "It's our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America." In 2016, she told Entertainment Tonight she had a feeling her career would take a hit. "Really, before I said it, I knew there was gonna be some drama, 'cause it would cost people money," the "True Romance" star said.

That evening, the "Medium" star sparked controversy. Speaking with reporters backstage, Arquette stated, "It's time for all the women in America and all the men that love women, and all the gay people, and all the people of color that we've all fought for to fight for us now." The backlash on Twitter was swift, with one person writing, "patricia's comments show the danger in not being hip to this whole intersectionality thing. women of color get erased."

Arquette later told The Wrap that she wished she was more clear with her message. "Everyone should help women," she said. "Everyone has a vested interest. Every single lesbian and transgender woman is a woman."

John Travolta messed up Idina Menzel's name

In 2014, one of the nominees for Best Song was "Let it Go" from "Frozen." While viewers awaited a live performance from Broadway belter Idina Menzel, John Travolta completely bungled her name. Introducing the actor who voiced Elsa, he said, "Please welcome the wickedly talented, one and only, Adele Dazeem." The song won the Oscar, but the "Pulp Fiction" star had some vocalizing of his own to do.

"I've been beating myself up all day," he told Deadline. "Then I thought...what would Idina Menzel say, She'd say, Let it go, let it go!" Slate set up a widget to "Travoltify" your name, noting, "You're no one until you've had your name mangled by a confused, squinting John Travolta." On an episode of James Corden's "Carpool Karaoke," Menzel talked about being extra nervous after the unforgettable name flub.

"At first, I felt really sorry for myself, like Meryl Streep's out there, this is my big break. And he just f***ed up my name." As for what happened, Travolta told Jimmy Kimmel he was flustered after getting stuck in an elevator and seeing Goldie Hawn backstage. Regardless, Menzel told Corden, "It was the greatest thing that has ever happened to me." At the 2015 Oscars, per People, the duo reunited to present the winner for Best Song. The singer had the chance to turn the tables on the "Grease" star, introducing him jokingly as "Glom Gazingo."

Sacha Baron Cohen pulled a bizarre publicity stunt

In 2012, security guards removed two-time Oscar winner and infamous prankster Sacha Baron Cohen from the red carpet after he pulled another one of his publicity stunts. To promote his upcoming film, the "Borat" star dressed as his character from "The Dictator" and drove up in a white Rolls Royce carrying an urn he claimed held the ashes of former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

During an interview for E! News with Ryan Seacrest, Cohen held up the urn and explained, "It was his dream to come to the Oscars and to be sprinkled over the red carpet and over Halle Berry's chest." Then, he poured out the urn all over Seacrest's Burberry tux, pretending like the orchestrated stunt was an accident. Cohen told Seacrest, "Now when people ask what you're wearing, you will say Kim Jong-il!" A visibly befuddled Seacrest tried to laugh it off as he cleaned himself up.

The interaction started with the question asked of most celebrities, as the "American Idol" host asked, "What are you wearing? Cohen replied, "I'm wearing John Galliano, but the socks are from K-Mart! As Saddam Hussein once said to me, socks are socks, don't waste money." On the radio show "On Air With Ryan Seacrest" (via The Hollywood Reporter), the titular host said he came prepared for the evening, heeding his mom's advice: "You want to be red carpet-ready at all times, because that's your job... So, I had another jacket."

Angelina Jolie's close bond with her brother

It was an Oscars revelation that caught everyone off guard. In 2000, according to Us Weekly, after nabbing the gold for Best Supporting Actress for "Girl, Interrupted," Angelina Jolie said, "I'm in shock. And I'm so in love with my brother right now.  He just held me and said he loved me... Jamie... I have nothing without you. You are the strongest, most amazing man I've ever known, and I love you."

Per the New York Post, the 24-year-old newcomer was also seen locking lips with her brother, James Haven, that evening. The siblings' interactions were pretty much all anyone could talk about. "It was a moment that people hadn't seen at the Oscars — a blatantly sexual moment," Melissa Rivers recalled to Bustle years later. Following the ceremony, Jolie assured Entertainment Weekly that nothing weird was going on and that people were making something out of nothing. 

But there was something else going on that day for Haven and the "Unbroken" star, who has a strained relationship with their dad, actor Jon Voight. Family friend Cis Rundle explained to Radar that their mom, Marcheline Bertrand, had just started cancer treatment. "The day she kissed Jamie at the Oscars... Nobody in the world knew that they spent the day in the hospital. It was like, 'Look where we're at now.' But the world saw something incestual. It was meant to be 'Here we are.' They only ever had each other."

Rumors swirled about Marisa Tomei's Oscar win

In 1993, when Jack Palance announced the winner for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, there was one name most people weren't betting on. Marisa Tomei, a 29-year-old actor who'd mostly done small screen work, beat out four seasoned acting vets thanks to her performance in "My Cousin Vinny." Per Snopes, this sparked a rumor that Palance couldn't make out what was on the card in the envelope, so he just said Tomei's name.

The rumor gained steam when it was picked up a year later by The Hollywood Reporter and Entertainment Weekly. The future Spider-Man franchise actor was caught in a web of scuttlebutt she had nothing to do with. "I asked the Academy to clear it up, but they just said it would be giving it more credence than if we ignored it," she told Contact Music. The whole ordeal took a toll on "The Wrestler" actor, who said in The New York Times, "It made me quite ashamed, actually. But on the other hand, it's a load of [expletive]." 

Tomei will always be grateful for her breakout role. "I was fresh to the business and didn't know how movies worked... I got very lucky." That said, the Oscars drama wasn't easy to shake. "I was a young actress and it was exciting, but there was a cloud over it."

A streaker jogged across the Oscars stage

In 1974, just before Elizabeth Taylor announced "The Sting" as Best Picture, a naked man jogged across the stage. There was no editing delay back then, which meant the viewers at home got the "full monty" experience. Co-host David Niven, once he recovered from the surprise, remarked, "Well, ladies and gentlemen, that was almost bound to happen... But 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?"

Streaking at the time was all the rage, but nobody expected it at the Academy Awards. There was even a hit song by Ray Stevens called "The Streak." According to Entertainment Weekly, the streaker, Robert Opel, a gay rights activist, wasn't arrested. He did, however, have to field questions from the press. "It's one of those one-time things," he said. But Opel was arrested for baring it all at a Los Angeles City Council meeting to show his support for nudity at L.A. area beaches. 

According to the Los Angeles Times, there were whispers that the streaker incident may have been set up. Robert Metzler, business manager and general troubleshooter for the Oscars, said Niven had borrowed a pen from his wife at the dress rehearsal. "He wrote his ad-lib remark about this fellow's shortcomings," Metzler explained, "and then he told my wife how proud he was about this terse line he'd written." But again, as the Daily Beast noted, this theory hasn't been confirmed.

Marlon Brando declined his Oscar for The Godfather

In 1973, Marlon Brando was one of the nominees for Best Actor at the 45th Annual Academy Awards Ceremony. When "The Godfather" star's name was called, the audience and viewers at home were surprised by the speech that followed. Brando had asked Native American actor Sacheen Littlefeather to speak on his behalf and reject the Oscar. "The reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry," she told the crowd. "and on television and movie reruns, and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee." This prompted a loud response from the audience, and as Littlefeather recounted decades later to The Guardian, Western star John Wayne was ready to charge up to the stage as she spoke. 

In a 1973 episode of "The Dick Cavett Show," the "On the Waterfront" star praised Littlefeather's delivery but was disappointed with the response. "I was embarrassed for Sacheen. She wasn't able to say what she intended to say. I was distressed that people booed and whistled and stomped," he said. "They should have at least had the courtesy to listen to her." 

Shortly before Littlefeather took the stage, the show's producer told her Brando's statement was too long. So, she scrapped it and made up a new one on the spot. "I didn't raise my voice," she recounted to The Guardian. "I went up there with the grace and the beauty and the courage and the humility of my people. I spoke from my heart."