The Night Oscar Got a Black Eye

02/28/2010 at 09:00 AM EST

The Night Oscar Got a Black Eye
Eileen Bowman as Snow White and Rob Lowe as her Prince Charming at the March 29, 1989, Academy Awards
Reed Saxon/AP
It was like watching a train wreck. Or, more precisely, a Carr crash.

Flamboyant producer Allan Carr, responsible for such excesses as the hit movie musical Grease and the dead-in-its-tracks disco flick Can't Stop the Music, spearheaded 1989's 61st Academy Awards and ended up delivering what is roundly considered the cheesiest Oscar show ever, the one that kicked off with an off-key Rob Lowe singing "Proud Mary" to a ditsy Snow White – and prompted the Walt Disney Company to threaten legal action.

But, as Variety senior editor Robert Hofler points out in his fair-minded new bio of the late impresario, Party Animals: A Hollywood Tale of Sex, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll Starring the Fabulous Allan Carr, which Da Capo Press is publishing Tuesday, so many Carr touches from that night 21 years ago morphed into traditional Oscar-show staples that the Academy might even consider showing Carr some belated love.

Among Carr's flourishes: the fashion procession before the event, extended red-carpet coverage, separation of clips from the Best Picture nominees (rather than showing them in a cluster), and altering the line from "And the winner is …" (so as not to imply there are losers) to "And the Oscar goes to … "



Good Ratings, to Boot

On top of which, his "worst show ever" attracted 42.7 million TV viewers – compared to 33.6 million last year, up six percent from 2008.

Still, as an aging VHS clip on YouTube documents, the overdone opening number – in addition to stunning audience members Tom Hanks and Sigourney Weaver, its finale planted a giant replica of Grauman's Chinese Theatre atop a woman's head – manages to make even Lady Gaga seem understated.

The Academy was not amused. Its Old Guard went so far as to petition that future Oscarcasts return dignity to the proceedings, while Disney required and received a public apology for the perceived besmirching of Snow White's imagine.


Refused Snow White's Hand

The Oscar-show role of Dopey and Grumpy's houseguest, originally offered to Grease 2 cast member (and Liza Minnelli's half-sister) Lorna Luft, went to aspiring actress Eileen Bowman, 22, who recalled for Hofler that during the opening number Supporting Actress-nominee Michelle Pfeiffer "was so embarrassed, she could not even give me her hand."

Lowe fared somewhat better. Though he told PEOPLE in 2000 that at the time he thought singing to the Disney princess "would be sort of goofy, a camp thing," he recalled looking out over the audience that Oscar night and seeing Rain Man director Barry Levinson. "Literally," said Lowe, "his mouth was forming the words, 'What the hell is he doing?' "

According to Party Animals, the handsome actor, then 25, retreated backstage after his number, where he encountered a woman with red hair who complimented him on his singing voice and asked him to fetch her some aspirin. As he contemplated what he had done to his career – which one month later would be further upended thanks to a widely circulated sex tape showing him and another male having their way with an underage woman – the redhead warmly held his hand. Her name was Lucille Ball.

Reaction to the show was devastating. Carr, still rich from Grease and his Broadway production of La Cage aux Folles, never did another major project again. He died in 1999.

The 82nd Annual Academy Awards will be presented on Sunday, March 7, and televised live on ABC beginning at 5 p.m. PT/ 8 p.m. ET.

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