If the Academy Awards were very much a Hollywood institution in 1951, the awards ceremony itself, on 29 March of that year, was a far cry from the mega-productions of later years and today. The 23rd Oscar ceremony was held at the RKO Pantages Theatre—now known as the Hollywood Pantages Theatre—with a sort of “satellite” location at a New York restaurant to accommodate the nominees then on the East Coast. The ceremony was broadcast on radio but not television, a situation which would change with the first Oscar telecast two years later. Fortunately, the ceremony is not lost to us, since for years the Academy had been seeing to it that its awards presentation was filmed. Even better, the 1951 show was the first to be filmed in color and is available for viewing online.
In many ways, it was a capsule summary of the Oscar shows we still watch more than six decades later: a famous and well-liked host (in this case, Fred Astaire) reading scripted jokes, celebrity presenters, “Best Song” performers, and a buildup to the main events of the acting and Best Picture winners. In short, it’s never changed, except that it has: no big production numbers, a very modest set, and winners in so-called lesser categories not giving acceptance speeches. This, needless to say, kept the ceremony quite short.
The big winner that year was All About Eve, with six awards. One of those, Best Sound Recording, was the only Eve prize handed out by one of the film’s cast members. Although she’d had limited—if flashy—screen time in All About Eve, Marilyn Monroe was starting to launch a major career and had been spotlighted in the 1 January 1951 Life magazine as one of Hollywood’s “Apprentice Goddesses.” Six of those deities-in-waiting were called on to be Oscar presenters that year, and besides MM the roster included Debbie Reynolds, Arlene Dahl, Debra Paget, Phyllis Kirk, and Jan Sterling. For MM, then in the first year of her contract at Twentieth Century-Fox, it was a signal moment. With no further films yet on the professional horizon, she was feeling ignored by her studio and eager for opportunities. An Oscar appearance, even on the radio, would be great exposure, and Monroe was determined to make a major impression.
Unfortunately, a couple of factors could be seen as a hindrance. One was the evening gown Fox lent her to wear—a black concoction with an enormous full skirt and a rather strange network of netting that draped around her shoulders and, in the back, rose halfway up her head. It was, in fact, a hand-me-down, previously worn by Valentina Cortese in Fox’s The House on Telegraph Hill. Despite a smattering of sequins and the expected low neckline, it wasn’t what we think of as a vintage-Marilyn dress, not with that skirt. (She always wanted them much, much tighter.) A pair of dangling earrings and a couple of black hair clips completed the ensemble, and her hair was a few shades darker than the familiar color seen in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and The Seven Year Itch.
And, because it was Marilyn Monroe appearing before a live audience, there was also a major case of nerves. Backstage, as the show commenced, her panic ratcheted up to the crisis point when something (or someone) caused the net trim on her gown to rip. As her fellow presenters watched in horror, MM came close to falling apart completely. Gloria De Haven, Jane Greer, and Debra Paget rushed over to console her and, since malfunctions were as much of an issue in 1951 as in 2023, there was a wardrobe woman nearby with a needle and thread. After a hasty repair, MM found the means to pull herself together before Fred Astaire called her name.
“As in other moments in her career, Monroe had scored a public triumph after a rough private start.”
As the orchestra played “Oh, You Beautiful Doll,” Monroe glided serenely out onto the Pantages stage, deftly maneuvering the oversized skirt and giving no indication of the terror she’d been feeling. In her familiar throaty murmur, she carefully read the scripted list of nominees, her nervousness apparent only to those who wondered why she looked up only briefly in the course of her presentation. After calling the winner as All About Eve, she looked out at the audience with a big MM smile and walked over to greet Thomas C. Moulton of the Fox Sound Department, hand him his Oscar, and stride offstage with him arm-in-arm. Backstage, she posed with Moulton and alone, looking every inch the professional and, indeed, an Apprentice Goddess.
As in other moments in her career, Monroe had scored a public triumph after a rough private start. Yet, despite her successful appearance and the legendary stardom that would soon arrive, it would be the only time she ever attended the Academy Awards. It is, without question, Oscar’s loss.
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