For nearly 90 years, the Academy Awards have been the one of the most important nights in the film industry, and one of the most viewed live TV events just shy of the Super Bowl. While yes, the Academy has tested the movie-going public's patience over the years, from the moments of casual racism
to thinking Shakespeare In Love
was better than Saving Private Ryan
(I know I'm 20 years late, but what the hell was that, Academy!?!), people still always tune in to watch our favorite movie stars pat themselves on the back for three hours. Perhaps the Oscars still hold viewers' attention because of the ultimate truth of live TV: You never know what will happen, so you better be watching when something goes down.
Last night's Best Picture snafu
was a pretty blatant testament to that fact, but the Oscars have always had a long history of unexpected and borderline-bizarre moments. Back in 1998, Elliott Smith got the experience the unexpected first-hand, when he found himself nominated for Best Original Song against competition of massive proportions...one might even say, of Titanic
proportions (the jokes write themselves, folks). In a category that basically consisted of sleek, saccharine vocal ballads, including Celine Dion's tin-whistling megahit, "My Heart Will Go On," Smith amazingly landed a nom with the quietly delicate "Miss Misery," which he wrote for Good Will Hunting
. It's tradition that all the nominated original songs are performed at the ceremony, but being that Smith was a pretty shy person, he initially didn't think performing in front of millions of people would be a good idea. He changed his tune, however, when the Academy told him that "Miss Misery" would be performed, whether he was the one performing it or not. So, in order to save his song from being butchered on the national stage, Smith changed his mind and was set to perform directly before Dion.
To really appreciate how surreal the whole endeavor was, and how unlikely it was Elliott Smith and Celine Dion to even be in the same room, you have to consider where the two artists' careers were at in 1998. Smith was a somewhat little known singer-songwriter playing around the Portland, OR indie scene, cutting his teeth at coffee shops and basement shows. His now-considered classic Either/Or
was just over a year old by the '98 Oscars, and while the record earned him critical praise, Smith was still unknown to the majority of mainstream audiences. However, the album was enough to impress Good Will Hunting
director Gus Van Sant, who reached out to Smith to help with the film's soundtrack, eventually resulting in the "Miss Misery" nomination. Meanwhile, Dion had been raised to be a superstar, scoring her first hit at the age of 13 and quickly finding success well beyond her home of Quebec. She hit a new, unprecedented level of success with "My Heart Will Go On," and while the song hasn't exactly aged gracefully
, it became the highest-selling single of 1998 and remains one of the best-selling singles of all time. Not bad for a song that even Dion wasn't crazy about
Dion was the clear favorite to take the Oscar that night, thanks to the unstoppable hype frenzy that surrounded Titanic
, but many also saw Smith as the underdog poised to make an upset. It was a true David-Goliath situation for the music world, and that idea couldn't have been more literal when the Original Song performers took the stage. Directly following Country powerhouse Trisha Yearwood's performance of "How Do I Live" from Con Air
the stage was cleared, the lights dimmed, and Smith emerged with only a mic and his guitar. Dressed in a white suit slightly too big on him, Smith carefully strummed the chords and whispered the lyrics to "Miss Misery," all of which made him look and sound that much smaller as he stood alone on the massive Oscar stage.
It's hard to find a decent-quality version online, and the song was cut down due to time constraints, but the performance is still worth the watch. While it's clear Smith was more comfortable playing to flannel-clad scensters in coffee shops than designer-suited movie stars in Hollywood, he was still at the top of his game and never let his nervousness show in his voice. Characteristically introspective and reserved as ever, Smith's lyrics about loneliness, forgotten love, and living with your demons were underscored by the dark, empty stage with only him standing still in the middle, and the orchestral accompaniment gave the song a welcomed cinematic quality without overdoing the dramatics. It's an unusually quiet moment for a show built on crazy and outrageous antics, and it arguably remains one of the more underrated Oscar music moments.
After a mesmerizing two minutes, Smith finished the song, took a modest bow, and shuffled offstage. Then, without a moment to spare, the stage opened up to reveal a full orchestra, the smoke machines were engaged, and Dion appeared into the spotlight, ready to belt out the year's biggest hit. If you're a living person with hearing, then you already know what happens next: Celine's tasteful warble, the tin whistle, epic key changes, "Neeeeeear, faaaaaaar..."
and so on. It was grand, it was epic, it was everything audiences had come to expect from Dion's primed-for-Vegas act, and whatever you may think of her music, it's hard to deny that she's good at what she does.
Comparing Smith and Dion's performances felt like measuring a fragile ice cube next to an imposing iceberg (too soon?), and the surreal moment might be one of the few times the two vastly different music worlds- the polished, grandiose mainstream and the emotion-driven, unsuspecting indie undercurrent- were featured on the same stage with equal billing. Dion inevitably went on to win Best Song that night (to which presenter Madonna sarcastically exclaimed, "shocker!"), but Smith had only good things to say about both the French Canadian singer and the night in general. It was still a big moment in his career with or without the win, but true to who he was, Smith seemed perfectly content without the gold and the glamor of Hollywood. As he later said of the experience, "I wouldn't want to live in that world, but it was fun to walk around on the moon for a day."