It started with hysteria. As the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences planned the 72nd Oscars, a growing panic seized the nation: What if all the computers suddenly self-destruct on Jan. 1, 2000, crippling life as we know it?
“This is not one of the summer movies where you can close your eyes during the scary parts,” President Bill Clinton warned of the fear of the looming Y2K bug in a 1998 speech.
Americans stockpiled food, bought guns and prepared for the apocalyptic worst. But not the academy. As Sid Ganis, a former academy president then on the Board of Governors, recalled, “The contingency plan was we scratched our heads and said, ‘Oh my goodness, what are we going to do?’” As the clock struck 12:01 a.m. on the new millennium, the computers survived. But a string of foreboding events soon paved the way for a wholly unpredictable 2000 Oscars.
First, thousands of ballots vanished. Ten mail bags containing about 80 percent of the voting sheets were misrouted, resulting in a mad dash to resend new mailers three weeks before the ceremony.
Then, while the academy was still sorting out the ballot issue, 55 Oscars were stolen off a delivery truck in a crime, if not of passion, of easy opportunity for two men who worked for the Roadway Express transportation company.
“It had a tragic sense to it because they weren’t the ballots,” Ganis said. “They weren’t the programs for the evening. They were the symbols, the awards. It was the Oscar gold that went missing.”
A backup reserve of statuettes existed, but were there enough? The academy called in a rush order of new trophies, and after multiple arrests and a frantic 10-day search involving the Los Angeles Police Department and the F.B.I., a junkyard salvage worker named Willie Fulgear found 52 of the stolen Oscars in a dumpster behind a Food 4 Less in Los Angeles. (Another statue turned up in a Florida drug bust three years later, while the final two remain missing.)
Despite being related to one of the men involved in the heist, Fulgear became an instant hero. Roadway awarded him $50,000, and the academy provided two tickets to the March 26 ceremony. That night, he strolled into the Shrine Auditorium in a top hat and tails, earning an honorable mention from the host Billy Crystal, who quipped that the 61-year-old’s reward for finding the trophies was “not a lot of money when you realize that Miramax and DreamWorks are spending millions of dollars just to get one.”
As Ganis recalled: “I saw all the Arnold Schwarzeneggers of the world clamoring to get to the star of the night. It wasn’t another movie star. It was Willie.”
With the ballots and trophies under control, the show itself promised a hip new Oscars for a brave new millennium. The “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone walked the red carpet in copies of Gwyneth Paltrow’s pink Ralph Lauren 1999 Oscars gown and Jennifer Lopez’s iconic Versace look from the 2000 Grammys. Their ensembles delighted Michael Caine and horrified Gloria Estefan, and Parker and Stone later admitted they’d eaten sugar cubes laced with LSD immediately prior.
“We were so, like, punk rock — you know, like, against all of that stuff,” Matt Stone told The Hollywood Reporter in 2016, referring to awards competitions. “So how do you go but not go? How do you not be a part of it? Drugs.”
The ceremony proved equally unpredictable. Other than bringing back Crystal for his fourth round as host, the producers Richard and Lili Zanuck aimed to modernize the evening in nearly every way. They hired one of People’s “most beautiful people” of 1999, the pop songwriter Burt Bacharach, as co-musical director, and for the first time in Oscars history, a D.J. and turntables appeared in the orchestra pit. Giant high-def screens were added to the stage, where presenters included Erykah Badu and LL Cool J, as well as the stars of “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me” and the upcoming “Charlie’s Angels” movie.
An evenly spread slate of nominees and vicious campaigning meant there were no sure bets ahead of the show. Ill-fated couples like Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, and Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman, looked on as “American Beauty” triumphed for best picture over the box-office favorite “The Sixth Sense,” and “The Matrix” swept the sound and visual effects categories.
While the Oscar veterans Kevin Spacey (“American Beauty”) and Caine (“The Cider House Rules”) took home the actor gold, the actress categories went to upstarts. Hilary Swank, then a virtual unknown who earned $3,000 for her starring role as a transgender man in “Boys Don’t Cry,” beat the likes of Annette Bening, Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore to win best actress.
“I had an Academy Award, and I didn’t have health insurance,” Swank said on “60 Minutes” in 2005, noting that her “Boys Don’t Cry” paycheck failed to meet the $5,000 annual income minimum. “The life of an actor.”
In post-show recaps, Swank’s victory would be overshadowed by that of another first-time nominee: Angelina Jolie. As the then 24-year-old took the stage for her supporting actress win for “Girl, Interrupted,” she joyfully declared, “I’m so in love with my brother right now.” That remark coupled with an on-the-lips kiss with her sibling, James Haven, at the Vanity Fair after-party that night, sparked widespread outrage and a “Saturday Night Live” sketch.
Jolie shrugged off the backlash, telling Entertainment Weekly that June, shortly after her Vegas wedding to Billy Bob Thorton, that there had been “nothing more than brotherly” love at play and, ”my parents really loved that moment.”
But perhaps nothing encapsulated the surreality of the 2000 Oscars more than its musical performances. Amid more traditional showings from Aimee Mann and Randy Newman and Sarah McLachlan, ’NSync wore pastel suits and joined Estefan to serenade the audience with “Music of My Heart” from “Music of the Heart.”
And then there was “Blame Canada.” The nominated song from “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut” was performed in the movie by the voice actress Mary Kay Bergman and Trey Parker, but following Bergman’s death in 1999, showrunners sought to put a new spin on the expletive-laden satirical track. Cue: Robin Williams. The comedian appeared onstage with duct tape over his mouth, ripped it off, screamed, “Oh my God, they killed Kenny!” and proceeded to dance and sing with a flock of characters, including a high-kicking chorus line of women dressed as Canadian Mounties. The network censors were sweating.
“When you had the brilliant Robin Williams up there, you never 100 percent knew that it was going to go exactly as it did in rehearsal,” Ganis said. “In the end, that number turned out to be sensational.”
But the most buzzed about act of the night wasn’t any of those songs (or the eventual winner, Phil Collins’s “Tarzan” tearjerker, “You’ll Be in My Heart”), it was a star-studded tribute medley rife with off-camera drama involving Whitney Houston and a tearful Garth Brooks.
Bacharach had assembled Houston, Brooks, Ray Charles, Queen Latifah, Dionne Warwick and Isaac Hayes to perform snippets of classic original song winners like “Over the Rainbow” and “Theme From Shaft.” But during rehearsals, Houston underperformed, citing a sore throat, and was replaced by Faith Hill at the last minute. Tabloid reports claimed that Brooks openly wept at no longer being the sole country artist in the lineup, but a Capitol Records spokesperson told The New York Post, “His concern was out of respect for Whitney and her feelings because he’s known her for a long time — not over who her replacement would be.”
In the end, the trophy heist hype and a relative “cool” factor proved irresistible to audiences. The 2000 telecast drew more than 46 million viewers, an improvement on the 1999 show and numbers ABC could only dream about today.
“Did I enjoy it so much because I was there at the time, or because it was really good entertainment?” Ganis mused after rewatching the ceremony recently. “I swear to you, it’s just really good entertainment.”
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