"I Was Rob Lowe's Snow White": The Untold Story of Oscar's Nightmare Opening
Actress Eileen Bowman breaks her silence on the surreal tale of how she became part of Oscars infamy.
Once upon a time -- March 29, 1989, to be exact -- a 22-year-old aspiring actress named Eileen Bowman thought that all her dreams were about to come true. She was very wrong.
By all rights, a global debut on ABC's telecast of the 61st Academy Awards should have been an auspicious launching pad. Instead, playing Snow White alongside Rob Lowe in a musical debacle, she instantly found a place in Oscar infamy.
The campy live number, arranged and conducted by Marvin Hamlisch, was as over-the-top as the man who masterminded it, Grease producer Allan Carr, a bombastic Hollywood oddball famed for wearing caftans and hosting debauched parties at his disco-equipped house in Benedict Canyon. (That residence, Hilhaven Lodge, is the current home of Brett Ratner, leading some to joke that the place is cursed, at least where producing the Oscars is concerned.)
As a costume-clad Bowman made her way through the Shrine Auditorium, chirping a high-pitched take on "I Only Have Eyes for You" and greeting such mortified stars in the audience as Tom Hanks, Dustin Hoffman, Michelle Pfeiffer and Sigourney Weaver, it quickly became obvious that Carr had laid a dinosaur-size egg.
"She had a look on her face, if I remember correctly, of pain," Martin Landau tells THR. Nominated that year for best supporting actor for Tucker: The Man and His Dream, Landau, now 84, was one of the few who gave Bowman a warm reception. "It wasn't her fault," recalls Landau. "I empathized with her. Poor Snow White. She didn't have the dwarves to support her."
As the sketch bombed on for 15 agonizing minutes, dancing tables wackily re-created the post-Prohibition Cocoanut Grove nightclub, Merv Griffin performed his 1950 hit "I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts," and a befuddled parade of decrepit screen stars emerged before Lowe took the stage as Snow White's "date."
The actor, then 24, would soon be working overtime to rehabilitate his image after a sex-tape scandal derailed his career several months later. But when the Academy approached him to play Prince Charming, Lowe later explained, "I was a good soldier and did it." A shower-caliber singer at best, he struggled to stay on key as he duetted with Bowman on an extended "Proud Mary," its lyrics changed to, "Keep the cameras rollin', rollin', rollin'." By the time a kick-line of movie-theater ushers sang, "Whenever you're down in the dumps, try putting on Judy's red pumps," the audience had endured all they could take. As the camera panned the room, Robert Downey Jr.'s look of disgust summed up the reaction.
In its review, The New York Times declared the show had earned "a permanent place in the annals of Oscar embarrassments." Carr was uniformly shunned at industry canteen Morton's the following day. Disney, which then had no stake in ABC, was furious over the unauthorized use of its copyrighted version of Snow White and filed a lawsuit against the Academy. And 17 Hollywood heavyweights -- among them Paul Newman, Gregory Peck, Julie Andrews and Billy Wilder -- signed an open letter deriding the telecast as "an embarrassment to both the Academy and the entire motion picture industry."
Carr, hurting from back-to-back flops Can't Stop the Music and Grease 2, never worked in Hollywood again. After years of declining health and alcohol and drug abuse, he died in 1999 of liver cancer at his home in Beverly Hills.
In a THR exclusive, Bowman, now 46, relates in her own words the tale of how she became Snow White for one bizarre night, about which the Academy now maintains a sense of humor. When approached for comment, COO Ric Robertson said: "We're pleased to join The Hollywood Reporter in saluting the 'Snow White Incident' on its 24th anniversary. This important piece of Hollywood history should never be forgotten."
I've never spoken publicly at length about this. I basically fell off the turnip truck from San Diego and landed in L.A. I went for what I thought was an audition for Beach Blanket Babylon at the Beverly Hills Hotel; they gave me 15 pages of music to learn. I auditioned, and [director Steve Silver] said, "We want to see if you fit into the dress." There was a Snow White outfit and a hairstylist and makeup person. I got dressed and made up, and they said, "Now we're going to go somewhere." There was another girl there, too. So you have a Mercedes with two Snow Whites in the back, and we were told, "Close your eyes, you can't see where we're going."
Our first stop was Allan Carr's house. I remember his swimming pool had pink water in it. He had a 30-foot Oscar outside his door and auditioned us in a robe. The other girl and I looked at each other thinking, "What is happening?"
Our next stop was Marvin Hamlisch's office. We were told to hold hands and walk down the street so people would go, "Ooooh." We auditioned and were whisked back to the hotel. In the elevator, Steve Silver asked me, "How are you with famous people?" I thought, "Well, they're like anybody else." He said, "You got the job." I said, "Oh, great!" He said, "Do you know what this is for?" I said, "Beach Blanket Babylon!" And he said: "No, honey. This is for the Oscars."
I rehearsed for a week and a half. It was my first AFTRA job, and I was paid scale, $350 a week. They brought Rob Lowe in to be my Prince Charming. He was wonderful. He could see where things were headed at the dress rehearsal and took me aside and warned: "You need to be careful. There are sharks in the water, and you have to be really careful who you work with after this." He had never sung before and was kind of insecure about that, so we bonded.
Our rehearsals were on the Fox lot, and they were closed. I mean, like Fort Knox. And the producers knew exactly what they had in me. I wasn't asking questions. They came up to me daily and said, "You should be paying us for this."
I remember Bob Mackie said, "Why am I making a Snow White outfit?" I fainted once during a fitting because I hadn't eaten. I woke up, and Bob was going, "Honey, are you all right?" He gave me juice. My dress was bought for $23,000 by someone involved with the production who was buried in it. It was a man. I'm leaving it at that.
The show itself looked like a gay bar mitzvah. Middle America must have been like: "What is going on? There are dancing tables, there's Snow White singing with Rob Lowe, there's Merv Griffin with people with coconuts on their head!"
I was told not to go to Robin Williams in the audience because God knows what he would do. But running down that aisle, all I could see were the back of heads, and I was thinking, "I'll just go to Kevin Kline!" But they were sitting one row apart, and I accidentally went up to Robin. I was like: "Abort! Abort!" Martin Landau grabbed my hand with both of his, and he just looked at me; he was precious. Tom Hanks was wonderful. But all these poor people were like, "What the hell are you doing?" That number was 15 minutes long from start to end, and I remember looking at Rob Lowe, going, "It's finally over!"
Backstage, my bodyguard whisked me to my room. I ran into Glenn Close. She said, "Well, hi, Snow White." I went: "I can die now. I just ran into Glenn Close's bust."
I was immediately told that they wanted me to go as Snow White to the Governors Ball with Rob Lowe. That's when I put my foot down. I said: "I'm not going to be your little doll dressed as Snow White at the Governors Ball." I went to my dressing table and was taking my costume off, and there was Olivia Newton-John using my blush -- which I still have. She was my idol, and she turned to me and said: "How did you ever do that? How did you ever get out there in front of that many people and do that?"
After that, I showed up at my sister's in L.A. to say goodbye, and she was like: "You're crazy. Do you know how many people would pay for this opportunity?" I said, "Let 'em." I went home to my own bed in San Diego and woke up to a lawyer at my door at 8 o'clock in the morning with a folder full of papers that I had to sign. One of those was the gag order. I thought I had done something wrong, so I was scared not to do what they asked of me. I signed a piece of paper saying 13 years -- I don't know why that was the number they chose. [An Academy lawyer doesn't remember any such action.]
I remember sitting in my condo after being served the papers, watching the news -- and the Snow White number was all that was on the news. I had no idea. My phone never stopped ringing. It was awful. All I can say is what Rob Lowe said, "Never trust a man in a caftan."
Bowman still lives in San Diego with her husband. She stars in the long-running Pete 'n' Keely at the Lamb's Players Theatre on Coronado Island.
This story first appeared in the March 1, 2013 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.