What Was the Worst Oscars Flub Ever?

Fay Bainter Hattie McDaniel_Vivien Leigh_Split - Getty - H 2020
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The 'La La Land' and 'Moonlight' envelopegate may have been one of the most embarrassing moments in Academy history, but 1940's ceremony puts 2017's mixup of just one award to shame.

Think 2017 will go down as the most embarrassing year in Oscar history? That, of course, was when La La Land was named best picture, only for its laurels to be rescinded, with Moonlight getting the nod instead.

But the 1940 ceremony also ranks high in the annals of embarrassment, despite a vintage crop of nominees including Gone With the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Wuthering Heights, Stagecoach and The Wizard of Oz, just five of the 10 contenders for "outstanding production."

Back then, there was endless speculation about who’d win — not quite as much as today, perhaps, but enough for prognosticators to boil down the race to a few frontrunners.

GWTW was the favorite for production — and won. James Stewart (Mr. Smith) and Clark Gable (GWTW) duked it out for best actor, but lost to Robert Donat for Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Bette Davis (Dark Victory) and Vivien Leigh (GWTW) were in a close call for best actress, with Leigh emerging as the victor. Brian Aherne (Juarez) and Claude Rains (Mr. Smith) were deemed most likely to get supporting actor, but lost to Thomas Mitchell (Stagecoach). And Hattie McDaniel and Olivia de Havilland (two of the stars of GWTW) were the best bets for supporting actress, with McDaniel taking home the statuette.

As Bob Hope presided over the ceremony, one might have expected some genuine suspense. Alas, just over two hours before the event kicked off, The Los Angeles Times broke the Academy's embargo and released the winners’ names in its 8:45 p.m. edition.

From that point on, the Academy kept the results secret until the event — as well as the votes cast, since the Times also reported that Leigh and Donat had only won by a sliver.

The Oscar ceremony had already gotten some egg on its face when Davis wasn’t nominated for 1934’s Of Human Bondage (a write-in campaign fixed that), leading to accusations of fraud and the hiring of Price Waterhouse to oversee the ballots. But this was an embarrassment on a much wider scale.

Not everyone was in the loop, however. GWTW producer David O. Selznick didn’t know at first and was so stressed when he left home for the event at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub that he forgot to take his wife.

As for de Havilland, she was also caught by surprise, though she might have guessed when Selznick took the stage and sang her praises. When McDaniel beat her to the Oscar (thereby becoming the first African-American actress to win one), she reportedly fled the room in tears and was found in the kitchen by Selznick’s wife, Irene, who told her: "Stop making a fool of yourself."

A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.