A look back at years when the Academy Awards show truly hit the high notes.
**EMBARGOED AT THE REQUEST OF THE ACADEMY OF MOTION PICTURE ARTS & SCIENCES FOR USE UPON CONCLUSION OF THE ACADEMY AWARDS TELECAST**Oscar host Hugh Jackman dances during the 81st Academy Awards Sunday, Feb. 22, 2009, in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill) ORG XMIT: MIN2013021818000668
In past years, the multi-nominated film “Lincoln” would serve as a good excuse for the Rockettes to do high kicks in stovetop hats while a bearded Cher warbled “I Got You, Abe.”
Fortunately, this year’s producers, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron — the team behind the movie musical “Chicago” — know a few things about keeping it classy. There will be so much music during Sunday’s show that viewers might think it’s the Grammys. Barbra Streisand, Adele, Norah Jones and Shirley Bassey have already signed on, a slate that almost makes up for the fact that host Seth McFarlane is also planning a number.
Here’s what they’ll have to top:
Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, “It’s Great Not to Be Nominated” (1958): Though both had been Oscar nominees, neither of these longtime buddies had experienced the sweet smell of success when they staged this hilarious duet. (“Charles Laughton, he’s great/ Yeah, if you’re voting for weight.”)
Michael Jackson, “Ben” (1973): He was still best known as a member of the Jackson 5 when Charlton Heston introduced the future King of Pop as someone whose “talent is mature, but whose age suggests he shouldn’t even be up this late.” Sporting a giant Afro and long collar points, Jackson wowed the crowd with his love ballad to a rat. Jackson would return to the Oscars in 1991 — as Madonna’s date.
“Over the Rainbow,” Diana Ross (1990): As a film clip showed Judy Garland singing the timeless classic, she got an unexpected duet partner when the Supreme One walked onstage and took over. Ross not only got the star-studded crowd to join in, but thanks to the wonderful wizards in the control room, she was able to lead audiences in Tokyo, Sydney and London in a worldwide sing-along.
“Putting It Together,” Bernadette Peters (1994): Stephen Sondheim tweaked his lyrics to this “Sunday in the Park With George” classic to pay tribute to behind-the-scenes players, starting with a clever film that morphed into its star, Peters, belting out the final lines live onstage.
“You Must Love Me,” Madonna (1997): The Material Girl often relies on theatrics to get attention, as she did while channeling Marilyn Monroe in the 1991 ceremony. But for this “Evita” number, she relied only on her ability to find the grace, pain and fear in a haunting ballad. You must love that.
“My Heart Will Go On,” Celine Dion (1998): Making fun of the Canadian diva is popular sport, but you can’t deny that the woman has pipes. As fog rolled in and an orchestra played from a faux ship, Dion delivered such a fierce performance that when she spread her arms, you could have sworn she just parted the Red Sea.
“Blame Canada,” Robin Williams (2000): Producers had a real challenge when this raunchy number from Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s “South Park: The Movie” got an Oscar nod, but they came up with the right solution by enlisting Williams to lead a cast of Village People rejects and leggy female Mounties in what ended up as a preview to “The Book of Mormon.”
“When She Loved Me,” Randy Newman and Sarah McLachlan (2000): You had to be a real Potato Head not to be moved by this short, simple, sentimental number from “Toy Story 2,” perfectly served by McLachlan’s angelic voice. Hard to believe the Oscar went to Phil Collins’ “You’ll Be in My Heart,” an injustice that Parker and Stone pointed out in a future “South Park” number, “You’ll Be in Me.”
“The Hands That Built America,” U2 (2003): The stage was so dark for this song from “Gangs of New York” that you could barely see the band — which was the point, as Bono & Co. forced the audience to focus on black-and-white pictures playing in the background of immigrants building skyscrapers. One more piece of evidence that U2 is the world’s greatest band.
“Movie Medley,” Hugh Jackman (2009): The Oscar host used all of his Wolverine powers to pull off an inspired opener that paid tongue-in-cheek homage to the best picture nominees. Anne Hathaway, his future “Les Mis” co-star, showed her musical chops by joining him in a “Frost/Nixon” square-off. Jackman’s breathless efforts earned a standing ovation.
Neal Justin • 612-673-7431 • Follow Neal on Twitter @nealjustin