OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: A new awards category is introduced with unexpected results. 2,245 words. Illustrations by Thomas Warming.
It was a mild March evening in Los Angeles as the celebrities arrived by limousine and dirigible for the 29th Academy Awards held at the fabulous RKO Pantages Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard in 1957. Most of the stars and lesser lights arrived at the street entrance to cheering fans and photographer flashbulbs. Howard Hughes, who owned RKO, invited the major nominees and key guests to the rooftop for a pre-ceremony soiree and arranged extra special Red Carpet treatment for those arriving via airship.
A handpicked RKO crew was carefully and selectively filming the arrivals with material to be made available to the television networks following the telecast. Truth be told, it might be several days before the footage was made public, if ever, since Hughes insisted on reviewing the material himself.
“It’s producer Mike Todd and his wife, the beautiful Elizabeth Taylor,” Variety’s Army Archerd told the camera. “Todd is nominated for Around The World In 80 Days, while Taylor appeared in Giant which received the most nominations with 10, though none for Best Actress.”
The cameraman pivoted to frame the next arrival. Archerd continued. “And one of the most interesting and unpredictable Oscar races this year is the first for Best Performance By A Robot.”
A bulky metallic creature with a stout torso, short arms and a glassy dome for a head rolled across the red carpet, escorting another metallic figure that was clearly feminine. “Why it’s Robby, star of Forbidden Planet. Congratulations and best of luck tonight. What do you think your chances are?” Archerd asked.
“Thank you, Army. It’s an honor just to be nominated, of course. I’m among the first of my kind to be singled out like this.”
“And who is your friend?”
“Allow me to introduce Maria,” Robby said. Her sleek metallic shell included distinctive bulges where a female’s breasts would be. “She starred in the 1927 film Metropolis when the Academy was just getting underway. If the movie were released now, I’m sure she would be a nominee.”
“Do you plan to return to the screen now that robots are so widely accepted?” Archerd asked Maria.
“I’m sorry, Army,” interjected Robby. “Since Metropolis was a silent film, Maria wasn’t given the ability to speak.”
“Has that been a problem?”
“Not for me,” said Robby with a metallic chortle.
“Well, boys will be boys, even when they’re robots,” Archerd told the camera.
Ninety minutes later, the nominees and guests took their seats while a tuxedo-clad Bob Hope strode across the stage. “Welcome to the 29th Academy Awards. Or, as it’s known in my house, Passover,” he joked.
“I wanna tell you, these robots are really changing the movie business. The studio told me they wanted to do some recasting for my next Road picture but I said they would replace Dorothy Lamour over my dead body. And they said that was fine. It would make it easier for them to replace me.”
Hope let the laughs die down. “Robots are turning up everywhere. They asked President Eisenhower the other day if he would be replacing Dick Nixon on the ticket. And Ike said, ‘What makes you think I haven’t already?’”
After a few more minutes of Hope’s stand-up, the Oscar ceremonies commenced. There were nominated songs to be sung, film clips to be shown and acceptance speeches to be made. The nominees in the major categories knew they would have a long wait. Then there were the commercials. Viewers watching on their TV sets were shown ads urging them to get new color consoles, modern autos and flavorful beers. Although their product was out of the price range of most of the audience, National Pneumatics showcased several ads with robot models capable of running kitchen, minding children, or tending garden. One spot showed a family in their futuristic suburban home where junior complained why, if robots could do everything, he still had to do his own homework.
Backstage, Marilyn Monroe looked resplendent in a glittery skin-tight sheath and a diamond necklace on loan for the evening. She would be presenting the Best Robot Oscar with Gort, the robot lead of The Day The Earth Stood Still. But, right now, Gort was nowhere to be seen.
Suddenly Gort, towering above her at over seven feet, made his way to Monroe’s side. Taking his arm, she cooed, “Aren’t you the big fella?”
Gort’s visor rose over his mostly featureless face, and a spot of light briefly moved back and forth as if he were scanning her. Before Monroe could continue flirting, an assistant director warned them, “Five minutes.”
On stage, Bette Davis and James Cagney were introducing a tribute to the famous film robots from the past. Robots had been in the movies for years, but until now had received little respect beyong special effects treatment.
The houselights of the Pantages dimmed, and the audience applauded the appearance of Maria on screen in the scene from Metropolis where Rotwang, the evil mad scientist, brings her to life. There also were the Annihilant soldiers from the Flash Gordon movies, and Tobor from Tobor The Great.
There also were clips of two of the most famous movie robots, Oliver Hardy and Ray Bolger, playing the Tin Woodsman in the silent and sound versions of The Wizard Of Oz. Although both had taken on many other film roles, it was the only time they had been allowed to play their own kind.
The film tribute concluded with Gort’s dramatic confrontation with the authorities at the climax of The Day The Earth Stood Still. As the tribute ended and the lights came up, an off-stage announcer alerted the audience, “Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Marilyn Monroe and Gort.”
The two stars rose through an opening that had suddenly appeared on stage. The show’s director had wanted something dramatic for this new category, and he got it. Between the way Monroe filled out her slinky outfit and Gort’s looming presence, every eye in the theater was transfixed. It may have lost something on black and white TV screens, but audiences all over the world were similarly riveted as the two presenters made their way to the podium.
“What an honor to present the first Academy Award for Best Performance By A Robot,” Monroe said. “Aren’t you thrilled to be here, Gort?”
Monroe was notorious for her inability to remember lines, so was reading off of cue cards. But she acted as if she was encountering the material for the first time. When Gort didn’t reply, Monroe squinted to see if she had missed something and saw, KEEP GOING – GORT CAN’T SPEAK. She had been told this several times at rehearsals. Still, it always took her by surprise.
“Oh, that’s right. You can’t speak, can you Gort?” she ad-libbed. “Good thing they didn’t start this award five years ago. If you had won, someone else would have had to deliver your acceptance speech.”
One of the TV crewmen was pointing his camera at the Pantages audience at that moment, picking up British actor Michael Rennie, who had been Gort’s co-star. Knowing he was on-camera, Rennie beamed a friendly smile at Gort.
The man with the cue card was frantically trying to get Monroe back on track. Gort was raising his visor and looking out over the crowd, but then went back to his passive state. Finally, the cue card guy caught Monroe’s eye.
“The nominees for Best Performance By A Robot are: Yul Brynner in The King And I.”
Monroe paused for the enthusiastic round of applause. Brenner had been specifically designed and tweaked for the role of the King of Siam for the Broadway production. The part was now so associated with him that it was inconceivable for anyone else – human or robot – to ever play it.
“Ernest Cyborgnine in The Catered Affair.”
The beefy robot gave a broad grin as he did a 360-degree swivel while remaining in his theater seat and waving at the camera. This neat trick was a recently released upgrade and brought appreciative hoots. He was a long shot and figured he might as well milk his moment in the spotlight.
“Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments.”
The applause seemed a bit forced, not so much because people didn’t like Heston or the movie but because the casting of a robot as the Biblical figure of Moses had been quite controversial. One politician threatened a new Congressional probe of Hollywood over such use of “godless machines.”.
“Rocket Hudson in Giant.”
More applause. Like the other nominees, Hudson had been cast as a human character since most screenwriters still had no idea how to write robot characters. His role as the Texas scion was considered a star-making turn.
“And Robby in Forbidden Planet.”
The name was greeted by huge cheers. Robby was clearly the odds-on sentimental favorite. He was a traditional looking robot portraying a robot character, and had brought real depth to the role. He neither had to hide behind a human character or have a human speak on his behalf.
So it was no surprise when Monroe ripped open the envelope and announced, “And the winner is… Robby in Forbidden Planet.”
Ordinarily, the pit orchestra would have played a few bars of the theme song from the winner’s film. But Forbidden Planet had what were billed as “electronic tonalities” by Bebe and Louis Barron. Instead, the orchestra broke out into a jaunty rendition of “Fly Me To The Moon.” Robby had been seated at the end of the aisle near a ramp leading to the stage so he wouldn’t have to negotiate any steps. The excited robot leaned over to accept a kiss from Maria and then bounded up the ramp waving his stubby arms and with perpendicular earlike antenna happily rotating.
Monroe was practically jumping with glee, eager to be seen with a movie icon almost as famous as she was. She turned to Gort to retrieve the Oscar statuette and noticed that her co-presenter seemed agitated.
In fact, Gort was squeezing the Oscar so tightly it snapped in half.
As the two pieces clanked to the floor, a flustered Monroe wasn’t sure what to do and there was no acting coach to give her any guidance. She may not have memorized the script but she was certain that this was not in it.
Her few steps back gave Gort a clear shot. His visor opened and the light started moving back and forth across the open patch. Suddenly, a beam shot out and blasted Robby. Those in the auditorium were momentarily blinded.
When people could see again, Robby was gone, replaced by a puff of rapidly dissipating smoke.
No one was certain what had happened or if this had been planned. But Gort’s next blast put an end to any doubt. Directing his beam at one of the gigantic Oscar statues that flanked the stage, a second blast caused it to vanish as well.
With that, Gort turned his attention to the audience now in a state of panic as nominees, ushers and TV crews fought with other attendees to reach the theater exits.
One man, however, calmly approached the stage. Cupping his hands over his mouth to try to be heard over the roar, he shouted, “Gort, Klaatu Barada Nikto!” It was Michael Rennie, Gort’s co-star from The Day The Earth Stood Still, trying to convince the robot to stand down just as he had in the film.
Instead, in the blink of an eye, Gort incinerated the actor.
With that, Marilyn Monroe swooned into a faint and Gort neatly scooped her up in his arms and began to carry her off stage. His way was blocked by half a dozen security guards armed with shotguns, all part of Howard Hughes’ private security force. They hesitated upon seeing Monroe held hostage.
That gave Gort enough time to eviscerate all six guards and their weaponry.
Near one open door at the rear of the theater, Bob Hope was finishing a cigarette, apparently unaware of the pandemonium within. Gort came close, still carrying Monroe. When Hope realized the situation, he tried to get out of the way but had little room to maneuver. So Hope tried to manipulate the robot.
“Look Gort, old buddy, I’ve got no problem with you. They’ve never given me an Oscar, either. We’ve both been snubbed.”
Gort took a step forward. The sound of approaching sirens could be heard in the distance.
“I’ll tell you what, pal,” Hope continued. “Why don’t you take my part in the next Road movie? I’d like to see Bing try to upstage you.”
Gort’s visor began to rise and the light started scanning back and forth.
“Better yet, why don’t you take Bing’s part? Then you can get Dotty Lamour.”
Gort paused and the visor dropped. He brushed past Hope with Monroe still in his arms. As Gort slipped into the night, the comedian muttered to himself, “I’m never going to get the girl.”
Of course, the 29th Academy Awards was when Gort demonstrated to the world that he wasn’t merely a robot who could act, but a robot who could take action. The next morning, nations discovered that their arsenals – from atomic weapons to BB guns — were gone. That is how the world came to its present state of eternal peace under an all-seeing and watchful eye.
All hail our robot overlord! All hail Gort!
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