TV’s Most Surreal Musical Performances – Elliott Smith at the Oscars
When indie troubadour Elliott Smith took the stage at the 70th Academy Awards to perform two minutes and 14 seconds of his tune 'Miss Misery' back in 1998, he did so for one reason and one reason only: to fend off a threat. The thing was, producers of the show had told Smith that his Best Original Song-nominated tune off the 'Good Will Hunting' soundtrack was going to be performed live during the Oscar telecast -- whether he was there to sing it or not.
"Yeah, at first, I thought, ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea,’" Smith later recalled of his initial reaction to being offered the gig. "But they said if I didn’t sing the song, they’d get someone else to sing it ... like Richard Marx. It was like, ‘Well, then again ... I could do it!"
The Oscars, of course, are a glamorous affair, and Smith was dressed to impress in a bright white suit and backed for his performance by the Academy's broadcast orchestra. It was quite a dramatic rise in stature for Smith, who had cut his musical teeth in the Portland, Ore.-based alt-rock band Heatmiser and whose most recent solo album, 1997's 'Either/Or,' was recorded in a basement studio and released on the indie label Kill Rock Stars.
Smith was still playing coffeehouse gigs in his adopted hometown of Brooklyn when filmmaker and longtime fan Gus Van Sant requested permission to use the singer's music in his upcoming 'Good Will Hunting,' which would become a breakthrough success for the indie filmmaker. Smith obviously agreed, and in addition to contributing a few songs from 'Either/Or,' he offered up the new, previously unreleased composition 'Miss Misery.' That tune met the Academy's strict guidelines for Best Original Song nominees, and in a surprise twist of fate, managed to garner a nod for the award. The rest is history.
A lot was made of how nervous he appeared during his Oscar moment -- who wouldn't be in front of an expected television audience of one billion? -- but Smith more than held his own next to fellow performers and nominees like country superstar Trisha Yearwood and pop diva Celine Dion. With a single spotlight shining down on him, the singer whispered and strummed his way through the abridged ballad, turning in an emotionally charged performance worthy of an Oscar itself.
Smith didn't win the Best Original Song Oscar -- that honor went to the Dion-sung, James Horner- and Will Jennings-penned 'Titanic' tune, 'My Heart Will Go On' -- but he did win over countless new fans. And he provided by far one of the most surreal moments in Oscar music history.
"That's exactly what it was, surreal," he later said of the experience. "I enjoy performing almost as much as I enjoy making up songs in the first place. But the Oscars was a very strange show, where the set was only one song cut down to less than two minutes, and the audience was a lot of people who didn't come to hear me play. I wouldn't want to live in that world, but it was fun to walk around on the moon for a day."