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Maybe you don't remember what happened on the Academy Awards stage on March 29, 1989, but a once aspiring ingénue named Eileen Bowman will never be able to forget it. It was the night that defined her acting career, and sunk her Hollywood dreams it in one fell swoop.
It was the 61st Annual Academy Awards, and Bowman was set to make her screen debut in front of all of Hollywood's brightest stars as well as a national television audience. It seemed a huge opportunity, a chance to become a star! She was to play Snow White opposite post-sex scandal Rob Lowe, playing Prince Charming. Together the two sang and danced through a 15-minute number that has gone down as one of the worst in Oscar history. Refresh your memory below, thanks to this montage from THR.
Even in these snippets, this glitzy and garish number is hard to watch. Now remember, it went on like this for 15 full minutes, which included a portion where Bowman ran into the audience of Hollywood stars and entreated them to join in the, um, fun. Afterwards, 17 Hollywood heavyweights - including Billy Wilder and Paul Newman - publicly denounced the production in an open letter calling it "an embarrassment to both the Academy and the entire motion picture industry." Ouch. The whole thing went over so badly that Bowman claims a lawyer showed up at her home demanding she sign a gag order that would expire in 13 years. So, THR has asked her what the hell happened.
The production was the brainchild of Allan Carr, an eccentric producer of Grease who was known for wearing caftans and throwing wild parties. Lowe had signed on to this misguided musical number in hopes of rehabbing his image. (What better way to do that than by romancing Snow White by warbling off-key?) For her part, Bowman was called into an ambiguous audition she assumed was for the musical revue Beach Blanket Babylon.
Given 15 pages of music to learn, she was dressed as Snow White and ushered around to meet the musical number's makers with another actress dressed to match. This pair of princesses went to Carr's house, where Bowman recalls a swimming pool with pink water (gross) and Carr auditioning them while wearing a robe (grosser.) Of course, Bowman won the role, but was shocked to learn it was not for Beach Blanket Babylon, but the Oscars.
Rehearsing for a week and half and getting paid scale ($350 a week), she was regularly teased that this was such an extraordinary opportunity that she should have been paying the producers for the part. She enjoyed working with Lowe, who warmly gave her advice to be wary of "sharks" in the industry. Then came her big moment. Bowman remembers, "The show itself looked like a gay Bar Mitzvah. Middle America must have been like: 'What is going on?'"
Middle America wasn't alone. When she went into the audience to interact, she struggled to find anyone open to being included. Thank God for Martin Landau, who gamely played along. He recalls, "She had a look on her face, if I remember correctly, of pain…I empathized with her. Poor Snow White. She didn't have the dwarves to support her."
Bowman knew she'd lost the crowd, and was just happy when it was over. Since then, she has earned a handful of roles in film and television, like playing a detective in Chuck Norris's Turner & Hooch rip-off Top Dog, and a tour guide in Killer Tomatoes Eat France! Looking back on it all she offers more words of wisdom from the lovable Rob Lowe, "Never trust a man in a caftan."