Like much of the early Seventies, 1971 was a very good year for film aficionados who prized variety in the movies as highly as they valued quality. A Clockwork Orange, The Last Picture Show, The French Connection, Sunday Bloody Sunday, Klute, McCabe & Mrs. Miller — the titles released in that single 12-month span are among the most revered and influential of the entire decade.
Of course, for even the most artistically minded filmmakers, all the accolades in the world can quickly pale beside an Oscar nomination or, the summit of happiness, an Oscar win. That thrilling, glitz-fueled night in Los Angeles, meanwhile, when much of the world seems to hold its breath waiting for the words, “And the Oscar goes to …” (or, as it was put in 1972: “The winner is …”) has become a cultural touchstone in its own right, with the show’s production values, jokes, performances and, of course, clothes as closely analyzed as the films the Academy honors each year.
In March 1972, LIFE magazine sent photographer Bill Eppridge to Los Angeles to photograph behind the scenes during the run-up to that year’s Oscar night, capturing images of everything from the dead-of-night delivery (by station wagon!) of the nomination lists to the destruction of the Price Waterhouse typewriter ribbons on which ballots were tallied.
Here, LIFE.com presents a gallery of both published and unpublished photographs from Eppridge’s fascinating, revealing assignment, an insidery piece titled, a bit acidly, “The Oscar Game.”
As for the April 10, 1972, ceremony itself, which took place weeks after Eppridge’s shoot — and was hosted by the powerhouse lineup of Sammy Davis, Jr., Jack Lemmon, Helen Hayes and Alan King — the big winners were The French Connection (five Oscars, including Best Picture, William Friedkin for Best Director and Gene Hackman for Best Actor); Fiddler on the Roof (three statuettes); Jane Fonda (Best Actress for Klute); and Peter Bogdanovich’s beautiful, profoundly heartfelt Last Picture Show, which scored a rare win when Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman won Best Supporting Actor and Actress awards for their roles in the film.