When the Academy Awards first started out, speeches were short and shorn of melodrama. Over time, as Bob Dylan muttered in his Oscar-winning song from Wonder Boys, things have changed. Accepting a golden statuette is no longer a simple task. You have to be funny. Or take a stand. Or mention your co-stars, mentors, competitors, parents, pets, God. It’s no wonder Maureen Stapleton took the easy way out when she won Best Supporting Actress for Reds and thanked “everybody I ever met in my entire life”.
There are many ways to make a memorable Oscar speech. You can acknowledge your husband, whose name you missed out in your previous Best Actress speech (a grateful Hillary Swank). You can thank your parents without saying ‘I would like to thank my parents’, as Robin Williams did (“Most of all, I want to thank my father, up there, the man who when I said I wanted to be an actor, he said, ‘Wonderful. Just have a back-up profession like welding’”). You can show the world exactly how excited and happy you are, like Cuba Gooding Jr’s re-enactment from Jerry Maguire. Former winners have been inventive (Louise Fletcher signing her speech for her deaf parents), generous (director Billy Wilder pointing to Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine’s contribution to The Apartment) and concise (Joe Pesci stating simply, “It’s my privilege. Thank you”). There are many ways to not mess it up.
There are an equal number of ways you could get it wrong. And get it wrong, they do. Like Laurence Olivier, whose 1979 Lifetime Achievement Award acceptance speech was a baffling thicket of wordiness (“the prodigal, pure, human kindness of it…must be seen as a beautiful star in that firmament which shines upon me at this moment, dazzling me a little, but filling me with warmth of the extraordinary elation”). Or James Cameron, a cautionary tale for directors inclined to quote from their own film, crowing “I’m the king of the world.” Or Julia Roberts, who, in the middle of an indulgent gush, called veteran Academy conductor Bill Conti ‘stick-man’.
These stick-men have actually helped tackle Oscar ramblers. The longest speech ever – five and a half minutes – was delivered by Greer Garson in 1943. Tellingly, she began with “I’m entirely unprepared…” Recently, the Academy has hit back with aggressive use of orchestra. Big talkers have found their final words drowned out in a wash of sound. Not surprisingly, there have been counter-attacks. In a daring moment during his hosting of the 2008 ceremony, Jon Stewart called back to stage Markéta Irglová, the Russian half of the Best Song-winning duo from the movie Once, after the music had cut her off. She went on to make a simple, moving speech, exactly the kind you don’t want cut off.
The third option – exercised less frequently – is to use the stage to air views that have little to do with thanks. Marlon Brando’s Oscar refusal in 1972 is legendary – he sent a Native American called Sacheen Littlefeather (actually an actress called Maria Cruz) in his place to read a letter protesting the mistreatment of her people. Others prefer to show up and give voice to whatever’s gnawing away at them. In 1975, Bert Schneider, producer of the anti-Vietnam War documentary Hearts and Minds, read out a message from the Viet Cong, which prompted Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope to hurriedly write out a counter-statement. The pro-Palestine Vanessa Redgrave took the stage in 1977 and railed against ‘Zionist hoodlums’. And Michael Moore contributed the most unpolished put-down ever, with his ‘shame on you George Bush’ tirade in 2003.
As political as Moore’s, but less churlish, was Sean Penn’s 2004 speech, which began: “If there’s one thing that actors know, other than that there weren’t any WMDs, it’s that there is no such thing as best in acting.” In 2009, after winning again for Milk, Penn slyly acknowledged the recent left-liberal domination of Hollywood by thanking the Academy, those “commie, homo-loving songs of guns”. Tom Hanks had also raised the issue of gay rights when he won for his role in Philadelphia, citing the influence of his old drama teacher, who happened to be gay. (This scenario was to become the basis of the Kevin Kline comedy In and Out, making this the first Oscar speech to inspire a movie.) And 34 years before Denzel Washington followed Halle Berry to the podium and wryly remarked “Two birds in one night, huh”, Rod Steiger struck a small blow for civil rights when he credited his friend and co-star Sidney Poitier with enhancing his performance, and ended by stating “we shall overcome”.
This piece appeared in Man's World in time for the Oscars.