Your Oscar speech: How not to blow it
By Jim Emerson
Special to MSN Movies
The main thing to remember when you win your Oscar (and you know you will win your Oscar one day -- admit it, you've even practiced your acceptance speech) is that you are immediately faced with 45 seconds during which you can either display grace under pressure or make a complete ass of yourself.
Contrary to Academy legend, Sally Field did not do the latter when she gave the most parodied and ridiculed acceptance speech in Oscar history in 1985. "I haven't had an orthodox career, and I've wanted more than anything to have your respect," she said. "The first time I didn't feel it, but this time I feel it, and I can't deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me!"
Now, that last part, which came out a bit squeaky, wasn't as bad as many later made it out to be. It wasn't, after all, "You like me! You really like me!" My theory is that the repetitive phrase was memorized in advance (it sounds a bit canned) and that she simply oversold it in the excitement of the moment. Instead of making it sound more spontaneous, her delivery underscored (genuine though the sentiment might be) that this was, in fact, another performance, which felt kind of embarrassing to watch. And audiences can really resent it if you embarrass them, to the point where they respond defensively with scathing sarcasm and mockery.
Don't let this happen to you. Here's some advice for giving your Oscar speech, when the time comes.
1. Get a Grip
Why is it that the only people who really appear to lose control when they accept their statuette are the actors? Why don't the art directors and sound editors sputter and wail as if they'd just been spared from lethal injection? If anything, you'd think the actors would be better able to control their emotions than most people.
And you'd be right. You see, actors dig emotional meltdowns, on screen and off. They do it on purpose. It's almost a form of noblesse oblige -- a generous Acting Gratuity (more than 20 percent), if you will: "I will now treat you to an extraordinary demonstration of how deeply I am moved!" And, at the same time, it's a form of grandiose self-inflation and self-abasement: "I scrape and bow to acknowledge how much you have honored me!"
Of course, Gwyneth Paltrow (Best Actress, "Shakespeare in Love," 1998) just stood there and squeaked like a broken drip-irrigation node, but at least she had the decency to be horrified and humiliated about it later, claiming she'd put her Oscar at the back of a bookcase because it brought back painful memories of her big, pink weep-down.
One of the most divisive Oscar speeches of recent years (some were moved, some were appalled) was the tornado of tears Halle Berry whipped up around herself when she won Best Actress for "Monster's Ball" in 2001. Berry's Interminable Moment-of-Special-Pleading was a gale-force ego storm that threatened to suck up the entire universe. It was like the Big Bang in reverse: "Oh, my God. Oh, my God. I'm sorry. This moment is so much bigger than me," blubbered Berry, trying desperately to make the moment big enough for her.
"This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll," she continued, in a name-dropping paroxysm that cried out, instead, for Lloyd Bentsen. "It's for the women that stand beside me, Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett, Vivica Fox. And it's for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened." Yes, because now all nameless, faceless women of color could grow up to be Best Actress Oscar winners, just like their universal idol, Halle Berry!
"Thank you. I'm so honored. I'm so honored," Berry further honored herself. "And I thank the Academy for choosing me to be the vessel for which His blessing might flow." Which brings us to our next piece of advice ...
2. Don't Assume That God Voted for You
No incarnation of the Creator of All Things is registered as a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and nowhere on the Academy ballots is there a category for Best Vessel Through Whom God's Blessings Might Flow. (There remains some question, however, about whether Jesus Christ personally chooses the Grammy winners.) Winning an Oscar does not make you a special agent of God's will or the divine favorite over your fellow nominees -- or, for that matter, over the lepers in your category who must suffer the enduring shame of not even being nominated. (Didn't Jesus say that the un-nominated would inherit the earth?) Do not demean the concept of the Almighty by implying that either you, or the members of the Academy who voted for you, are somehow helping to implement God's Mysterious Plan so that you all can bring about the End Times. Even if it's true, don't. It's just bad form.
3. Brevity Is Good
Do you want to be remembered for making everyone resent that you won? If so, be like Greer Garson (Best Actress, "Mrs. Miniver" 1942), who took the stage at approximately 1 a.m., blabbered on for a record five and a half minutes and whipped up a room full o' hate that made her the butt of long-winded jokes for the rest of her career.
Otherwise, you could let your filmed performance speak for itself by graciously refusing to hog the spotlight. Like Clark Gable (Best Actor, "It Happened One Night," 1934) who said, memorably: "Thank you." Or Joe Pesci (Best Supporting Actor, "GoodFellas," 1990), whose entire speech was: "This is an honor and privilege. Thank you very much."
You're not fooling anyone. We all know you've been hoping, fantasizing, rehearsing. Winners who get up there and say they didn't prepare anything because they didn't expect to win should be yanked offstage and whisked by limo to the nearest Jamboree, where they should be forced to write the Boy and Girl Scout motto 1,000 times on 1,000 separate cue cards until they've memorized it: "Be prepared." (If you're a gay man, the Boy Scouts wouldn't allow you at their Jamboree but, if you're out, you already know that nobody would believe you hadn't prepared an Oscar speech, anyway.)
Picking up the award for Best Director (for "A Beautiful Mind" in 2001), Ron Howard confessed: "I'm not a good enough actor anymore to be able to stand up here and make you believe that I haven't imagined this moment in my mind over the years and played it out over a thousand times." If Opie isn't a good enough actor anymore, then neither are you -- even if you win an Oscar.
For those genuinely "unprepared" Oscar moments, when you really didn't think you were going to win and suddenly you do, see Joe Pesci's ideal speech in the previous item.
5. Don't Overprepare (In Other Words: No Lists)
All persons entering the Kodak Theatre should be frisked for 8 1/2-x-11-inch sheets of paper. Nothing larger than a 3-x-5 card should be allowed into the auditorium. If there's anything worse than a "spontaneous, unprepared" acceptance speech, it's a monologue delivered, head down, by someone (say, Jennifer Connelly?) who probably couldn't even read convincingly off a teleprompter. At most, your index card should have three items on it. For example:
1. One-liner joke
2. Suck up to X (director, studio exec, casting agent, soon-to-be-ex-spouse -- choose ONE)
3. Thank Academy
At least when Maureen Stapleton (Best Supporting Actress, "Reds," 1981) proclaimed that she wanted to thank "everybody I ever met in my entire life," she had the decency to refrain from mentioning them by name. Not even Cuba Gooding Jr. cited everyone he loved individually. If you know people who want to get mentioned on TV, tell them that's what your local news is for. Tell them to send in a digital photo of their cat or commit a mass murder and your local FOX channel will probably say their name on the air. And there's always call-in radio. But not at the Academy Awards, please.
Next year nobody will remember that you won an Oscar, anyway. If you want to make sure that nobody remembers it tomorrow, just start reciting a bunch of names most of your listeners don't know. Every time somebody starts thanking their agent and their lawyer and their illegitimate offspring, the water pressure in major cities drops precipitously from all the flushing.
6. Enough With the Flowery Speechifying
Too many actors think they can write. And too many of those who think that think "writing" involves grandiose rhetoric. One of the worst speeches ever was Laurence Olivier's 1979 honorary Oscar acceptance, which began:
"In the great wealth, the great firmament of your nation's generosity, this particular choice may perhaps be found by future generations as a trifle eccentric, but the mere fact of it -- 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 and the extraordinary elation, the euphoria that happens to so many of us at the first breath of the majestic glow of a new tomorrow."
That's two firmaments in one sentence, which is at least two firmaments too many. Cut to 18 years later and the insufferably calculated ebullience of Roberto Benigni, who bounded over the seats and seemed to crib from Olivier's English-as-a-Second-Language soliloquy: "I feel like now, really, to dive in this ocean of generosity. ... I would like to be Jupiter in the firmament ... lying down and making love to everybody. This is something I cannot forget from the bottom of my heart."
Even famous Regular Guy Tom Hanks went all firmamenty when he accepted his first Oscar for Best Actor in "Philadelphia" in 1993: "I know that my work in this case is magnified by the fact that the streets of heaven are too crowded with angels." (Precisely how many angels can crowd the streets of heaven to magnify Hanks' work has yet to be determined.) "We know their names. They number a thousand for each one of the red ribbons that we wear here tonight. They finally rest in the warm embrace of the gracious creator of us all, a healing embrace that cools their fevers, that clears their skin and allows their eyes to see the simple, self-evident commonsense truth that is made manifest by the benevolent creator of us all." Beautiful sentiments (I think), but the overwrought language and self-important delivery made many of us cringe, momentarily longing for the tiresome, moronic "Brokeback Mountain" jokes of the future.
7. If You're Going to Make a Joke, Make It a Self-deprecating One-Liner
When George Burns won the Supporting Actor award in 1975 for a Neil Simon movie ("The Sunshine Boys"), it was not one of the Academy's proudest moments, but 80-year-old Burns cut to the heart of the matter when he said, "It couldn't have happened ... to an older guy." (Indeed, it hadn't.) Contrast this with, say, James Cameron, the director of "Titanic," who awkwardly and unconvincingly exclaimed: "I'm the king of the world! Woo-hoo!" Not self-deprecating enough, really.
Stubby songwriter Paul Williams (star of Brian De Palma's "Phantom of the Paradise") actually got an Oscar in 1977 for penning some of the worst lyrics ever in "Evergreen," for Barbra Streisand's "A Star Is Born": "Love, soft as an easy chair ..." He almost made up for it by quipping: "I was going to thank all the little people, but then I remembered I am the little people." I'm sure it worked just as well when he used it on "Hollywood Squares."
Yes, these are corny jokes, and they are obviously prepared in advance. But they work to relieve the tension in the audience, caused by everyone's nervousness that you're going to get up there and make us all suffer by forcing us to watch you behave like an imbecile.