Oscar Sound Bites: The Sour, the Sweet and the Salty

Caption: John Wayne received the only Oscar of his career for his turn in the 1969 movie “True Grit.” When Barbara Streisand presented him with the Best Actor award for his performance as Rooster Cogburn, he had tears in his eyes and said, “I feel very grateful, very humble.”

They account for some of the most memorable and cringe-inducing utterances in modern history, a parade of the glib and the goofy, the erudite and the awful, all played out before the eyes of billions.

They’re both the dream and the nightmare of anyone who’s ever spoken before an audience – and we can’t seem to get enough of them. Good or bad, they’re water cooler fodder for days and even weeks after the original words fade away. Some even pass into legend.

They’re Oscar acceptance speeches.

And if you just smiled or rolled your eyes when you read that, that should tell you a lot about the place of this peculiar speaking tradition in the modern world. When the winner of an Academy Award mounts the steps to the stage, a huge auditorium full of celebrities, as well as millions of viewers around the world, wonder the same thing: Is that person going to say something dazzling, breathtaking, stunningly witty, impossibly dramatic, heartfelt and thoroughly appropriate to the occasion, or are they going to stammer blindly, thank their therapist and get unceremoniously played off stage by the pit orchestra?

Public speakers of all stripes can learn by watching the Oscar night telecast, even if it ends up being more of a cautionary tale than a tutorial. The lessons, say longtime Oscar watchers, are among the simplest and display the most common sense, but putting them into practice when you’re all alone in the spotlight and the beam is glinting off that gold statue in your hand, well…

“I think it’s difficult for the rest of us to know what it’s like to get caught up in the whole publicity machine and the parties and all of the hubbub that surrounds the awards,” says Dr. Kirwan Rockefeller. “It really is a whirlwind of activity. There’s a lot of pressure on you, a lot of expectations, a lot of hope, a lot of desire, and it’s just really a lot to handle.”

Rockefeller, the director of the Arts and Humanities Continuing Education Program at University of California Irvine Extension, is a veteran observer of show business awards shows and can recall many of the best and the worst acceptance speeches over the years. He rejoices in the classics and is inclined to give a break to the clunkers.

“We tend to look at movie stars and celebrities as being much larger than life,” he says. “We see them literally 100 feet high on movie screens and they kind of take on mythic proportions. So we think that they’re always calm and cool. But [on the job] they’re usually working from prepared scripts. At the awards, they get caught up in the emotion. And in a way I think it’s very endearing when we see them be humble and maybe stumble over their words.”

Nevertheless, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences runs a tight ship on Oscar night. The show’s producers want the winner on and off quickly – ideally in less than a minute. Before the 2006 Oscar telecast, the Academy gave a video urging economy of words to all 150 contenders for the award. Narrated by Tom Hanks, it exhorted the nominees to address the audience with “wit, flair, creativity – or at least with brevity…Use a little of that Oscar-winning creativity to make your speech entertaining.”

The 8½-minute video, titled “An Insider’s Guide: What Nominees Need to Know,” featured clips of speeches considered to be good and not-so-good – including Jack Palance’s famous one-armed push-ups in 1992 after winning an Oscar for City Slickers and Gwyneth Paltrow’s 1999 crying jag after winning for Shakespeare In Love.

Hanks, on the video, also exhorts nominees to “lose the list” of people to thank. His final piece of advice: “Maximize your moment.”

The “thank-you” list is a perennial problem for the show’s producers and a searing pain for the audience, says veteran Oscar-watcher Toby Miller, a professor of media and cultural studies at the University of California Riverside.

“I want to thank my therapist, my boyfriend…there’s a hyper-performance quality to it,” he says. “When there’s an endless list of names, it makes everyone sort of sit on their hands, or go outside for a cigarette or run to the restroom.”

Preparation, he says, is key. “You’ve known for some time that you’re a nominee,” he says, “and you’re right there in the room, so it shouldn’t come as a complete shock to you if you win.”

Within the entertainment industry, however, preparation can be seen as a problem, says Rockefeller.

“It’s considered a little bit of a no-no because if you look like you prepared, it comes off seeming like you expected to win, and nobody likes that. Still, I think if you can jot down a couple of notes on an index card or something like that, that’s fine. When Julie Christie won a Screen Actors Guild award recently she had a little card in her purse with names of people to thank and it was very elegantly and subtly done.”

Wit and a bit of brass can even defuse discomfort over the thank-you list, he said. When Julia Roberts won her Oscar in 2001 for Erin Brockovich, Rockefeller says he “thought she was charming when they started playing the music [indicating her time was up] and she said, ‘No, no, no…I may not be here ever again. Give me my time.’ She did it in such a charming, humorous, funny way and I think then people wanted to hear what she had to say.”

Meryl Streep accomplished much the same thing in 1981 when she won her Oscar for Sophie’s Choice: “I have a lot of people to thank,” she said, “and I’m going to be one of those people that tries to mention a lot of names, because I know just two seconds ago my mother and father went berserk and I’d like to give some other mothers and fathers that same opportunity.”

What one quality can carry the day? Heartfelt emotion, say both Rockefeller and Miller. For once, if it looks like they’re not acting, actors can appear at their best.

“Brevity is good,” says Miller. “Having something to say is good. Really being aware of your audience. And realizing that the words you say are going to be remembered. So you want [the speech] to be remembered not for a lot of ‘ahs’ or ‘ums’ but for having one particular point.

“I think if you’ve got a very, very small amount of time, if you want to make a particular point other than simply saying thank you, make that point at the beginning. Then you give a bit of supporting evidence, you sum up at the end, and you try to do it, even if there’s something serious there, with a sense of humor.”

Pat Mott is a Southern California-based writer and regular contributor to this magazine.

A Few of the Best and the Worst

  • Woody Allen: “Thank you very much. That makes up for the strip search.”
  • Sally Field: “I haven’t had an orthodox career, and I’ve wanted more than anything to have your respect. 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!”
  • Jane Fonda: “There’s a great deal to say, but I’m not going to say it tonight.”
  • Ron Howard: “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.”
  • Maureen Stapleton: “I want to thank everybody I ever met in my entire life.” (She didn’t do it, thankfully.)
  • Sir Laurence Olivier: “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.”
  • Cary Grant: “You know that I may never look at this without remembering the quiet patience of directors who were so kind to me, who were kind enough to put up with me more than once, some of them even three or four times. I trust they and all the other directors, writers and producers and my leading women have forgiven me for what I didn’t know. You know that I’ve never been a joiner or a member of any particular social set, but I’ve been privileged to be a part of Hollywood’s most glorious era.”
  • Joe Pesci: “It’s my privilege. Thank you.” (Second-shortest speech in Oscar history.)
  • Clark Gable: “Thank you.” (Shortest speech in Oscar history.)
  • The longest speech ever given by an Oscar winner? That distinction goes to actress Greer Garson, who accepted her 1943 award at a little past 1 a.m. – and proceeded to deliver a seven-minute oration, thanking everyone, including “the doctor who brought me into the world.”