A Curmudgeon's History of the Academy Awards

As March 7 approaches, you might torment yourself with the question, “Will I really watch the Academy Awards again?” Allow me to offer good reasons to do so. First, if you are a masochist, the gratification is obvious: hours of stupefying boredom mixed with irritating attempts at entertainment. Then, there is the cultural obligation: If these people are “stars,” shouldn’t you know who they are? (Mastering the distinction between Shia LaBeouf and Emile Hirsch could earn you the respect of most teenagers.) Moreover, those of us of a graying age have a morbid fascination with seeing how our past favorites now look: Who is still glamorous and who should sue their plastic surgeons?

Of course, as Toastmasters, you will want to hear the speeches. If nothing else, they will make you feel superior. The usual speech at the Oscars is terrible – incoherent, rambling and often neurotic. Surprisingly, most of the speeches last only 45 seconds, yet they seem much longer. Indeed, the Academy tries to impose a time limit on the speakers. Notice how the orchestra begins playing at the 46th second of a speech, just as the year’s winning set designer is thanking his acupuncturist. If the speaker ignores that hint, one of the smiling models – who likely have black belts in karate – will subtly pinion his arms and nudge him offstage. But despite this terror-imposed punctuality, a two-hour ceremony somehow lasts four hours or more.

It didn’t start that way. At the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929, 10 awards were given in 15 minutes. You probably recognize most of the categories: Best Film, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, etc. Today, it takes three hours for these awards to be handed out. Of course, Hollywood could not resist filming itself. The highlights of each ceremony were compiled and distributed as a newsreel to be shown in movie houses around the world. Until 1952, that was the only way the public saw the Oscars, and through the wonders of editing, every winner was concise, eloquent and sober.

The public never heard Greer Garson’s acceptance speech upon winning the Best Actress award in 1942 for her performance in Mrs. Miniver. Not even a transcript has survived, so only in legend and rumor is it remembered as the longest and worst speech in the history of the Academy Awards. According to the Guinness World Records, Miss Garson spoke for nearly six minutes. She began with, “I’m practically unprepared” and then commenced a broad philosophical meandering about the nature of film. No one could remember the details; amnesia can be a mercy. Until Garson, the Academy never thought of imposing a time limit on speakers. After her, the limit was set at 45 seconds.

In 1940, Vivien Leigh sounded like a robot put onstage by the producer. Awarded Best Actress for her performance as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind, Leigh said, “Ladies and gentlemen. Please forgive me if my words are inadequate in thanking you for your very great kindness. If I were to mention all those who have shown me wonderful generosity through Gone With the Wind, I should have to entertain you with an oration that is as long as Gone With the Wind itself. So if I may, I should like to devote my thanks on this occasion to that complefied figure of energy, courage and very great kindness in whom all points of Gone With the Wind meet: Mr. David Selznick.”

Such fulsome praise of a producer is not usual, and it might even be mandatory in an Oscar speech. In fairness, if any producer actually deserved that idolatry, Selznick did. Through his constant and tireless work, he really did produce Gone With the Wind, and it was his gut instinct to cast a minor English starlet as Scarlett O’Hara. But Vivien Leigh’s speech was so artificial and stiff, it was practically embalmed. Consider the use of the word complefied; it is a form of the Latin past participle for complete. Who in the audience would have understood it except some priests and professors – very few of whom were at the Academy Awards that night. Like the speech itself, the word is contrived and pretentious. Furthermore, Leigh seemed uncomfortable in her recitation, as if she were the hostage of the speechwriter. Perhaps she was, and the culprit was most likely her fiancé at the time: Laurence Olivier.

Olivier certainly knew what sounded Shakespearean but had not quite mastered the coherence. Thirty-nine years later, he showed no improvement. Upon receiving a Lifetime Achievement Academy Award, Olivier expressed his thanks: “In the great wealth, the great firmament of your nation’s generosities, 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 of the extraordinary elation, the euphoria that happens to so many of us at the first breath of the majestic glow of a new tomorrow.” The individual words were lofty and poetic, and with Olivier’s magnificent voice, the speech sounded wonderful. It just did not make the least sense. And since Olivier was being broadcast live on television, he could not be edited into a passable semblance of reason.

Television has given the Oscars a worldwide audience and the winners the temptation to say whatever they want on almost any subject. We will hear their political opinions and learn the names of their agents, children and high school English teachers. Some will charm us with their wit, but more will amaze us with their lack of it. Others will mistake us for psychoanalysts and divulge neuroses we didn’t want to know. (Yes, Sally Field, we like you; and please, Gwyneth, stop crying!) Of course, we will wonder why we are watching and make a determined resolution not to look next year. We made the same vow last year.

Enjoy the show. 

Eugene Finerman is a writer, a historian and – you must have noticed – a humorist. He lives in Chicago, Illinois. Visit his Web site: finermanworks.com.

Toastmasters Tips on Awards Speeches

Robert and Rande Gedaliah are professional speakers and longtime Toastmasters. So when they watch the Oscars telecast at home each year with friends – a treasured ritual – they pay particular attention to the award winners’ acceptance speeches. They analyze the content, the length, the body language, the quips, the crying, the thank-yous and other such matters.

The speeches – both the good and the not-so-good – inevitably confirm what the Gedaliahs believe is true of all awards-acceptance speeches: The best ones are short, graceful and come from the heart.

“Let me tell you the approach that I go by,” says Robert, a 20-year Toastmaster and member of the SEC Roughriders club in New York City. “It’s what Franklin D. Roosevelt said: ‘Be sincere, be brief, be seated.’”

“What we’ll all remember is: How did that person feel when they got the award? So be sincere, be brief, say your thank-yous and get out of there.”

Be sure to keep those thank-yous to a minimum, adds Rande, also a member of the SEC Roughriders. Oscar winners who start thanking everyone and their mother’s brother, ticking off one name at a time, put viewers to sleep, she says. “When they thank everybody, they sound like they’re reading their laundry list.”

The Gedaliahs have put their ideas into practice, having received a number of honors over the years. In 1996, the couple, who coach other speakers through their company Speaking for Results, were named co-winners of the Toastmaster of the Year award for Area 42. They delivered their speech in front of a packed auditorium in the New York Times building.

“Using humor is a good idea in acceptance speeches,” suggests Rande. “The acceptance speeches I’ve remembered the most over the years have had humor in them.”

Toastmasters Transforms Forest Whitaker?
One well-known actor who struggled with acceptance speeches was Forest Whitaker.

In the spring of 2007, Whitaker was expected to win a Best Actor Oscar for his performance in the film The Last King of Scotland. He had won two major acting awards for the performance earlier in the season, all leading up to the Academy Award nomination. However, his acceptance speeches at both the Golden Globe awards and the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) event had been disasters – filled with rambling, nonsensical mumbling. The public’s interest had been piqued and several stories appeared in the news about this powerful actor’s inability to deliver an adequate acceptance speech.

That’s when Toastmasters stepped in. The organization issued a news release to the media that was picked up by the newspaper USA Today. The newspaper published a story specifically offering tips from Toastmasters to help Whitaker give a successful Oscars acceptance speech. A copy went to Mr. Whitaker’s agent, as well.

On Oscar night, Forest Whitaker offered the world a dazzling speech. Those who watched could see that he appeared to follow all the tips offered by Toastmasters. He paused before beginning, controlled his filler words, concentrated on his message, kept names to a minimum and performed the entire speech as though it were an Oscar-worthy script that he had written and rehearsed. At the end of the evening, his wife asked reporters, “Wasn’t that a great speech?”

It was indeed an Oscar-winning speech.