On the eve of the 92nd Academy Awards begins, a mixture of trepidation and excitement is rife among avid Oscar-watchers over what is quite possibly the ceremony’s most consistent source of entertainment: the acceptance speeches. Here, George Nash muses over what makes a great one…
The shocks. The snubs. The nauseating self-importance. With so much to dislike about Oscar night, one thing that keeps us coming back time and again (and for us Brits, that means wolfing down gallons of the strongest caffeine and forfeiting every ounce of productivity in the office the following day) is the speeches. Verbal displays of happiness and gratitude, especially by those whose job it is to be both creative and expressive, should be a walk in the proverbial park, right? Yet, almost every year, at least one person gets it very wrong. Hilariously wrong. Spectacularly wrong.
Whether it’s a seemingly endless list of thank yous, ensuring no one — not a partner, a producer, a neighbour’s brother’s milkman’s dog — goes un-thanked, an emotional overload that makes pretty much anything that leaves the mouth inaudible (see 1999 Gwyneth Paltrow), or a series of statements that, in conjunction, make about as much sense as Best Popular Movie category — try Robert Benigni’s “I would like to be Jupiter and kidnap everybody and lie down in the firmament making love to everybody” on for size — it’s often the acceptance speech that overshadows the award.
But, where so many have failed, how did the likes of Olivia Colman, Charlie Chaplin and Frances McDormand manage to get it so wonderfully right? How is it that some know exactly the correct blend of heart, humour, humility and political punches to hurl our way, while others misjudge the measurements in a moment of deliriously catastrophic mayhem?
If you’ve ever wondered what makes a great Oscar acceptance speech (which, let’s be honest, you probably haven’t), then wonder no more. Here is, objectively, a breakdown of what makes a memorable awards speech — memorable for all the right reasons…
Brevity is your best friend
Having had years digitally whacked off him as an intimidating gangster in Martin Scorsese’s melancholic, 4-day-long mobster epic The Irishman, here’s hoping that Joe Pesci’s acceptance speech, should he nab the Best Supporting Actor gong on Sunday, gets a similar de-ageing treatment. Specifically, back to 1991 and the year the veteran actor won his first Oscar in the same category (coincidentally, pipping Al Pacino to the post, who’s also nominated this year) for playing another intimidating gangster in another lengthy Scorsese mobster epic.
Aside from being a refreshing inversion of the normal acceptance spiel, his speech, which lasted all of 8-seconds and consisted of no more than six words — “It was my privilege, thank you” — simultaneously confirmed two very important facts. 1) It was concrete evidence that Pesci cannot, in fact, go more than a single sentence without cursing (the seventh word of his speech will have undoubtedly been a variant, or series of variants, of the f-word). And 2) brevity is always better.
Compare this to the longest speech in Academy Award history — 6 whole actual minutes, delivered by Greer Garson after her Best Actress win in 1942 — which, as a reference point, is nearly five times the amount of screen time Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose got in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, and it’s easy to see that a great speech is most certainly a brief one.
So to all you prospective Oscar winners out there, in short, keep things short. I mean, just think of all the other things you can do in six minutes…
Thanks, but no(t too many) thanks
Chances are, if, after climbing the notoriously difficult-to-navigate stairs towards the Academy stage to collect your award, you find yourself struggling to think of (more) people to thank, then, let’s face it, you probably don’t need to.
Being thankful is all well and good, but going hell for leather on the humility very quickly leads to the one place only the most daring (and probably most drunk) of Oscar winners dare to tread: speech purgatory.
And it’s certainly not a place you want to find yourself in in a rush, especially when a hefty chunk of the world’s eyes and ears are tuned into your every syllable and expression. Ensnared in an endless spiral of increasingly arbitrary gratitude is an easy trap to fall into, but one that only a finite number of people have ever escaped from unscathed. Spare a thought, for instance, for Gwyneth Paltrow who, at the Oscars in 1999, made it her primary goal to thank absolutely every single person in existence in a tearful speech that seemed to last longer than Shakespeare in Love, the film she won the award for.
Ideally, the thanks would be reserved for only the most deserving. But it’s conceivable that if you suddenly feel the unrelenting urge to thrust heartfelt gratitude the way of your dentist for playing such a pivotal role in you winning the Oscar for Best Sound Mixing, it seems only logical that you should extend that thanks to the packet of Rowntree’s Randoms that gave you the filling that put you there in the first place. And, in turn, express the unquantifiable debt you now owe to the Tesco self-scanner you zapped it through.
Use your platform
Over the course of its 92-year history, people at the Oscars have talked. A lot.
There are those who use it to talk about how important they are. There are others who use it to tell amusing anecdotes or give GIF-worthy facial expressions. There are those who refuse to talk at all (aka Marlon Brando in 1973). And then there are those who remind everyone of the important issues facing the world today. It’s basically like every WhatsApp group chat ever, in all honesty.
But using a speech to take a socio-political stance has been a favourite pastime of Academy Award recipients ever since its inception. And it absolutely makes sense. You (quite literally) have a platform upon which to speak, you have millions hanging on your every word, and you can even blow a raspberry in the general direction of the ceremony bigwigs and everyone will immediately love you for it.
Such is the nature of these troubling times we find ourselves in, actors and other industry folk are becoming considerably less diplomatic in the opinions they share and far less subtle in voicing the changes they wish to see.
And while a culture of speaking out is very much one we all want to help cultivate, it remains a rather strange thing, truth be told, to receive an award from the academy by telling everyone how awful they are. That’s like getting a pay rise at work and thanking your boss by immediately urinating in their coffee.
And finally, for the love of God, keep it portrait…
Those who watch the ceremony in eager anticipation of a monumental cock-up akin to the Moonlight/La La Land debacle of 2017 will have most certainly found gleeful solace in last year’s elephant in the room. No, not the crippling lack of diversity among the Academy ranks (again), or even the baffling decision to crown Green Book the Best Picture of the year. But the Vice Makeup & Hairstyling folks completely mascara-ing (sigh) their acceptance speech.
It was the dictionary definition of awkwardness, brimming with uncomfortable interruptions, wince-inducing pauses and textbook clumsiness. Between the three winners — Greg Cannom, Kate Biscoe and Patricia Dehaney — there were whispers, uncertain nods to one another, and strained movements towards the microphone, mainly by the considerably shorter Dehaney, to make sure their piece was said. But the biggest crime of all wasn’t so much in the delivery as much as it was quite clearly in the preparation (or lack thereof).
In what can only be put down as a moment of sheer panic, the trio appeared to have scribbled their entire speech, or at least sections of it, on a sheet of A4, which is no cause for concern in and of itself, but written landscape.
Any rational human with even a few seconds of time to think logically would realise landscape is a risky route to go down. As Stuart Heritage, writing for The Guardian, astutely observes, “the only people in history ever to use A4 landscape are kidnappers writing ransom notes“. Turning things on their side seems a very strange decision indeed, and stands out as a cautionary tale for all Oscar hopefuls of the future that keeping things portrait is most certainly the way to go.
Of course, it’s very easy for me sit here in the comfort and security of my IKEA swivel chair holding my “You’re a Mug” mug and pass judgement on people who aren’t natural performers getting up on that stage and speaking in front of the hundreds in attendance, not to mention the millions watching at home. But still, landscape. LANDSCAPE!
George Nash is a freelance film journalist. Follow him on Twitter via @_Whatsthemotive for movie musings, puns and cereal chatter.