Oscars Speech Dos and Don'ts
Time-honored public-speaking tips can fall short when the speaker is accepting an Academy Award before a huge global viewership. Which isn't to say that most Oscar winners wouldn't benefit from coaching. "I wish the nominees would at least prepare," says LeeAundra Temescu, a Los Angeles-based political-speech analyst who also helps celebrities craft non-stultifying awards remarks for $450 an hour. "They've spent days planning their outfits, their hair, but they don't think for a minute about what's going to come out of their mouth."
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As such, bad speeches can haunt an Oscar winner forever, or even temporarily derail a career. Only by nurturing a perverse number of children has Angelina Jolie overcome her creepy declaration of love for her brother, Jamie, while clutching her Girl, Interrupted Oscar in 2000. "An Academy Awards speech is really a global branding opportunity," says TJ Walker, CEO of Media Training Worldwide in New York, who charges corporate execs $7,500 a day to stem their tendency to bore the pants off people. "It's your chance to give a billion people a sense of your authenticity, your humanity," he adds. "You've been given twice as much time as the average TV commercial, something businesses spend millions of dollars and months preparing. Why blow it?"
So for this year's nominees, The Daily Beast has compiled the following list of Oscar Acceptance Speech Dos and Don'ts, suitable for both egomaniacal men and women with a natural flair for sobbing.
Matt Damon and Ben Affleck
Do allow for spontaneity. It's wise to strategize a few endearing anecdotes, but don't memorize a written speech complete with stage directions such as "Gulp for air here." As Walker points out, "People who recite a speech that's been scripted down to the pauses usually sound horrible. They forget to put in conversational contractions like 'can't' and 'don't.' And their sentences go on forever, always a dead giveaway." Here, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, accepting for their Good Will Hunting screenplay in 1998, demonstrate the value of mixing a little preparation with a lot of irrepressibly boyish fist-pumping.
Do be brief. While many feel that Joe Pesci (Best Supporting Actor, 1990's Goodfellas) was too terse—"It's been a privilege. Thank you"—Temescu defines a winning Oscar speech as "short, sincere, and eloquent." This 1954 clip of Audrey Hepburn (Best Actress, Roman Holiday) is a master class in brevity, emphasis ("…thank you to EVERYbody…") and eloquent eyelash fluttering.
Do choke up, ideally while thanking your mother. Molesting Halle Berry was a bit much, but then Adrien Brody (Best Actor, The Pianist) executes a near-perfect voice crack while paying tribute to his mom. "You want emotion," says Walker approvingly, "but you don't want to go overboard. Unhinged can equal 'scary.'" In general, you can't go wrong thanking parents. Heartfelt mom-gratitude, in particular, is guaranteed to make audiences cry, even in tightly wound Tokyo or officially neutral Geneva. A father is more ignorable, unless you can reasonably address him as "Daddy," and you need only thank spouses, says Temescu, "if they're famous."
Do demonstrate—or simulate—humility. "You want to project the best parts of your true self," says Jason DeSanto, a senior lecturer at Northwestern University who's written speeches for members of Congress. "It's important to be both gracious and humble. And if that's not who you are, be fake." Russell Crowe (Best Actor, Gladiator) overcame both an embarrassingly wispy tie and a reputation for being a jerk with this eloquent 2001 meditation on unlikely childhood dreams. Key line: "For anyone who's on the downside of advantage and relying purely on courage, it's possible." Key bit of body language: The Michelangelo-esque head lift on the word "possible."
Do be funny. Though every expert mentions this guideline, they admit it's a stupid tip, because you're either funny or you're not. If the Academy hadn't pursued its unofficial policy of stiffing comedies and had honored Bill Murray's work in 2003's Lost in Translation, his acceptance speech might have been as witty as the one he delivered at the Independent Spirit Awards. "Given the Academy's prejudice against comedies," says Temescu, "the chance of funny people getting up there is not so great." Which leaves us with this trite, but still instructive clip of Jack Palance and his one-armed push-ups.
A word about props: Though often hilarious in the context of a rowdy bachelorette party speech, props are discouraged at the Oscars. That said, Temescu points out that you could bring pretty much anything onstage if you claim your children gave it to you as a "good luck charm."
Don't thank your lawyers. The worst mistake is thanking an endless list of names. Winners have thanked everyone from their makeup person to "the Maharishi." Sarah Jessica Parker, accepting an Emmy, once expressed gratitude to "passers-by who always wanted the best for me," which may be one reason she's never been nominated for an Oscar. Temescu admits that she often has to negotiate her star clients back to a "reasonable number of thank-yous."
Critics are split on this blubbering, bombastic 2002 speech Halle Berry delivered as the first African-American to win Best Actress ( Monster's Ball). Some, like Walker, find it genuinely moving: "She allowed herself to be overwhelmed," he says, "then scaled it back and gave it structure." Even he agrees, however, that Berry should have stopped after her 14th shout-out—to her lawyers—provoked amused laughter. Instead, she scolds the audience and humorlessly sobs on.
To Berry's credit, she enthusiastically mocked her own speech the next year when winning a Worst Actress award for Catwoman at the Golden Razzies ("Thank you so much, I never in my life thought I would be up here!").
Marlon Brando/Sasheen Littlefeather
Don't politicize your speech. Unless you're George Clooney and can be charmingly preachy, says Temescu, it's risky to use your 60 seconds to agitate for a cause—as demonstrated in this classic 1973 clip of alleged Apache Indian "Sacheen Littlefeather" refusing the Oscar on behalf of Marlon Brando (Best Actor, The Godfather). Ms. Littlefeather, later revealed to be one Maria Cruz, a not particularly indigenous actress and Miss American Vampire of 1970, nonsensically explains that Brando's acting cannot possibly be lauded because American Indians are being mistreated. Even she couldn't be bothered to read his full 739-word tirade which includes the sentence, "Why is this woman standing up here, ruining our evening, invading our lives...?"
It is fitting to recall legendary screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky's response to Vanessa Redgrave's 1978 unfestive rant against "Zionist hoodlums": "I would like to suggest to Miss Redgrave that her winning an Academy Award is not a pivotal moment in history, does not require a proclamation, and a simple 'thank you' would have sufficed."
Don't attempt ornate metaphors involving the Almighty. Simple chatty language works best. This 1994 acceptance by Tom Hanks (Best Actor, Philadelphia), which The Independent called one of the three worst of all time, starts out OK—nicely tremulous, adequately wry—but eventually devolves into incoherent speechifying. At one point, Hanks insists tautologically that the embrace of the creator allows angels to see the truth that is made manifest by the creator. He also suggests that the "streets of heaven are too crowded" with such angels, which appears to be a swipe at God's urban-planning skills.
Hanks' efforts are no match, however, for the loony, pseudo-Shakespearean grandiloquence of Sir Laurence Olivier (Lifetime Achievement, 1979). Though his reference to "the euphoria that happens to so many of us at the first breath of the majestic glow of a new tomorrow" reduced Jon Voight to stunned awe, Olivier himself crisply dismissed the speech the next day as "utterly meaningless."
Don't refer to the distinguished conductor as "stick man." "You never want to appear arrogant, presumptuous, or entitled," says Temecsu. In 2001, a recklessly sassy Julia Roberts (Best Actress, Erin Brockovich) managed to be all three. She spends a good part of the time threatening the orchestra's conductor in cocky, lilting Dr. Seuss-like phrases. "Sir…you're so quick with that stick, but why don't you sit, because I may never be here again." She later derides him as "Stick Man," then hoots crazily to cover her near-descent into outright bitchery. While not nearly as obnoxious as James Cameron's "I'm the King of the World" speech for 1997's Best Picture Titanic, Roberts reveals a disturbingly healthy ego.
Don't walk on the furniture. No one is quite sure what possessed Roberto Benigni (Best Actor, 1997's Life Is Beautiful) to do any of this: the clambering, the hopping, the wild determination to "make love to everyone." At one point, even committed Roberto admirer Sophia Loren looks concerned. "Boy, oh boy, it was kind of charming when it happened," says Temuscu, "but it's almost unwatchable now." As is Roberto Benigni, who has graciously faded into obscurity.
Xtra Insight: A Look Back at Last Year's Oscars
Dale Hrabi has analyzed culture and trends as a writer and editor for Details, Elle, Radar, and The New York Times. His new humor book, The Perfect Baby Handbook: A Guide for Excessively Motivated Parents (Harper Collins), will be published this March.
NOTE: This article originally stated the Academy Awards are watched by a billion viewers. As this article points out, viewership is actually "several hundred million." It also incorrectly referred to Adrien Brody's role in "The Piano" (the correct title is "The Pianist") and James Cameron's speech for 2000's "Titanic" (the film was released in 1997).