We are at peak Award Show hype right now, with the Oscars airing live this Sunday night. Every year, we dissect acceptance speeches to assess the good, the bad, and the ugly—whether the content is political or simply a little cringe-worthy.
Why do we bother?
Recent changes to the speech format at awards shows aim to avoid the interminable list of thank-yous often given by the winners, but it is a mistake to believe speeches and thank-yous offer nothing valuable. In fact, this is why we dissect every word of a winner’s acceptance speech. Hollywood may “worship everything and value nothing,” but yes, spectacle—art —does matter.
The Academy was founded at the suggestion of Louis B. Mayer in 1927; the Oscars have run since 1929. That is no small feat. Though it might be a stretch to say Hollywood has ever “represented” America—Hollywood is a guild, after all—it did grow up alongside America. We value creativity, artistry, individualism, business smarts, and daring. We believe in equality but also meritocracy. We are self-critical but self-aggrandizing, and enthusiastic about exporting our values. Hollywood celebrates and does all of these things, sometimes contradictorily, as a film like the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! brilliantly demonstrates. Like it or not, Hollywood is an ambassador for America in the world.
Consequently, these are arguably some of the most visible acceptance speeches of any kind.
In addition, because the Academy is a guild, members actually have no obligations to the American public to be apolitical. Controversial speeches like those of Marlon Brando, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael Moore, Patricia Arquette, Sean Penn, and others remind us that artists have long held beliefs not shared by the larger public. And even when we disagree with controversial content in an artist’s speech, we can take comfort in the knowledge that, however tedious, at least it’s an example of someone exercising his or her First Amendment rights.
Finally—and this is the key —the best speeches are not overly political or controversial. They humble us, remind us what is truly important, and through celebration, show a sudden vulnerability and profound humanity in a winner whose whole job is artifice. These speeches, when done well, offer master classes in what matters.
So which past Oscar speeches are worth learning from? Here are some suggestions:
Hattie McDaniel for Gone with the Wind. McDaniel was the first African-American to win an Academy Award. Both her speech and the introduction given her by Fay Bainter are political, but more importantly, they are deeply human. If you are not moved by this, watch until you are.
Rex Harrison for My Fair Lady. Audrey Hepburn played Eliza Doolittle in the movie, winning the part from Harrison’s original stage partner, Julie Andrews, which prompted controversy and criticism of Hepburn. Harrison’s speech was an act of reconciliation, and in giving thanks to “two fair ladies,” settled the whole affair. (Andrews ended up winning for Mary Poppins that same night).
Katharine Hepburn and Barbra Streisand tie in 1969, a study in contrasts. Hepburn famously never attended the Oscars. Streisand uttered, “Hello gorgeous!” to her statue, but she clearly could not believe she won an award alongside Hepburn.
Charlie Chaplin’s Honorary Oscar in 1972. This was his first visit to America in 20 years, after being barred from reentry in 1952. He received a twelve-minute standing ovation.
Roberto Benigni for Life is Beautiful (winner of Best Foreign Language Film). The only actor to win the Best Actor award for a foreign language performance, Benigni’s joy over this “hail storm of kindness” — and gratitude for the lessons poverty taught him – are exceptional to behold.
Cuba Gooding, Jr. for Jerry Maguire. No one would stop him, not even the orchestra.
Ben Affleck for Argo. His words about the hard work necessary in marriage are rare and beautiful. He also recognized that his first Oscar, when he was “just a kid,” was a gift. It took time, other people’s selflessness, not holding grudges, and a fighting spirit to have sustainable success.
Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club. In his speech, McConaughey urged viewers to find someone to look up to (for him, this is God, who has shown him “It’s a scientific fact that gratitude reciprocates”), to have something to look forward to (his family), and always to chase a better version of yourself.
Graham Moore for The Imitation Game. Moore could have been exceptionally political. Yet his message was simple, offering hope to “that kid out there who feels weird, or different.” If you are going to go political in your acceptance speech, this is the way to do it, with subtlety and open-heartedness.
One of the best examples of blending gratitude, humility, and recognition of what art offers to a world in turmoil was found in the speech given by Nicole Kidman for The Hours. Why do you come to the Academy Awards when the world is in such turmoil? Because art is important, because you believe in what you do, and you want to honor that, and it is a tradition that needs to be upheld.”
So watch the speeches. It is healthy to be grateful, and to be moved by witnessing the gratitude of others, even if that gratitude is for winning a little gold statue. And if you have trouble feeling gratitude for a celebrity who rails a bit too much about Trump at Sunday night’s Academy Awards, you can at least be grateful that you live in a country with the First Amendment.