AN uncle gave me some sage advice years ago as I perused my one and only Best Man’s speech. “A decent speech should ideally be like a woman’s skirt,” he advised. “Long enough to cover the subject matter, but short enough to hold the attention.”
Wise words that served me well. Pity someone doesn’t emblazon this message on the base of every Oscar statuette. Yet, for all the histrionics and tears the Academy Awards have given us down through the years, the chance to see global stars make bumbling fools of themselves is surely one of the reasons a billion of us tune in to this Hollywood extravaganza every February.
Very close to the top of everybody’s list of how not to say thank you is Sally Field’s infamous acceptance speech for Places In The Heart. “You like me! Right now, you like me!”, she wailed, like a deranged banshee, as millions of buttocks around the world cringed at the spectacle. “I’ve wanted more than anything to have your respect, and I can’t deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me!” Cue the janitor with an extra large mop. Not to be outdone in tears of trembling, Gwyneth Paltrow turned on a tidal wave of waterworks in 1999 for Shakespeare In Love. “I would not have been able to play this role had I not understood love with a tremendous magnitude,” she blubbed, before taking us on a needless tour of her family tree. But just as we thought nobody could better Gwynnie’s bleating, along comes Halle Berry to collect the Oscar for Monster’s Ball in 2001: “This moment is so much bigger than me. It’s for every nameless, faceless woman of colour that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened” — and went downhill from there in a meandering half-political cringefest that made the rest of us cry for all the wrong reasons.
The ability to make millions of viewers reach for a sick bag is not just the preserve of the ladies, however — men have proven themselves to be just as ridiculous on the podium. When the epic Titanic swept the boards at the 1997 awards, the director James Cameron was last up to receive his own gong. He started off fine, ticking all the right boxes, properly gracious, and then dropped off a cliff with those lines that will forever haunt him: “I don’t know about you, but I’m having a really great time. Mom, Dad, there’s no way that I can express to you what I’m feeling right now, my heart is full to bursting. Except to say, I’m the king of the world!”
A little decorum, Jimmy, please. When Laurence Olivier accepted an honorary Academy Award in 1979, he treated us to a lesson in overkill few other actors could contemplate, never mind deliver. “My very noble and approved good masters, my colleagues, my friends, my fellow students,” he began. “In the great firmament of your nation’s generosities, this particular choice may perhaps found by future generations as a trifle eccentric, but the mere fact of it, the prodigal, pure humankindness of it, must be seen as a beautiful star in that firmament which shines upon me in this moment, dazzling me a little but filling me with warmth and the extraordinary elation — the euphoria — that happens to so many of us as the first breath of the majestic glow of a new tomorrow.” Speechless, we were.
Olivier could have learned a thing or two about poise and elegance from his wife Vivien Leigh, as she accepted an Oscar for her indelible Scarlett O’Hara for 1939’s Gone With The Wind. “Please forgive me if my words are inadequate in thanking you for your very great kindness, if I were to mention all those who showed me such wonderful generosity through Gone With The Wind, I should have to entertain you with an oration as long as the book itself.” Elegant and articulate, and all under a minute. Kevin Spacey must have studied Leigh for his acceptance speech for American Beauty in 2000:
“This is the highlight of my day,” he smiled, short and simple. Another believer in the old adage that brevity is the soul of wit, Joe Pesci’s speech for 1991’s Goodfellas was a miracle in minature: “It’s my privilege, thank you,” he said, and was gone before the applause even began. Timing the length of speeches has always been a problem at the Academy Awards, dating back to 1942 when Greer Garson won for Mrs Miniver. “I’m practically unprepared!” she gushed on taking the stage, and then rambled off on an endless journey through the back catalogue of her career. Little wonder the time limit was instituted the following year.
The people stars remember to thank often gives us an interesting glimpse of their personalities. Witness Cher’s 1987 acceptance for Moonstruck: “I’d like to thank everyone I worked with. My make-up man, who had a lot to work with. My hairdresser. My assistant...” — my manicurist, my tarot reader, okay, yeah, we get the message. Some folks get so emotional about winning an Oscar, the hi-jinks begin before they even get near the podium. Who could deny Italian actor and director Roberto Benigni’s win for 1997’s harrowing Holocaust drama, Life Is Beautiful? But when he clowned about jumping on the backs of chairs and high-fiving invisible hands, it did seem a bit out of place for a film about the extermination of six million human beings. Another one who lost the plot was Adrien Brody when he took the prize in 2003 for another Holocaust film, The Pianist. Instead of the sober gratitude demanded by the subject matter, he instead planted a massive smacker on unsuspecting presenter Halle Berry — who clearly wasn’t looking for that kind of face time.
ULTIMATE ONEUPMANSHIP: It was well known in Hollywood that Joan Crawford and Bette Davis hated the sight of each other. In the one film they starred together in, 1962’s Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, Davis got an Oscar nomination. A week before the ceremony, however, Crawford contacted the other nominees and offered her assistance if they were unable to attend. One of them was Anne Bancroft, who won the Oscar for The Miracle Worker. Crawford marched on stage to accept in her place, throwing a wicked sneer at her arch rival.
AUSTEN APPROVAL: When Emma Thompson (above) won for Sense and Sensibility in 1995, she had some choice words for her inspiration: “Before I came here, I went to visit Jane Austen’s grave in Winchester Cathedral, to pay my respects, you know, and to tell her about the grosses. I do hope she knows how big she is in Uruguay.”
SIMPLE & PROFOUND: When Holocaust survivor Gerda Weissmann Klein (above with director Kary Antholis) won for 1996’s One Survivor Remembers, she made the world stop and think: “I was in a place for six years where winning meant a crust of bread and to live another day. Since the blessed day of my liberation I have asked the question, ‘Why am I here? I am no better.’ In my mind’s eye I see those years and those who never lived to see the magic of a boring evening at home.”