You’re never going to win an Oscar. But whether you’re conscious of it or not, you’ve probably already given an Oscar speech.
They may be the most secretly influential forms of American rhetoric. The rhythms and tropes of wealthy filmmakers accepting career-peak trophies echo in every weepy retirement speech, every smug valedictorian address, every comic icebreaker the CEO uses to kick off his PowerPoint presentation. Movie stars show us how to kiss, how to dress. Of course we learn public discourse from them, too.
“You know what you want to say, you want to be grounded, be yourself, be totally honest about how you’re feeling,” says Roger Ross Williams, recalling his 2010 Oscar moment. Not ringing a bell? More on him later, as we recall nine landmark Oscar speeches and their legacies.
Greer Garson: Her acceptance of the 1942 Best Actress prize (for “Mrs. Miniver”) is legendary as the longest in show history — an estimated seven minutes — but it also set the pace for gassy self-regard. The British star pontificated on the meaning of awards, her journey to the U.S., the marvelous support Hollywood was getting from the troops. Legacies: Time limits. Self-mythologizing stars (Halle Berry: “this moment is so much bigger than me”; Hilary Swank: “just a little girl from a trailer park with a dream”). RNC speeches that barely mention the nominee. The worst banquets you’ve ever attended.
Ed Begley: The veteran character actor, winning the 1962 Best Supporting Actor for “Sweet Bird of Youth,” thanked his producer, his director…“but most of all, and this is from the heart, my agent, George Morris.” The room was shocked. This was a first! “Really and truly!” the actor protested, explaining that Morris worked overtime to get him the role. Legacies: Thanking your agent, your publicist, your hairdresser. Taking your bifocals and a folded list onstage with you. (“Titanic” producer Jon Landau name-checked 55 people.) Four-page author acknowledgements. Watch the speech.
Marlon Brando: The eccentric “Godfather” star skipped the 1973 ceremony and sent “Sacheen Littlefeather” (actress-activist Marie Cruz) to refuse his Best Actor prize — in protest, she said, of “the treatment of American Indians” by Hollywood and the government. A political statement? Whatever. It was really the birth of Punk’d culture. Legacies: Five-second delays. Howard Stern fans crank-calling live news broadcasts. Sacha Baron Cohen’s career. Kanye West interrupting Taylor Swift.
Louise Fletcher: The Best Actress winner for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975) kept it short, gracious and barely memorable — until she completed her speech in sign language to thank her deaf parents “for teaching me to have a dream. You are seeing my dream come true.” Nothing like a good awards-show cry. Legacies: Cambodian refugee Haing S. Ngor’s win (“this is unbelievable, but so is my entire life”). Timothy Hutton’s shout-out to his late dad Jim Hutton. Ving Rhames regifting his Golden Globe to his hero Jack Lemmon. The very best rehearsal-dinner toasts.
Vanessa Redgrave: What was more shocking: When the Palestine advocate and Best Supporting Actress of 1977 (“Julia”) thanked the academy for standing up to “Zionist hoodlums” who opposed her? Or the hisses from the audience and subsequent scolding from presenter Paddy Chayefsky? Legacies: Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins and Richard Gere getting in trouble for mouthing off about politics at the podium. Michael Moore calling out the president (“we are against this war, Mr. Bush!”) and getting booed. Rep. Joe Wilson’s State of the Union heckle (“you lie!”). Cable news warfare in general.
Meryl Streep: Everyone knew she would win Best Supporting Actress for 1979’s “Kramer Vs. Kramer,” but she politely acted surprised: “Holy mackerel!” Cute, unconvincing and soon the new standard. Legacies: All of Kate Winslet’s faux-shocked acceptance speeches. Kooky, self-deprecating opening lines. (Admiral James Stockdale, vice-presidential debate of 1992: “Who am I? Why am I here?”) Later and better Streep speeches, eventually honed to a fine art.
Sally Field: What she actually said, accepting the 1984 Best Actress prize: “And I can’t deny the fact that you like me. Right now, you like me!” What it meant: A subtle reference to a line from her 1979 movie “Norma Rae.” What it turned into: The single most quoted, imitated, joked-about moment from the Oscars, ever. Legacies: Director James Cameron’s “Titanic” acceptance (“I’m king of the world!”). Meme culture. The pressure to make a funny joke on Twitter about what just happened on TV.
Jack Palance: Exulting in his 1991 Best Supporting Actor trophy (“City Slickers”), the 73-year-old dropped to the floor and did three one-armed push-ups. Legacies: Roberto Benigni climbing over the seats to accept his Best Actor prize. Adrian Brody soul-kissing Halle Berry to accept his. Obnoxious end-zone dances.
Roger Ross Williams: Remember? He’s the 2009 Best Documentary Short director whose carefully planned speech was cut short when estranged producer Elinor Burkett rushed the stage. “Everyone was talking about it the next day,” he marvels. Legacies: A “Larry King” guest spot, a “Simpsons” parody, a “Letterman” skit, a coveted Sundance spot for “God Loves Uganda,” his new full-length documentary. Williams laughs about it now: “That attention helped my career in a big way.”