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Winners, at No Loss for Words

If the Oscar Show Seems Too Long, Thank the Thankers

By Jen Chaney
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 20, 2005; Page N04

The always-astute Alfred Hitchcock took a minimalist's approach to his Academy Award acceptance speech. Upon receiving the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award for lifetime achievement in 1968, the legendary director stood in front of Hollywood's royalty and uttered, simply: "Thank you."

These days, as Oscar-watchers know, few winners follow Hitchcock's pithy path. At the pinnacle of an actor or filmmaker's career, when the words they speak could permanently alter their reputation with the moviegoing masses, the majority take the rhetorical road most traveled: They dissolve into tears -- see Halle Berry in 2002. They exhibit arrogance of "Titanic" proportions -- see James "I'm king of the world!" Cameron in 1998. Or they thank all the obscure agents, publicists and studio reps with whom they've ever worked -- see . . . just about everyone lately.

A man of few words: Alfred Hitchcock accepts his Oscar from Robert Wise in 1968. (AP)

In a town where image is everything, do not Hollywood stars carefully consider how they appear in that pivotal moment after the opened envelope transforms them from nominee to winner? As history has shown, one inarticulate moment in the Academy Awards spotlight can translate into decades as the butt of bad jokes. Just ask Sally Field.

"It's very tricky and in a lot of ways, there's more of a downside than an upside when you're standing up there," says Steve Pond, author of "The Big Show: High Times and Dirty Dealings at the Academy Awards," and who has covered the Oscars for Premiere magazine since 1994. "There are a lot of ways to give a bad Oscar speech, but there probably aren't that many ways to give a great one people will remember."

"Unfortunately, I've seen [speeches] affect an image negatively far more times than positively, but that's because actors are not known for their scholarly ability or their intellect," says Rob Frankel, a Los Angeles-based image branding expert whose clients include celebrities (although, naturally, he won't name names). "At the end of the day, actors make a living pretending to be other people. . . . Without a script in front of them, they're lost."

Awards show watchers may assume that most nominees speak extemporaneously. That's typically not the case.

"The smart ones do" prepare, says Gil Cates, who is producing the Academy Awards telecast this year for the 12th time. "I think most people have an idea of what they're going to say. They may deny it, but I think they do."

But too much preparation can come off as arrogance, Pond says. "If you have a speech that's carefully prepared and vetted by a publicist, that seems to say you're expecting to win, and that's not good form."

Many observers, including Cates, insist it's also not good form to thank too many people, an Oscar trend that has spread like an appreciation fungus in recent years.

"When many actors were under contract with the studios, the studios had great impact on what they said and they told them to be short," Cates says. "So, many of them just stood up and said thank you. . . . When more of them started their own production companies, I think they perhaps took the thank-yous more seriously."

Cates has again asked this year's winners to limit their remarks to 45 seconds and suggested they post lengthier remarks -- in which they can thank as many personal trainers and makeup artists as they want -- at Oscar.com.

"The biggest impact I can have on the acceptance speeches is to kind of guilt someone into being aware that they're slowing down the show if they thank too many people," Cates says.

Of course all that appreciativeness may exist because certain someones expect to hear their names mentioned. While Pond admits that some omissions -- like Roger Avary's failure to thank Quentin Tarantino when the two won Best Original Screenplay for "Pulp Fiction" -- widen existing rifts, Frankel says the consequences can be more dire.

"You can bet your [expletive] that if you miss thanking somebody who was instrumental in your career, they're going to let you know about it," Frankel says. "Let me tell you how petty this gets. There is unofficial scorekeeping between the agents and publicists and studio heads to see who got thanked the most during the evening. So if you screw up and don't mention the guy who did the deal, he may not do the deal next time."

Still, careers are rarely ruined because of an off-putting or over-the-top speech. Michael Moore's "Shame on you, Mr. Bush" tirade, perhaps the most controversial Oscar moment in recent history, didn't squash his prospects, nor did Cuba Gooding Jr.'s effusive screams of "I love you, I love you, I love you!" after winning Best Supporting Actor in 1997. (Of course there was also Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, whom Cates briefly vowed never to book again after they spoke about Haitian refugees while presenting an Oscar in 1993. The ban didn't last long: They returned to the ceremony in 1995.) Nevertheless, Frankel insists that more careful consideration of how one wants to be perceived -- an actor's consciousness of his brand -- might produce more thoughtful speechmaking.

So who has done it right?

Cates gives classy speech credit to Tom Hanks, among others. After winning Best Actor for "Philadelphia," Hanks poignantly acknowledged his gay high school drama teacher and unwittingly inspired a major plot point in the 1997 Kevin Kline comedy "In & Out."

"The streets of Heaven are too crowded with angels," Hanks said during his speech, a tribute to those, like the character he played, who had lost their lives to AIDS.

But at the end of the day, Cates says, the British have the best track record.

"I don't know whether it's something they learn in their public school system or what, but they are really taught how to frame a sentence," he says. "I love it when an English actor wins because their speeches are so classy and precise."

Attention, four-time nominee Kate Winslet: If you finally get an Oscar this year, the man you hear cheering the loudest could be Gil Cates.

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