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The best Oscar speech vs. worst Oscar speech debate has the potential to bring up some of the most contentious differences of opinion in all of film commentary. Where one observer derides a mawkish spectacle of lurid enthusiasm, another witness applauds an inspiring display of passionate commitment. There’s no bringing these conflicting points of view into alignment. One side argues that a particular Oscar winner’s acceptance speech is so awful it’s great. The other side insists that the same Oscar winner’s speech is so great it’s awful.
But common ground does exist. All discerning viewers agree that an over-the-top emotional melee of joy, pride, exultation and gushing gratitude, preferably punctuated by either wrenching sobs or stunning machismo, will be remembered. Here are 10 Academy Award honorees who have let the world know that the Oscar winners’ podium is a place where moderation is not a virtue.
Sally Field, 1985: “You Misquote Me. You Really Misquote Me.”
Sally Field strode to the stage at the 57th Academy Awards ceremony in 1985, walking like a woman on air. She accepted her best actress Oscar from presenter Robert Duvall for Places in the Heart. Field took a moment to compose herself, opened her mouth to speak, and became defined for years by seven little words she never really said.
Fields had ample cause for being overwhelmed. Her career arc had catapulted TV’s down-to-earth teen Gidget and lighter-than-air The Flying Nun into the ranks of two-time best actress Oscar winners. (Her first was for 1979’s Norma Rae.) She had just been chosen by a jury of her peers above acclaimed and accomplished artists Judy Davis, Jessica Lange, Vanessa Redgrave and Sissy Spacek to receive her profession’s highest honor.
She thanked her director, Robert Benton. She expressed her debt of gratitude to the full movie cast. She acknowledged the support and love of her family. Finally, she thanked the Academy itself and was tagged with her unshakable catchphrase.
“Thank you to you,” said Field, addressing the jury of her peers. “I haven’t had an orthodox career. And I’ve wanted more than anything to have your respect. The first time, I didn’t feel it, but this time I feel it, and I can’t deny the fact that you like me. Right now. You like me.”
Seven words Sally Field didn’t say? “You like me. You really like me.”
Jack Palance, 1992: Age Before Modesty
When Whoopi Goldberg called Jack Palance‘s name at the 64th Academy Awards as winner for best supporting actor for his turn as Curly in City Slickers, the film’s producers, director and co-stars may have been hoping for a name check during the veteran actor’s acceptance remarks. That hope quickly turned to dread.
“Billy Crystal,” growled Palance, naming the film’s lead slicker, “I crap bigger than him.”
That line alone would have earned Palance recurring entry in the annals of over-the-top public speaking, but the man was only warming up.
Palance’s square-jawed aplomb — visible way back in 1963 in his role as Hollywood producer Jeremy Prokosch in Jean-Luc Goddard‘s Contempt — never wavered as he forthrightly addressed ageism among the industry’s producers, the sexual stamina of senior citizens, the financial liabilities of romance with another human being, and the prescience of a movie producer who had predicted 42 years earlier that young Jack Palance would win the Academy Award.
Through senior’s lapse or elder’s privilege, Oscar’s best supporting winner neglected to acknowledge a single one of his City Slickers collaborators, aside from that “crap bigger” nod to Crystal. The then-septuagenarian put those thank-you moments to better use by dropping to the stage and ripping through a set of one-armed pushups, a bigger-than-life physical boast that has lived on far longer than any meticulous list of gratitudes.
Roberto Benigni, 1998: A Fine Unbalance
Histrionics are a norm in any list of off-the-charts Oscar victory laps, but Italian filmmaker Roberto Benigni‘s inclusion of acrobatics in his celebratory spin at the 70th Academy Awards ceremony remains as singular a feat in 2015 as it was on that beautiful March evening in 1998 when Life Is Beautiful was named best foreign-language film.
Living-legend presenter Sophia Loren opened the envelope containing the title of Benigni’s film, waved the paper like a winning lottery ticket, shouted a preemptive “Roberto!” toward the back rows of the hall, and raised both arms with a high-pitched cry of triumph.
The moment had already exceeded standard celebratory flair. That’s when Benigni sprang into action: He kicked his legs in the air, popped up from his aisle seat, took a big step onto the seatbacks in front of him, rose to his full height and balanced himself at that elevation. He raised his arms to the heavens and did a turn to salute the entire auditorium. He sprinted down the aisle, bunny-hopped up the stage steps, and twirled Loren in a two-armed embrace of shared national pride.
The cameras of history show that Goldie Hawn was crying before Benigni had even managed to form a coherent utterance. “This is a moment of joy,” he gushed. “And I want to kiss everybody because you are the makers of the joy! And he who kisses the joy as it flies lives in eternity’s sunrise!” Benigni rattled off a manic stream of poetic gratitude: “I feel like now really to dive in this ocean of generosity.” … “It’s a hailstorm of kindness.” … “Love is a divinity.” … “Love will move the sun and the other stars.”
This outpouring was the polar opposite of staid reserve, and it gave a clear view into the soul of an artist who succeeded in wresting pathos and even beauty out of existence in a Nazi war camp.
See more over-the-top speeches on the next page.
James Cameron, 1998: One Little Royal Overstatement
Having produced, written and directed 1997’s box-office juggernaut Titanic, James Cameron must have been feeling a certain satisfaction of accomplishment while sitting in the audience of the 70th Academy Awards ceremony, confidently waiting as Warren Beatty extended the drama before announcing the Academy’s honoree for best director.
The faces of Cameron’s fellow nominees Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter), Peter Cattaneo (The Full Monty), Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting) and Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential) reveal excitement, longing, apprehension. Cameron appears sure and controlled. Beatty announces the winner’s name, and Cameron rolls his chin in agreement.
Once the winner reached the podium and began his talk, the losing directors were treated to a display of downplayed pride. Cameron thoughtfully thanked his “killer” Titanic cast, naming name after name, adding, “You guys gave me pure gold every day, and I share this gold with you.”
In wrapping up, the Titanic captain thanked “my original producers, my parents who are here tonight. Mom, Dad, there’s no way that I can express to you what I’m feeling right now. My heart is full to bursting.”
Cameron could have dropped the microphone at that and walked off a prince among winners.
“Except,” the director said, his inflection and volume rising, “to say, ‘I’m the king of the world!’ ”
Cameron punctuated his self-coronation with pumping fist and a series of doglike yelps, transforming from golden to gloating in the course of a single sentence.
Gwyneth Paltrow, 1999: Got Goop?
Gwyneth Paltrow has given the filmgoing public many reasons to like her: On the critic’s side, performances in The Royal Tenenbaums and Sylvia. On the populist side, her amusing turns in the all of the Iron Man films.
Still, the haters go back to one night in 1999, more than a decade and a half behind us, a single evening when Paltrow’s emotions seemingly overcame her better discretion and sabotaged her composure. Unfortunately for Gwyneth, that lapse fell on the night of the 71st Academy Awards as she stood onstage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, in front of the entire world, after winning best actress.
The prize was earned by the then-26-year-old’s work in the John Madden-directed dramatic comedy romance Shakespeare in Love, a performance that has become overshadowed in cynical circles by the three-minute emotional highlight reel Paltrow delivered in accepting her Oscar. For some viewers, Paltrow’s acceptance speech will be difficult to watch. The raw sobbing and anguished retching are painful to experience, even vicariously. But buck up, haters. Reliving this moment in over-the-top Academy history is surely more painful for Gwyneth Paltrow than it is for anyone else.
Angelina Jolie, 2000: Dear Brother, Interrupted
The furor over Angelina Jolie‘s appearance and comments at the 72nd Academy Awards, where she was accorded the best supporting actress trophy for her galvanizing realization of Lisa in Girl, Interrupted, is a story of judgment past.
This site of this judgment can be traced back to the Shrine Auditorium just south of downtown Los Angeles on the night of March 26, 2000. The judgment applied itself to Angelina Jolie approximately one minute after the world learned via the announcement by James Coburn that Jolie had become the world’s most recent Academy Award winner. When Coburn announces her name, Jolie hugs her brother, James Haven, who is seated beside her, and strides to the stage. She looks a little different than the basic extremely glamorous and accomplished celebrity. Her Goth-black hair cascades below her waist and is trained back from a broad, high forehead. Her scoop-neck dress is long-sleeve and monochrome — also black.
The year’s best supporting actress hugs Coburn, clasps her award in two hands, and talks: “God, I’m surprised nobody’s ever fainted up here. I’m in shock. And I’m so in love with my brother right now. He just held me and said he loved me, and I know he’s so happy for me. Thank you for that.”
The daughter of actress Marcheline Bertrand and Academy Award winner Jon Voight goes on to thank Columbia, the studio behind Girl, Interrupted, lead actress Winona Ryder, all the other actresses in the film, as is customary. She wraps up by expressing gratitude to her family, finishing with a follow-up salute to her brother, “Jamie, I have nothing without you. You are the strongest, most amazing man I’ve ever known.”
The camera cuts to James Haven, overcome by emotion.
“And I love you and thank you so much,” says Jolie.
The next day, and for years to follow, the takeaway from Jolie’s Oscar triumph was that she and her brother were weirdos. Anyone who still ends this story in judgment should try to work that out.
Adrien Brody, 2003: A Kiss Too Far
Even before Adrien Brody opened his mouth to speak while accepting the best actor award at the 75th Academy Awards, he opened his mouth to deep-dish kiss presenter Halle Berry. According to many standards of acceptable decorum, he’d already gone too far.
A few seconds after the kiss’s duration had violated the threshold of awkward, Brody unhanded a surprised, and surprisingly composed, Berry. The Queens-born son of Village Voice photographer Sylvia Plachy grabbed the microphone and said, “I bet they didn’t tell you that was in the gift bag.”
See more over-the-top speeches on the next page.
Kate Winslet, 2009: A Shampoo Slipup
The knock on Kate Winslet‘s breathy proclamations upon taking possession of the best actress gold she’d earned for humanizing concentration camp guard Hanna Schmitz in The Reader is slight, at worst.
Armchair perfectionists deduct style points from Winslet’s acceptance scorecard because she admitted, as a child, she had employed a shampoo bottle as a prop statuette. She had delivered an imaginary acceptance speech for a fantasy Academy Award to the bathroom mirror.
Never mind that the Oscar in Winslet’s hands was, as she pointed out, “not a shampoo bottle now.” Never mind that the actress’s five previous nominations for Academy Awards were also fully real. Those five earlier nods were for outstanding performances in Sense and Sensibility (1995), Titanic (1997), Iris (2001), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and Little Children (2006).
This roll call of full, varied and memorable roles is key to detractors finding fault with Winslet’s Oscar ceremony behavior. Because the artist has consistently adhered to strict standards of professionalism, goes the theory, her reliance upon a young girl’s shampoo bottle for pathos is simplistic and inexcusable. Except that there is an excuse. In 2009, the Academy was in an experimental mood. Rather than a single previous Oscar winner presenting an individual award for each of the four major acting categories, a panel of five previous honorees would make the presentations for the best and supporting actors and actresses.
Facing forward at the podium, Winslet was attempting to be gracious and self-effacing under the scrutiny of four formidable also-rans — Anne Hathaway, Melissa Leo, Angelina Jolie and Meryl Streep. Behind, where she could clearly feel their eyes upon her, stood Sophia Loren, Halle Berry, Shirley MacLaine, Nicole Kidman and Marion Cotillard.
This gauntlet of greatness was a challenge to composure no best actress winner has faced before or since.
Melissa Leo, 2011: F-Bomb Away
Melissa Leo‘s out-of-bounds behavior started well before she stepped onstage at the 83rd Academy Awards and claimed her golden best supporting actress prize for playing the mother of Christian Bale and Mark Wahlberg in The Fighter. But if the actress, who was only about a decade older than the men playing her boxer sons, hadn’t worked outside the lines in the weeks leading up to the ceremony, she might not have won the opportunity to venture into over-the-top territory on the big night.
Months before the awards were handed out, Leo’s sense of propriety was questioned. She had gone “rogue” and launched a self-financed promotional campaign, independent of Paramount Pictures’ marketing department, in her run for best supporting actress. At the time 50 years old, the actress reasoned that she needed to shoot and place glamour print ads to compensate for magazine covers being offered to younger actresses competing for Oscar prizes.
Opinion is divided on whether or not the gambit had any real effect on the Academy’s voting. Still, she won.
At first, Leo indulges in a moment of apparent disbelief. But she accepts the fact of winning, takes to the podium, thanks director David O. Russell and her competitor and co-star Amy Adams, and momentarily falters. She seems to again be confronting the unreality of the moment.
“When I watched Kate [Winslet] two years ago,” says Leo, uttering the words that will forever live in Academy Awards infamy, “it looked so f—ing easy.”
Matthew McConaughey, 2013: Bad Omission
On the evening of March 2, 2014, Matthew McConaughey was riding a higher high than any other human being within Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre. Once Jennifer Lawrence proclaimed that McConaughey had been deemed best actor, his elevation increased further.
The native Texan’s Oscar commemorated the actor’s role as real-life AIDS activist Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club. McConaughey’s skin-and-bones re-creation of a man dying bravely from a terrible wasting disease was only one of his triumphs from the preceding year. The Dazed and Confused alumnus had contributed a brief but stellar spin of weirdness to director Martin Scorsese‘s The Wolf of Wall Street. On the small screen, he’d kept TV aficionados around the country tuning in every Sunday to watch his Rust Cohle philosophize like a Southern fried nihilist opposite Woody Harrelson‘s Detective Marty Hart on HBO’s fanatically acclaimed True Detective.
As he palmed his statue and took the winner’s microphone, McConaughey could not have engendered more goodwill among the Oscar viewing audience if he had also managed to cure cancer and male pattern baldness in the preceding 12 months.
That amassed goodwill was fully willing to grant McConaughey’s contentions that “it’s a scientific fact that gratitude reciprocates” and that “when you’ve got God, you’ve got a friend.” The goodwill was charmed by the star’s evocation of his father making gumbo, drinking a Miller and dancing in heaven. The egoism of an Academy Award winner humble-bragging that his biggest hero is himself 10 years down the road did the solid mass of goodwill no discernable damage. So what did place so much of McConaughey’s goodwill bank into a queasy suspicion that it had been misspent? The actor failed to mention, acknowledge and honor the lives of men and women who died bravely while actively seeking the cure for a terrible wasting disease.
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