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The Academy Awards have played host to many a living legend along its parade of famous and accomplished individuals. One basic quality sets the Academy royalty apart from the basic stars. The essential accoutrement raising the creme to the top is grace, a simple elegance and refinement that seems to emanate from a core realization that life, talent, status and success are all a blessing. So here are 10 Oscar winners who claim their awards in a manner that shows what it means to remain gracious in the face of wild acclaim.
Marlon Brando, 1955
The audience at the 27th Academy Awards can be forgiven for quailing when Marlon Brando, that year’s best actor, appeared to glower out from the winner’s podium. Brando had just accepted the award from presenter Bette Davis for his pitch-perfect depiction of young thug Terry Malloy in 1954’s Elia Kazan-directed On the Waterfront.
Brando hefts the trophy and is perhaps the first winner in Academy Award history to say: “It’s much heavier than I thought.”
Presaging a career in which he will become notorious for being unable to memorize his lines, Brando claims he can’t remember what he had prepared to say, “for the life of me.” He goes on anyway, and defines gracious acceptance in well under one minute: “I don’t think that ever in my life have so many people been so directly responsible for my being so very, very glad. It’s a wonderful moment, and a rare one, and I’m certainly indebted. Thank you.”
Walking offstage, Brando looks like the most respectful honoree the Academy could ever have chosen. That impression would not last.
Ruth Gordon, 1969
In Rosemary’s Baby, Ruth Gordon plays Minnie Castevet, one of the creepiest neighbors ever to insinuate herself across the silver screen, and that’s exactly the prowess that was required to win the best supporting actress Oscar at the 41st Academy Awards.
Who then is this spritely, prim and smiling elder being welcomed to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage by Tony Curtis? In her soft pink gown, flashing the smile of a woman who has only sweetened with age, Gordon addresses the microphone. Out comes a voice that is both hardscrabble and angelic: “I can’t tell ya how encouraging a thing like this is.”
As she explains in less than a minute, Gordon acted in her first film in 1915. “And here we are and it’s 1969. Actually, I don’t know why it took me so long, though I don’t think, you know, that I’m backward. Anyway, I thank all of you who voted for me, and all of you who didn’t, please excuse me.”
Dustin Hoffman, 1980
Five years before he entered the spotlights at the 52nd Academy Awards and vocalized his emotions upon receipt of the best actor Oscar for his portrayal of Mr. Kramer in Kramer vs. Kramer, Dustin Hoffman had forcefully expressed a set of deeply held criticisms aimed at the concept and reality of acting awards.
In 1975, after receiving a best actor nomination for virtually resurrecting doomed comedian Lenny Bruce in Lenny, Hoffman told a Los Angeles talk-show host, “The Academy Awards are obscene, dirty … no better than a beauty contest.”
In 1980, as Hoffman approached presenter Jane Fonda and the Dorothy Chandler podium, Kramer vs. Kramer had already earned supporting actress gold for Meryl Streep‘s portrayal of Mrs. Kramer. The film, a divorce drama directed by Robert Benton, would claim the best picture award later in the evening.
Hoffman accepted his coveted token with appropriate solemnity. He patiently endured an extended ovation, and spoke for just over three minutes, starting off with a pair of jokes and going serious from there on out.
The abridged version: “I’m up here with mixed feelings. I’ve been critical of the Academy. And for reason. I’m deeply grateful for the opportunity to be able to work. I’m greatly honored. … I refuse to believe that I beat JackLemmon, that I beat Al Pacino, that I beat Peter Sellers. I refuse to believe that Robert Duvall lost. We are part of an artistic family. … To that artistic family that strives for excellence, none of you have ever lost, and I’m proud to share this with you.”
Tom Hanks, 1994
Tom Hanks is by all credible accounts an honorable man and a deeply decent human being. A reputation for principled behavior had been haunting Hanks long before the night of the 66th Academy Awards, where he was honored with the best actor Oscar for his lead role in Philadelphia.
The prize came in recognition of Hanks’s deeply committed onscreen transformation as AIDS-stricken, closeted gay attorney Andrew Beckett under the direction of Jonathan Demme.
When Emma Thompson announced Hanks as best actor, the general public knew what to anticipate: something true, direct, heartfelt, nothing short of inspirational. Hanks satisfied all those expectations, and then some. He expressed love for his wife and his country. He shared his acclaim with his costars and fellow filmmakers.
He spoke movingly of, “Mr. Rawley Farnsworth, who was my high school drama teacher. … And one of my classmates under Mr. Farnsworth, Mr. John Gilkerson. I mention their names because they are two of the finest gay Americans, two wonderful men that I had the good fortune to fall under their inspiration at such a young age.”
Beautiful. Stirring. And very, very grateful. Perhaps too grateful by three or four words for Mr. Farnsworth who, until being thanked from the bottom of Tom Hanks’ heart, was living his life as an apparent heterosexual.
Cuba Gooding Jr., 1997
Cuba Gooding Jr. accepting his best supporting actor Oscar at the 69th Academy Awards for the role of football player Rod Tidwell in Jerry Maguire shattered any notion that an earnest expression of gratitude can only be expressed in staid, dry platitudes. Gooding took to the podium displaying the same spirit of controlled frenzy that his Jerry Maguire character, as written and directed by Cameron Crowe, brought to the gridiron.
Mira Sorvino called the Bronx-born actor to the podium. She and the world at large had no idea what was about to be unleashed upon them.
“I know I have a little bit of time,” starts Gooding, motor mouthing from the outset: “So I’m going to rush and say everybody and you can cut away. I won’t be mad at you.”
In slightly over a minute, using a steadily escalating cadence, the first time Academy Award winner machine-gun delivers the names of his wife, his two children, his parents, God, the studio, Cameron Crowe, Tom Cruise, Derek Brose, Shawn Suttles, Keith Butler, all the behind-the-scenes crew, Regina King, James L. Brooks and, for good measure, everybody involved.
After every name check, Cuba shouts “I love you!” Halfway through this rush of sweet, raw emotion, the orchestra starts the brush off music, but its instruments are drowned out by the sound of standing ovations coming one after another with each “I love you!”
Robin Williams, 1998
The first thing Robin Williams said into the microphone at the 70th Academy Awards was: “This might be the one time I’m speechless.”
Presenter Mira Sorvino had just pulled Williams out of the audience to hand him an Oscar to validate his performance as shell-shocked psychologist Sean Maguire in the Gus Van Sant-directed Good Will Hunting.
The best supporting actor win came on Williams’s fourth Academy nomination (Good Morning, Vietnam, Dead Poets Society and The Fisher King).
Perhaps a history of mulling over what he might have said at the winners’ podium on those three losing nights had prepared the natural stand-up comic to unleash a burst of gracious eloquence — despite his self-professed muteness.
“I want to thank the people of South Boston — you’re a can of corn, you’re the best,” said the man who had been Mork, with grace and damp emotion. “I want to thank Marsha for being the woman who lights my soul on fire every morning. I want to thank my father, up there, the man who, when I said I wanted to be an actor, he said, ‘Wonderful, just have a backup profession, like welding.’ Thank you. God bless you.”
The same goes to you, Robin Williams.
Halle Berry, 2002
History confers certain responsibilities upon particular individuals, such as Halle Berry. When she arrived at the 74th Academy Awards, Berry knew there was a chance that she would receive the best actress award for portraying a condemned convict’s loved one in Monster’s Ball.
In one sense, Berry had more to win than the other four actresses nominated for the Academy’s top acting honor that night. When Russell Crowe voiced her name, Halle Berry became the first African-American to ever win a best actress award.
“Oh, my God. Oh, my God,” the groundbreaker says, overcome and sobbing. “I’m sorry. This moment is so much bigger than me. This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll. It’s for the women that stand beside me, Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett, Vivica Fox. And it’s for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.”
Berry devotes a few minutes to the industry boilerplate of thanking agents and lawyers, and wraps up strong: “I have to thank Spike Lee for putting me in my very first film and believing in me. Oprah Winfrey for being the best role model any girl can have.”
The best role model, that is, until Halle Berry came along.
Sandra Bullock, 2010
Sandra Bullock‘s Blind Side performance earned her first ever best actress Oscar nomination. When Sean Penn opened the winner’s envelope at the 82nd Academy Awards, Bullock’s name was inside.
“Did I really earn this?” Bullock asks the audience. “Or did I just wear you all down?”
Juggling wit, self-effacement and genuine affection, Bullock playfully bonds from the podium with her fellow best actress nominees. Once she’s finished with the ladies, Sandy professes her love for the artists she has worked with over the years and the artists she hopes to work with in the years to come.
With the obligations of the profession fulfilled, Bullock ends on the high moral note, addressing herself to the actual business of graciousness: “I would like to thank what this film was about for me, which are the moms that take care of the babies and the children no matter where they come from. Those moms and parents never get thanked.
“I, in particular, failed to thank one. So … if I can take this moment to thank Helga B. for reminding her daughters that there’s no race, no religion, no class system, no color, nothing, no sexual orientation, that makes us better than anyone else. We are all deserving of love. Thank you.”
And that, Oscar observers, is how an ideal Hollywood ending is crafted.
Meryl Streep, 2011
Meryl Streep has been grabbing the microphone and claiming Academy Awards so often and so long now that she would be seriously remiss if she hadn’t become super gracious in the process.
At the 84th Academy Awards, Streep flexed her acceptance expertise in the role of best actress recipient, a part she’d won this time as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady.
Having won two previous Oscars (best actress in 1979’s Kramer vs. Kramer and best actress in 1982’s Sophie’s Choice), and been nominated for 16 others, Streep stands unguarded and comfortable in front of the crowd of filmmaking luminaries: “When they called my name, I had this feeling I could hear half of America saying, ‘Oh, no. C’mon. Why? Her again?’ But whatever.”
“Because when you thank your husband at the end of the speech, they play him out with the music,” Streep thanked the important people first — her husband, Don Gummer, and her hairstylist and makeup artist of 37 years, Roy Helland.
“I look out here and, I see my life before my eyes: My old friends, my new friends. This is such a great honor, but the thing that counts the most with me is the friendships and the love and the sheer joy we have shared making movies together. My friends, thank you, all of you, departed and here, for this inexplicably wonderful career.”
Streep’s only real worry is what will she say a year or two from now, when she wins again.
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