Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos: Oscars
Try as they might, Oscars producers and ABC can’t cut the entire business of presenting awards from the show. Trophies will still be presented and handed out, followed presumably by acceptance speeches. Ariana DeBose may have to pre-record some remarks while ABC pays the Spider-Men to take the stage and hype up the Oscars Fan Favorite award, who knows. But for those of us who love the Oscars, we’re in it for the (live) speeches. Much like animation, the Oscar acceptance speech is not a genre, it is a medium, and within that medium, a speech can take many forms. They can be quite short or quite long, deadly serious or quippy, thoughtfully composed or breathlessly manic. Some types are preferable to others, but they’re all memorable in their own way. Below, we’ve ranked 19 distinct categories of Oscar speeches, from least to most entertaining. And if you appreciate the work we’ve put in, well… we thank you.
There is nothing quite so dismal as the sound of an Academy Awards audience softly groaning as an Oscar winner pulls out a printed list onstage. Viewers don’t like these speeches, Oscars producers don’t like them, the Oscar winners themselves don’t even seem to like delivering them. There is just something undeniably gauche and, dare we say, déclassé about unfolding a piece of printer stock and reading a laundry list of names that you, an actor who remembers lines for a living, couldn’t memorize. It’s why every year the Academy implores their nominees to ditch the lists and speak from the heart. And every year there’s a Jennifer Connelly or a Patricia Arquette who does it anyway.
Of course, one of the reasons certain Oscar winners opt for printed lists is because of people like Hilary Swank, who infamously forgot to thank her then-husband Chad Lowe in her 2000 Best Actress acceptance speech for Boys Don’t Cry. When she returned the next year to present Best Actor, Swank thanked both Lowe and her dad. Forgetting to thank someone important is actually not that rare in Oscar speeches (Julia Roberts never thanked the real Erin Brockovich when she won Best Actress for playing her), but when an acceptance speech requires walking back, it can be painful. Just ask Sam Smith, who won Best Original Song for “Writing’s on the Wall” in 2016 and misquoted Ian McKellen as having said “no openly gay man had ever won an Oscar.” Even in the moment, Smith tried to caveat their way around the quote, saying “if that is the case… even if it isn’t the case,” but it was too late. Smith was met with a deluge of bitchy corrections, one of which came from Milk screenwriter (and openly gay Oscar winner) Dustin Lance Black.
We come to the Oscars to watch people accept awards, and when they’re not there to accept them, it’s just not as fun. Not that we can fault Anthony Hopkins for not wanting to travel during a pandemic to accept his (unexpected!) Oscar for The Father. That said, if the Oscar winner in question is outright refusing to accept the award, well, at least that’s dishy. In 1971, George C. Scott rejected the very concept of the Oscars, calling the event a “two-hour meat parade.” (Two??) He didn’t show up to collect his for his role in Patton, much to presenter Goldie Hawn’s squirmy glee.
The most infamous of these moments came at the 1973 Oscars when Marlon Brando refused his Best Actor award for The Godfather and sent Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather to convey his reasoning, which was Hollywood’s historical treatment of Native Americans in film.
Sometimes winning an Oscar can lead to an outpouring of all the most wonderful emotions: joy, gratitude, pride in one’s work. Other times, it offers a platform for the winner to stick it to those in the industry who have irked them. Dustin Hoffman’s 1980 Best Actor victory for Kramer vs. Kramer allowed him a platform to underline his criticisms of the Academy and reject the notion of actors being pitted against each other. Cate Blanchett used her win for Blue Jasmine in 2014 as an opportunity to remind the film industry that movies starring women can actually make money. Most awkwardly, Ben Affleck’s Best Picture acceptance speech for Argo invoked those who’d buried his career some years earlier (and that was before he showed his appreciation for his then-wife Jennifer Garner by talking about how much work it was to be married to her).
Humility is a virtue, but this is the Oscars! It’s no time for abnegation. Still, every so often an Oscar winner makes a point of telling one of their co-nominees that they should have won instead. Juliette Binoche did exactly that when she won Best Supporting Actress for The English Patient in an upset over Lauren Bacall. “I thought Lauren was going to get it,” Binoche admitted, “and I think she deserves it.” Ingrid Bergman went so far as to apologize to fellow nominee Valentina Cortese when she won in 1975 for Murder on the Orient Express. “Please forgive me Valentina, I didn’t mean to,” Bergman said to a cheering Cortese.
The first step in delivering a great Oscar speech is being able to catch your breath long enough to utter it. This ended up being a challenge for winners like Julie Christie, who hyperventilated her way through a brief speech when she won for Darling in 1966, as well as Anna Paquin, whose acceptance speech for The Piano began with 20 seconds of the 11-year-old actress gathering up the wherewithal to speak. Halle Berry’s win for Monster’s Ball is the most iconic example of this, a moment of high drama and zero breath control.
Long Oscar speeches can live on in infamy. It’s been nearly 80 years and we’re still hearing about Greer Garson’s legendary five-minute-plus speech when she won Best Actress for Mrs. Miniver. While Oscar producers have itchy trigger fingers when it comes to playing rambling speeches off the stage, that tactic is usually off limits for the big categories, so that momentous occasions such as Al Pacino finally winning an Oscar in 1993 can play out at their leisure. More recently, Matthew McConaughey’s Best Actor speech for Dallas Buyers Club was a long and winding ode to himself.
You see fewer instances of cursing in an Oscar speech than you might think, considering it’s one of the few genuine “holy fuck!” moments of a person’s life. Melissa Leo sure let one fly in 2011, though, as she accepted her Best Supporting Actress Oscar for The Fighter. It was one of the weirder Oscar moments in general, one that included presenter Kirk Douglas hitting on Leo, and later, as she walked offstage, Leo playfully… stealing Douglas’s cane? But it was Leo’s accidental/on purpose f-bomb (“when I watched Kate [Winslet] two years ago, it looked so fucking easy, oops!”) that stole the show.
It’s all so ridiculous, really, this show business ritual for handing out awards, so why not acknowledge that? Olivia Colman said as much in 2019 when she won Best Actress for The Favourite in a surprise upset. And who could forget the most iconic Oscar laugh of all, Julia Roberts’s bellowing cackle as the moment of her greatest triumph finally overtook her body like an exuberant spirit.
Sometimes you just gotta play the hits, you know? Thanking Mom and Dad is as simple as it gets when it comes to acceptance speeches, but how can you not? Especially if you brought them along as your date? Javier Bardem and Charlize Theron both thanked their moms in attendance for their lifetime of devotion and support. Kate Winslet got a whistle from the balcony after shouting out her dad when she won Best Actress for The Reader in 2009. The Blind Side winner Sandra Bullock dedicated a portion of her 2010 Best Actress speech to her late mother, Helga, which brought tears to the eyes of many in the room. But if you’re talking parents and tears, nothing beats Mira Sorvino’s tribute to her father, Goodfellas star Paul Sorvino, reducing the old man to a weeping mess in the audience.
These ones are likely the faves of the Oscar producers, forever with their eyes on the clock. And they certainly allow the Oscar winner to make it off the stage without having said anything dumb. Patty Duke’s 1963 Best Supporting Actress win for The Miracle Worker was accepted with a simple “Thank you.” Joe Pesci was positively verbose by comparison when he won for Goodfellas in 1991, saying “It’s my privilege, thank you” and walking offstage.
Members of the acting community have been behind environmental causes for years, so it’s no surprise that prominent members have taken the occasion of the Oscars stage to advocate for action. It would have been shocking if Leonardo DiCaprio hadn’t dedicated half of his 2016 Best Actor speech for The Revenant to a call for urgent action against climate change. Meanwhile, Joaquin Phoenix’s 2020 Best Actor speech for Joker wound its way around to humanity’s plunder of the natural world and the artificial insemination of cows. It was a real wild ride.
An offshoot of the environmentalist’s speech is the political one, the kind that Hollywood became notorious for in the ’70s and whose tradition follows right through into the 21st century. These detours into politics can sometimes date a speech. Olympia Dukakis’s shout out to her cousin Michael when she won Best Supporting Actress for Moonstruck is probably the most positive legacy of the Democrats’ 1988 presidential campaign. And can you imagine anything more February 2020 than Brad Pitt referencing Robert Mueller in his Best Supporting Actor acceptance speech for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood?
Somewhat surprisingly, considering Hollywood’s lefty reputation, these speeches haven’t always gone over well in the room. The aforementioned Marlon Brando/Sacheen Littlefeather stunt was met with a mixture of cheers and boos, while Vanessa Redgrave’s notorious “Zionist hoodlums” speech when she won Best Supporting Actress for Julia prompted not only hisses from the audience but an angry response from subsequent presenter Paddy Chayefsky. Even as recently as 2003, Michael Moore’s acceptance speech for Best Documentary winner Bowling for Columbine drew boos when he denounced the just-launched war in Iraq as being declared on “fictitious” grounds.
The Academy Awards are not a contact sport, but sometimes an acceptance speech can involve more than just words. This can start in the auditorium when the winner’s name is called. Roberto Benigni leaped atop the back of his chair and stood astride Steven Spielberg and Kate Capshaw when he won his Oscar for Life Is Beautiful in 1999. The next year, Angelina Jolie freaked everybody out by kissing her brother before ascending to the stage to accept her Oscar. That last part was the thing that tripped up Jennifer Lawrence, literally, as she stumbled up the steps to accept her Best Actress Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook. When he won Best Actor for There Will Be Blood, Daniel Day-Lewis knelt on the stage so that presenter Helen Mirren (The Queen herself!) could “knight” him with the Oscar statue. And of course, ever the stunt queen, 73-year-old Jack Palance dropped to the stage floor and performed a series of one-armed pushups in the middle of his 1992 acceptance speech for City Slickers just to show up the young bucks in the audience.
Much like thanking your parents, weeping onstage seems pro forma for any acceptance speech. But the ones we’re talking about in this category involve more than just garden-variety choking up. These include Halle Berry absolutely losing it while accepting her historic Best Actress trophy for Monster’s Ball. And Nicole Kidman turning away from the audience to have a little cry to herself after she won for The Hours. Gwyneth Paltrow cried throughout her 1999 Best Actress speech, as did Octavia Spencer when she won for The Help. Naturally, the most committed to this particular genre of speech was Lady Gaga when she won the Best Original Song Oscar in 2019.
Despite everyone’s best attempts, genuine profundity tends to elude most Oscar speeches. It’s no slight against them — this is a difficult medium with which to say something genuinely important about art and achievement. Steven Soderbergh managed that in his 2001 Best Director acceptance speech as he eschewed the traditional thanks and instead lifted his Oscar up to anyone who spends their time creating art, without which the world would be “unlivable.” Viola Davis’s speech when she won for Fences in 2017 was about using art as a means to exhume the lives unexamined. It’s hard to sell sincerity in a cynical world, but a select few speeches have managed it. Of course, it does also help to be Viola Davis.
You’d think more Oscar speeches would use humor to cut the tension in the room, but not many do — not memorably, anyway. Emma Thompson’s Golden Globe acceptance speech for adapting the screenplay for Sense and Sensibility, a speech delivered in the voice and persona of Jane Austen, had already set a high bar, but in her Oscar speech Thompson mentioned having gone to Austen’s grave recently to pay her respects “and tell her about the grosses.” George Clooney, ever the jokester, kicked off his Best Supporting Actor speech for Syriana by quipping that this must mean he’s not winning Best Director (he was nominated for Good Night and Good Luck).
Speaking of Clooney, Tilda Swinton dedicated much of her 2008 Best Supporting Actress speech to her Michael Clayton co-star, even invoking the be-nippled Batman costume. Most recently, Allison Janney’s Best Supporting Actress win for I, Tonya was punctuated by a speech she began with an impish “I did it all by myself.” Impish is tough to pull off for a woman that tall, you’ve gotta hand it to her.
This is the holy grail of Oscar speeches. It lives on forever in the cultural memory banks, or at least the memes of gay men on Twitter, with that one, perfectly quotable line. It could be Barbra Streisand staring at her new Oscar statuette and quoting her own movie (“Hello, gorgeous”), or Maureen Stapleton thanking everybody she’s ever met in her whole life. Quotable Oscar lines can be defiant (Mo’Nique thanking voters “for making it about the performance, not the politics”), humble (Jennifer Hudson’s “Look what God can do”), or egotistical (James Cameron’s “I’m king of the world!”). It can be as simple as Jamie Foxx’s call-and-response refrain when he won for playing Ray Charles in 2005. Or it can be Marion Cotillard’s verbal curlicues as she gushed, “Thank you life, thank you love, and it is true, there is some angels in this city.” Not every speech can pull this off. Not every speech can be Sally Field shouting “You like me! Right now, you like me!” But we can all strive for it.
These speeches take all the best elements of any Oscars speech and wrap them in one package. More importantly, they absolutely do not bother pretending that movie stars aren’t incredibly important people. Anne Hathaway’s maligned 2013 speech for Les Miserables managed to be quotable (“It came true”), breathless, and self-mythologizing all at once. Shirley MacLaine’s speech when she won Best Actress for Terms of Endearment in 1984 was funny, lengthy, attempted several times to be profound, and ended with the most honest assessment any Oscar winner has ever dared: “I deserve this, thank you.”
The epitome of the self-indulgent Oscars speech is, of course, Julia Roberts winning Best Actress for Erin Brockovich in 2001. This was the biggest movie star in the world on the biggest stage in the world, and she knew it. She knew it so well that she even stopped for a moment to make sure her dress looked pretty because, despite her playfully combative banter with the orchestra-conducting “Stick Man,” no one would be playing her off that stage. Roberts praised her cast members, flirted with Danny DeVito, unleashed that Pretty Woman cackle, and thanked her not-yet-famous niece Emma, all in the span of three minutes and forty seconds of pure, uncut movie-star indulgence. We haven’t seen its equal since.