Claire Duffy's blog about public speaking and communication (in real life). Speak well, do well!
Rebecca Rolfe, a Georgia Institute of Technology masters student, has analyzed 60 years of Academy Awards speeches as part of a research project on, wait for it, gratitude. Her findings have been widely covered in the entertainment media, but my favourite take on the data is from Tom Shone in The Guardian. I’ve extracted the best bits below:
“Many critics find Oscar acceptance speeches disturbing on account of their insincerity. As a fan of the form, I say, nonsense.
Anyone who thinks you can get up on stage at the Dolby Theater in front of 40 million people, take an atomic blast of approval from a select audience of your peers, and then fake your response, is very much mistaken. It peels you like an onion.
Gone is the phalanx of publicists, the glazed interview demeanor, the self-protective instincts born of a thousand paparazzo intrusions; and in its place the quick stumble of inarticulacy, the pink flush of pure need, as the star gulps down all the love and acceptance they stand revealed to have craved all along…
Think of the Oscar acceptance speech as a little like the rings in a tree-trunk: a journey into the innermost recesses of the psyche, past the rough bark of success, through the kinks and knots of one’s formative years, into the soft sap where childhood humiliation and Harvey Weinstein lurk.
Thanks to the Academy’s new online database, on which are compiled the speeches of every winner since 1971, we can now see the exact number and makeup of those rings.
After an afternoon tooling around on it, I can exclusively reveal that “wow” is the leading exclamation (73), followed by “my God” (26), “gosh” (12), “oh, God” (6), “this is unbelievable” (5), “good God” (4), “I can’t believe it!” (4), “I don’t know what to say” (4), “this is incredible” (4), “oh, man” (4), “oh no”, (3), “whoa” (3), “what the hell?” (2), and “whoo!” (2), although they curiously exclude James Cameron’s famous opinion, upon winning for Titanic in 1998, that he was “king of the world – whoohoooo!”
…We have only one “golly” (Melissa Leo, 2010), one “holy mackerel” (Meryl Streep, 1979) and one “Lord, have mercy” (Billy Bob Thornton, 1996), as well as one “I need a drink” (Tim Chappel, 1994).
So you’re up there on stage, sweat prickling your brow, Jack Nicholson peering at you from the front row. Most winners start by thanking “the Academy” (48), “my cast and crew” (65) and their “fellow nominees” (51) – although Sandra Bullock worked her way through each nominee in turn.
Natalie Portman thanked her makeup artist, the camera operator, and even first AD. Cher thanked her hairdresser. By the time Titanic’s producer Jon Landau had got through a list of 45 names in 1998, telecast producer Gil Cates wanted “to blow my brains out.”
A brief statement of intent can be helpful. “I’m not going to thank everybody I’ve ever met in my entire life,” declared Shirley McClaine in 1983, although three winners (Maureen Stapleton, Kim Basinger, and Julia Roberts) have indeed thanked “everybody I’ve ever met in my entire life.”
Proving that Hollywood is in hock to the forces of Satanic darkness, “God” has been name-checked by only four nominees, including Denzel Washington (“God is great”) and Jennifer Hudson (“Look what God can do!”).
The Almighty is equalled by Oprah (4), bested by Jack Nicholson (9), Martin Scorsese (11), Meryl Streep (19), and Steven Spielberg (38), but all bow before the man sat at the top of the pyramid: Harvey Weinstein (40) who ranks alongside America (40) itself for mentions.
Finally, the metric Weinstein has been looking for. As Meryl Streep put it last year: “I want to thank God – Harvey Weinstein. The punisher. Old Testament, I guess.”
Only 3 actors have skipped their directors in their speech – Mo’Nique, Alan Arkin and George Clooney. Halle Berry named her director “a genius”. Tilda Swinton said hers “walks on water”, though not before thanking her agent, that most loyal keeper of the flame, beating out even husbands (37) and children (24).
Women have longer memories than men, frequently going back to those who gave them their big break. Penélope Cruz thanked no less than three of her previous directors. Kate Winslet thanked Peter Jackson at the 2009 Oscars for discovering her with Heavenly Creatures, 15 years before.
We are now deep into the trunk of the tree. The years are falling away. Your first break has come and gone. You are back at school, where schoolyard slights, taunts, and after-school wedgies first got their claws into your virgin psyche and set you on the course to stardom.
Time to thank your country of origin (England 16, France 13), your high school teacher (15), your high school (4), your lawyer (3), your publicist (3) or your drama teacher (2), though be careful not to out him or her, as Tom Hanks did, thus inspiring the plot of the Kevin Kline comedy In & Out.
Uh-oh! The orchestra has started up! The autocue is asking you to wrap up! Five winners have read it right back: “Please wrap up.” Most have taken it as a sign to dive a little deeper into their gene pool: not just wives (181) and husbands (37), but mothers and moms (125), or fathers and dads (81), grandmothers (11), grandfathers (6), sisters (32) and brothers (34), although none quite matched the Sophoclean weirdness of Angelina Jolie’s “I’m so in love with my brother right now.” Jamie Foxx told a touching story about his grandmother whipping him as a boy. Twenty-four winners mentioned their children. Catherine Zeta Jones dedicated her Oscar to her unborn child.
This is where the tears come. Oscar winners are most likely to become choked up over their nearest and dearest (or, just as likely, moved by all the neglect they’ve silently absorbed over the years), with 187 managing to squeeze out a quivery-voiced “I love you.” The consequences of falling at this final hurdle cannot be overstated.
In 2006, Hillary Swank, winning best actress for Million Dollar Baby, attempted to apologize to her husband Chad Lowe for forgetting to thank him the first time she won, in 1999: “I’m going to start by thanking my husband, because I’d like to think I learn from past mistakes.” They were divorced two years later. Sean Penn also forgot to thank Robin Wright when he won for Milk in 2008. They divorced a year later”.
Here are the best bits from the best speech in 2013.
And here is what the New York Times things makes a good speech.