Essays · Movies

The Rules of Great Oscar Speeches

We offer some guidelines to ensure enjoyable and genuine speeches.
Oscars Fix Speeches
By  · Published on February 22nd, 2019

What makes an Academy Award acceptance speech memorable? There have been a number of speeches throughout Hollywood history that have become legendary: Hattie McDaniel‘s heartfelt speech when she became the first Black Oscar recipient, winning Best Supporting Actress for Gone with the Wind in 1940; Sally Field declaring, “I can’t deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me!” when she won Best Actress for Places in the Heart in 1985; Roberto Benigni jumping over everyone’s seats and excitedly announcing he wants to “kiss everybody” when Life is Beautiful won Best Foreign Film in 1998.

Yet we hardly remember the majority of speeches, and every year they start to meld together by the end of the show. Speeches are frequently too long and rambling, some people rush their words, and others just seem to have no idea what they want to say. During this particularly fraught awards season, we would like to offer some suggestions for how the Oscars could improve its structure and content. In fact, we have covered this very topic once before. Below are some new rules — guidelines, if you prefer — for making speeches more memorable and fun.

1. Keep it short and sweet

In 1943, Greer Garson famously delivered an incredibly long, impassioned speech after winning the Best Actress trophy for her performance in Mrs. Miniver. This drawn-out, rambling speech inspired the Academy to implement the 45-second rule, wherein recipients must finish their speeches within the allotted time or else get played off the stage by the orchestra. Of course, it makes sense that winners want to say as much as they can during this (potentially) once-in-a-lifetime moment, but it makes for a much better ceremony when people keep it pithy. One of my personal favorite Oscar speeches came from Joe Pesci in 1991 for his Best Supporting Actor role in Goodfellas: “It’s my privilege. Thank you.”

Nominees should be encouraged to think of a few important things they want to say and write them down to ensure that everyone gets an equal opportunity to speak. Technically, the 45-second rule is in place to ensure people don’t speak for too long, but so many people just keep talking over the music that the rule seems mostly useless. In fact, Julia Roberts told the orchestra conductor to put his stick down, because she planned to speak for much longer than her allotted time — but it’s Julia Roberts, so all is forgiven.

2. Pace yourself

This may seem to contradict the first rule, but I promise, it’s possible to keep it brief and still pace yourself so you aren’t rushing through the speech. An unfortunate side-effect of the 45-second rule is that recipients are faced with a ticking clock that makes everyone nervous and causes breathless speeches where people invariably express regret and guilt for not having the time to thank every single person they have ever met individually. Know what you want to say, and then say it with conviction. Winning an Oscar can be one of the most important moments for many hardworking persons in the film industry, and winners deserve to take a moment and thoughtfully reflect upon how they feel and what message they want to spread in their speech.

While I do believe recipients should be encouraged to keep their speeches brief, I think the 45-second rule does more damage than good. Rather than a clock counting down to the moment when the orchestral music will play speakers off the stage, perhaps a better option is to trust people to keep their speeches brief and measured. It may be idealistic to trust that the honor system could work, but clearly, the 45-second rule leads to too many nervous, rushed speeches and people feeling disrespected by being played off the stage by the “man with the stick” (to quote Julia Roberts).

3. Uplift others

This may seem obvious, but one of the best things about Academy Awards speeches is seeing people use their very public platform to uplift other people and causes close to their hearts. Film is a collective art, and acknowledging the important work of every cast and crew member helps shed light on behind-the-scenes work that is often erased. Everyone pays attention to the A-list actors and directors, and one way they can use their influence is to highlight the work of cinematographers, editors, visual effects artists, costume designers, production designers, and so on.

Many awards recipients also use this most public of stages to call attention to specific social and political issues that are close to their hearts. Perhaps the most iconic instance of this is when Marlon Brando declined to accept his Best Actor statue for The Godfather in 1973, and in his place had Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather speak about the horrific representations of Natives in American film and television and the continued poor treatment of Indigenous people in North America.

Women such as Halle Berry, Patricia Arquette, and Viola Davis have called attention to wage inequalities, misogyny, and racism within the film industry in their speeches, bringing attention to issues that affect them and many others, in hopes that people will be inspired to work towards making changes within this industry.

4. Tell us what this means to you, specifically

I know it may seem like these rules are contradicting each other, but they are more like guiding principles, and people can choose to implement any combination of them in service of giving a good, well-thought-out speech. It is always heartwarming when recipients tell stories about their own lives and why this award means so much to them, specifically. Whether one has had a fraught and difficult career, or never felt validated or good enough, winning an Academy Award can feel like one’s hard work has finally paid off. Being acknowledged by one of the largest organizations in the American film industry is a big deal and can feel especially rewarding for people who haven’t always had the easiest lives.

Or perhaps you have an endless passion for your work, and it is a special privilege to be included in a long line of Hollywood legends who have won these awards before you. Whatever the case, people want to hear specific reasons why this particular award or the work you and your colleagues did on this particular film is important to you.

5. Don’t try to play it cool

Everyone remembers the Oscars speeches where people could hardly contain their excitement and emotions. Who can forget Cuba Gooding Jr. triumphantly dancing and cheering on stage when he won Best Supporting Actor for Jerry Maguire in 1997? Emotions are more than okay, and in fact, are encouraged! This is a big, important moment, and it is weird when people try to keep their speeches professional and formal. Some people accidentally swear (like Melissa Leo!), some people stand up on their seats (like the aforementioned Roberto Benigni), and some people uncontrollably cry (like Gwyneth Paltrow). It’s more fun for everybody when people just let their genuine emotions shine through, and these speeches always feel more genuine and memorable.

Theoretically, someone may not be excited, and that’s okay, too! As long as you are being honest about your feelings in the moment, then it is likely that you will give a better speech. One of the most beautiful speeches of the past few years came in 2014 from Lupita Nyong’o, who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her work in 12 Years a Slave. She spoke with genuine passion and joy when she remarked: “When I look down at this golden statue, may it remind me and every little child that no matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid.”

With these five rules, hopefully, Academy Awards recipients will learn to let go of the old bad habits that drag down the awards ceremony every year. Keep it brief, pace yourself, uplift those around you, tell us why this award is important to you, and be genuine, even if that means acting unrefined or silly. You don’t need to rush, and you don’t need to list the name of every person you have ever come into contact with. Just keep it short, sweet, and as emotional (or not!) as you’d like, and the awards telecast will be smoother and more enjoyable for everyone.

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Actual film school graduate from Toronto. Always thinking and writing about queerness, feminism, camp, melodrama, and popular culture.