It’s a sign of the times: Before the annual luncheon for Oscar nominees Monday, Nicole Kidman fielded questions not only about her attire -- black suit over pale lace camisole -- but on whether war and politics have a place at the Academy Awards.
While she diplomatically responded that she can see both sides of the question, others were more pointed. Daniel Day-Lewis, nominated for his turn as Bill the Butcher in “Gangs of New York,” said: “It would seem obscene if we’re seen bouncing up the red carpet grinning when people are dying. It’s going to be very difficult to find a way to do this.”
Still, war or no war, “the show will go on,” Gil Cates, producer of the 75th Annual Academy Awards, said Monday.
Cates has said he would not try to rein in political comments by the winners during the March 23 broadcast, although presenters will be asked to keep to the business at hand.
On Monday, as this year’s contenders gathered at the Beverly Hilton Hotel for the luncheon, some said they might be moved to offer some topical comments.
Ed Harris, nominated for best supporting actor for his work in “The Hours,” said, “I don’t think it’s a political forum” but suggested he might be tempted to offer a prayer for peace. “Hey, if you read the 1st Amendment, we’re entitled to say what we think.”
Others, like Catherine Zeta-Jones, said she thinks the Oscars provide a welcome escape in difficult times.
Nicolas Cage added: “I try to express myself through my work. I’m not a politician.”
As if the political question weren’t daunting enough, Cates also lowered the boom on scripted acceptance speeches.
Pulling out a sheet of paper is forbidden. And, thanking five people is OK but the orchestra will be cued if a sixth name is uttered.
“These are harsh measures but necessary,” Cates told the nominees. “The list of names means nothing to 99.9% of the audience.”
To express gratitude to their hearts’ content, though, winners have been given unlimited space on Oscar.com. There’s no question the sight of a winner putting on glasses and pulling out a piece of paper has long been enough to make viewers sigh, reach for the remote or head to the refrigerator.
Nevertheless, despite gentle reminders (last year’s producer, Laura Ziskin, handed out crystal 45-second hourglasses to the nominees) and even bribes (the previous year, Cates promised a high-definition television set to the winner who delivered the shortest speech), the winners’ lists of thank-you’s seem to grow longer and more personal every year. In 1998, best supporting actress Kim Basinger said she just wanted to thank “everybody I’ve ever met in my entire life.” In 2000, Thalberg Award winner Warren Beatty even thanked his unborn child as his time ran out. In 2001, Marcia Gay Harden thanked the usual colleagues and family in her acceptance speech for best supporting actress, but afterward she lamented that she’d forgotten the waiters and waitresses who covered her shift for her early in her career so she could run to auditions.
Carole Hemingway, a Beverly Hills media coach who helps clients craft Oscar acceptance speeches, understands their gratitude. “Whenever something good happens to you, you feel appreciative. Your wife, your kids, you want to recognize them publicly. I think that’s another discussion you have with them, in private.” But some nominees want to carry a list as insurance in case they blank out in the excitement of the moment. Others don’t prepare anything because they don’t want to jinx their chances. If they win, they are so flustered they can barely think, much less stop a flood of verbiage within the time limit.
The academy officially allows 45 seconds, but Cates usually says 30. When time is up, warning lights appear on the teleprompter. If the winner continues to ramble on in an unentertaining way, Cates hooks them with a message to orchestra leader Bill Conti to start up the music. When Conti lifted his wand to silence best actress Julia Roberts in 2001, she said, “Put down that stick. I’m going to be here for a while. I love it up here! I love the world!” She spoke for four minutes. That was the same year organizers had vowed to cut off Russell Crowe even though he had pushed and verbally attacked the producer of the British Academy Awards, when he was not allowed to finish reciting a poem. In Hollywood, Crowe won and behaved gentlemanly.
In 1996, Cuba Gooding Jr. (best supporting actor, “Jerry Maguire”) yelled over the orchestra, “I love you! Tom Cruise! I love you, man. Everybody, I love you ... Cameron Crowe! James L. Brooks! Everybody who’s involved with this, I love you.”
It’s possible, though not easy, Hemingway says, to deliver a great speech in 45 seconds. First, “you’ve got to take time to prepare and really think about what you want to say.” And second, “you have to know your audience.” People aren’t interested in hearing stars thank unknown people and they aren’t interested in gushy personal revelations, Hemingway says. Sally Fields’ heartfelt “You like me, you really like me” (for best actress in 1984’s “Places in the Heart”) still makes people cringe. It’s even riskier to voice strongly felt political opinions. Stars can get away with it, she says, only if they keep it simple and concise.
A consistent favorite, noted on various fan Web sites, is Dustin Hoffman’s 1979 acceptance speech for best actor in “Kramer Vs. Kramer.” Hoffman started with a humorous observation about the statuette (“He has no genitalia and he’s holding a sword”), explained his past criticism of the Academy Awards as a “garish charade” and concluded with a moving tribute to the community of filmmakers who often work for little reward. He named 10 people, plus his rivals for the Oscar, and “the artistic family that strives for excellence.” “None of you has ever lost. And I am proud to share this with you, and I thank you.”
He spoke within the time limit and didn’t use a note.