Laura Ziskin, producer of this year’s Oscar broadcast, has repeatedly pleaded with potential winners to do away with laundry list thank-yous and give acceptance speeches that prove they are actually members of the entertainment industry. To aid her cause, Vance Van Petten, executive director of the Producers Guild and author of the upcoming “Ten Minutes to the Speech,” offers his Four-H rule: Start from the heart, season with humor, reveal your humility and end with haste. Here’s his list of the 10 best Oscar speeches ever.
Sally Field, 1985, best actress for “Places in the Heart.” In just about one minute, Fields managed to thank her colleagues and family, and enter the vernacular with her final lines: “I can’t deny the fact that you like me, right now you like me!”
John Wayne, 1970, best actor for “True Grit.” Wayne was 61 when he finally won his Oscar for his portrayal of one-eyed Rooster Cogburn, a fact he acknowledged with his opening: “Wow! If I’d known that, I would have put the patch on 35 years ago.” He thanked all the usual suspects but also thanked moviegoers: “To all you people who are watching on television, thank you for taking such a warm interest in our glorious industry.” And he didn’t even need a website to do it.
Robin Williams, 1998, best supporting actor for “Good Will Hunting.” What made Williams’ speech extraordinary was his trademark ability to be funny, even corny, but still endearing. “Thank you, [writers] Ben [Affleck] and Matt [Damon] -- I still want to see some ID. Thank you, [director] Gus [Van Sant] for being so subtle you’re almost subliminal ... and most of all, 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.’ ”
George Clooney, 2006, best supporting actor for “Syriana.” Clooney, who was also nominated for best director for “Good Night, and Good Luck,” managed to open with enough self-deprecating humor -- “Well, it looks like I’m not winning best director” and “from here on in, it will be Oscar winner George Clooney, Sexiest Man Alive in 1997, Batman, died in a freak accident....” -- that he was able to give a fairly political speech, answering the charge that Hollywood is out of touch. “We’re the ones who talked about AIDS when it was just being whispered, and we talked about civil rights when it wasn’t really popular ... we gave Hattie McDaniel an Oscar in 1939 when blacks were still sitting in the backs of theaters.”
Hattie McDaniel, 1940, best supporting actress for “Gone With the Wind.” As the first black person to be given an Oscar, McDaniel was aware of the historical importance of the moment and did not attempt to be funny. She opened her speech with a very warm “thank you,” saying she felt “very, very humble.” Before closing with “My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel,” she said she hoped she “would always be a credit to my race and to the motion-picture industry.” Now such a phrase would be considered ill-chosen, but the sentiments of pride and obligation are oft-repeated.
Louise Fletcher, 1976, best actress for “One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest.” Fletcher’s opening was brilliantly ironic: “Well, it looks like you all hated me so much that you’ve given me this award for it, and ... all I can say is I’ve loved being hated by you.” Then she ended her speech by revealing something personal and surprising -- that her parents were deaf. “And, if you’ll excuse me [for using sign language], for my mother and my father I want to say thank you for teaching me to have a dream. You are seeing my dream come true. Thank you.”
Sidney Poitier, 2002, Honorary Oscar “in recognition of his remarkable accomplishments as an artist and as a human being.” Poitier may be the only person who could pull off an acceptance speech for an award for being a remarkable human being. “I arrived in Hollywood at the age of 22 in a time different than today’s, a time in which the odds against my standing here tonight, 53 years later, would not have fallen in my favor. Back then, no route had been established for where I wanted to go, no pathway left in evidence for me to trace, no custom for me to follow.”
Roberto Benigni, 1999, best actor for “Life Is Beautiful.” Benigni’s was not so much a memorable speech as it was a performance -- when his name was announced as the winner, he began crawling over the people in the rows in front of him to get to the stage. He opened with an apology -- “This is a terrible mistake because I used up all my English” -- and went on to thank Jupiter and kidneys and tell everyone to “lie down in the firmament making love to everybody because I don’t know how to express.”
Jack Palance, 1992, best supporting actor for “City Slickers.” In another speech that has been much parodied, Palance began by insulting the Oscar host and his “City Slickers” costar Billy Crystal, telling the audience “I crap bigger than him.” Palance went on to take the industry to task for overlooking older actors and, to prove that he was still fit, finished up by doing several one-handed push-ups, which provided Crystal with one of the best running gags in the history of the Academy Awards telecast.
Stanley Donen, 1998, Honorary Oscar for his “body of work marked by grace, elegance, wit and visual innovation.” With an award like that, Donen, who directed such classics as “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Charade,” knew that he had to deliver, and he prepared his speech accordingly. After a couple of quick thanks, he said, “Tonight, words seem inadequate. In musicals, that’s when we do a song, so.... " Off he went into the opening strains of “Cheek to Cheek,” after which he soft-shoed through a list of the talented people with whom he had been privileged to work. Ending not so much with haste as with hoofing.