Truly memorable Academy Awards show speeches are few and far between. In the case of actors in particular, the precious seconds allotted their acceptance speeches are often eaten up by thank yous not only to their directors, co-stars and loved ones, but to members of their “team” of agents, managers, publicists, hairdressers, and stylists. Even a more heartfelt speech can tend to the predictable (remember, actors do not generally write their own lines). Yet every so often, a truly extraordinary moment pops up when the Oscars are awarded. The last jaw dropper, though it wasn’t about anything he said, may have been Adrien Brody’s extended full-mouth kiss of presenter Halle Berry when he won for Best Actor in 2003. But who knows what may happen this coming Sunday, when the 88th annual Academy Awards are handed out? In the meanwhile, here are five moments from Oscar’s past to savor.
1. Greer Garson had a couple of things to say. Back in the Academy’s pre-televised broadcast days, Garson won the 1942 Best Actress Oscar for her performance in the title role of Mrs. Miniver. An English native who had made her first Hollywood film in 1939, Garson began her emotional speech by praising the American film industry’s hospitality: “Tonight you have made me feel that you have really set the door of friendship wide open and that welcome is officially on the mat.” Then she kept talking—for more than five minutes. Presenter Joan Fontaine eventually retired to a seat on the sidelines. Garson’s speech is still counted among the longest—if not the longest—in Academy Awards history, although legend soon stretched its duration considerably. (In contrast, one of the shortest speeches was delivered by 1990 Best Supporting Actor winner Joe Pesci, who merely stated, “It’s my privilege, thank you.”)
2. Sally Field was well liked. Winning her second Best Actress Oscar for 1984’s Places in the Heart, Field was truly experiencing the love. “The first time I didn’t feel it,” she enthused. “But this time I feel it. And I can’t deny the fact that you like me, right now. You like me!” Field’s gushing acceptance was not universally admired; critics like Pauline Kael, for example, weighed in with the perception that therein laid the problem with most of the actress’s performances: she was too eager to be liked. Fellow performers, on the other hand totally got it—here was an acting professional’s classic insecurity demonstrated boldly and blatantly for a global audience of several hundred million.
3. Marlon Brando, via Sacheen Littlefeather, was not so well liked. When Brando’s name was announced as winner of the 1972 Best Actor Oscar for The Godfather, it was not the famous thespian who made his way to the stage but a young woman clad in Native American garb who then “respectfully” declined the award on Brando’s behalf because of “the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry and on television in movie reruns.” Scattered boos and applause followed; backstage, Ms. Littlefeather (née Marie Louise Cruz, of mixed Apache, Yaqui, and European descent) read the entire text of Brando’s 15-page speech for the press. The Academy deemed that, in future, proxies would not be allowed to accept awards for absent recipients.
4. Vanessa Redgrave was downright reviled for her speech. Controversy swirled around Redgrave and her nomination as Best Supporting Actress for her role in 1977’s Julia. The actress had recently produced a Pro-Palestine Liberation Organization documentary in which she appeared brandishing a machine gun; outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Oscar night, protesters burned Vanessa in effigy, and she arrived at the ceremony accompanied by two bodyguards. When Redgrave won, she elicited boos by congratulating voters for not being intimidated by a “small bunch of Zionist hoodlums.” Later, before Paddy Chayefsky presented the writing awards, he forcefully chided the actress from the podium, later receiving almost as much criticism for doing so as Redgrave had for her comments.
5. Sometimes speeches are just weird. Case in point: the remarks delivered by Angelina Jolie, winner of the 1999 Best Supporting Actress Award for Girl, Interrupted. Before her sanctification as global humanitarian and spouse to Brad Pitt, Jolie was known as a Hollywood wild child, wearing second husband Billy Bob Thornton’s blood in a vial around her neck. She appeared at the Oscars in Goth garb and tresses, bleached blond brother in tow, and when she won, the siblings emotionally canoodled. Jolie began her speech by saying, “I’m in shock, and I’m so in love with my brother right now.” After more traditional words of thanks, she returned to the brotherly love theme, raising Botoxed eyebrows across Hollywood.
OK, Leo. Show us what you got.