How to do (and not do) an Oscar Speech

The season of award giving is upon us once again with the razzle dazzle of the red carpet set to bring a splash of colour to the dreariness of February. With the Golden Globes done and dusted, this month we have the BAFTAs and the Oscars to look forward to.

Hot favourites this year are Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea, Hacksaw Ridge and La La Land, with many predicting that the latter could sweep the board this year with 14 nominations. Aside from the big prizes, the event is an occasion for the world’s media to feast on the glut of celebrities that flock to the red carpet in a swirl of self publicity.

The assorted sights of the red carpet are, for me, a mere distraction from the main event, which is of course the tussle for the best and worst acceptance speeches. Award ceremonies are, by their nature, highly charged affairs with emotions running high and an unpredictability that can catch even the most polished on screen performer by surprise.

An Oscar speech can be a telling moment in an actor’s career, leaving a mark (or stain) on their record that is just as indelible as scoring a fashion hit or miss while parading their wares along the red carpet. Ahead of this year’s ceremony, let’s take a look at some of the Academy’s most memorable stage moments, which also provide a high profile example of what to do and not to do in the heat of the occasion.

Best Oscar Speech
In 2002, the actress Halle Berry won the Best Actress award for her role in the film Monster. Great speeches often capture a moment or a feeling, with mere words transcending that moment to a legendary place. Swept with emotion, she brought tears to many in the audience as she announced, “This moment is so much bigger than me. This is for every nameless, faceless woman of colour that now has a chance because this door has opened.” The second of my nominations in this category is not a prize winner, but an announcer from the 1974 awards. The classically suave British actor, David Niven, was addressing the audience when a streaker ran across the stage. Unphazed and non-plussed, Niven delivered a fantastic response that shows how a truly effective presenter can turn even a potential disaster into a real gain.

Worst Oscar Speech
There is a certain amount of schadenfreude derived from watching professionals, who make a career out of being polished products of the industry, showing themselves up to be rather less inspiring than they would like to have you believe when not playing a role. So in this category I would to offer two great examples of hubris – the downfall of many a speaker who takes the stage puffed up on a sense of their own importance. The first comes in the form of George Clooney (Best Supporting Actor, Syriana) who does his very best to show Hollywood up for being the shallowest place on earth with his eulogy to the ‘out of touch’ community that has done so much to save the world from its many problems. The second nomination is for James Cameron (Best Director, Titanic), who took his ego to new heights as he declared himself to be ‘King of the World’, confirming his reputation for being a mighty ego.

Most Cringeworthy Oscar Speech
Because the bad and the ugly will often shed more light on how not to do things, here are two great examples of how not to present a speech when picking up an award. The first comes from Gwyneth Paltrow (Best Actress, Shakespeare in Love) in 1999, with a podium performance that prompted an almost palpable sense of embarrassment in the room as she took blubbing to the next level (with a tiny question mark over the legitimacy of those tears too). The second comes from Sean Penn (Best Actor, Mystic River) who gives the best illustration of why you should always prepare before your presentation. Telling the audience he hadn’t prepared a speech because he didn’t want to be presumptuous, and then mumbling and pausing his way through a ‘stab’ at an acceptance speech is just plain wrong, wrong, wrong!

Will 2017 deliver a speech to rank with any of these offerings? I certainly hope so. Great speeches are good, but toe curlingly embarrassing speeches to audience of millions are far more entertaining. We shall see what the drama of La La Land brings…

Luan de Burgh

February 2017

Luan de Burgh is a speaker, writer and founder of The de Burgh Group – a specialist business communication training provider dedicated to helping people perform at their highest potential.