Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, and More Give Lessons on the Perfect Acceptance Speech

More
Sandra Bullock_post.jpg

YouTube

The Critics Choice Awards and the Golden Globes air this weekend, the pivotal first opportunities for the likes of Natalie Portman, Christian Bale, and Jesse Eisenberg to test out their own acceptance speeches. You see, when it comes to awards season, the speech is nearly as important as the award. Especially with today's endless kudos calendar, speeches at the precursory ceremonies serve as almost auditions for the big show: Are you exciting enough for us to feature you at entertainment's biggest night? Remember, the Critics Choice ceremony last year was where Sandra Bullock and Meryl Streep famously locked lips--the first of many Bullock speeches that ingratiated her to voters, arguably more so than her actual performance in The Blind Side.

Just as Bullock charmed the pants off voters with each successive speech, a bad one can stop Oscar momentum dead in its tracks. There are many theories as to why Eddie Murphy, such a sure bet to win the Oscar for Dreamgirls, lost that year--the Norbit-effect being one of them. But awards experts agree that Murphy's dull, self-satisfied, ungracious speech at that year's Golden Globes may have turned off voters so much that it contributed to their decision to reward veteran actor Alan Arkin for his performance in Little Miss Sunshine on Oscar night instead.

Given the stakes here, what makes a good speech? Here's a guide to great speech-giving, complete with video lessons by those who did it best:

1. Scrap the List ...

Oscar-winners are given roughly 45 seconds to say something meaningful while accepting their statue; they key to remember is that this is an acceptance speech, not a thank you speech. There is nothing more infuriating, boring, and wasteful of the opportunity than to read off the long list of people no one's ever heard of, with no context of who they are: lawyers, agents, writers, producers, make up artists, publicists key grips, and the rest of the long list of people (usually separated by an insufferable amount of "ums") in the credits of your film that people don't stay to read for a reason.

Oscar producers became so fed up with this that the introduced a backstage "Thank You" cam for winners to read that list of names to, in the hopes of jazzing up those boring speeches. Last year the producers staged an intervention, warning nominees at the pre-Oscar luncheon that thank you lists were the single-most hated thing about the telecast, instructing them instead to use their time to say what winning the Oscar means to them. They even showed them an example, Renee Zellweger:



Zellweger deserves credit for at least explaining why each person she lists is important in her life (extra credit for an unexpected shout out to Tom Cruise for teaching her how to be classy), but the speech still too closely resembles a laundry list. The best "thank yous" contain heartfelt anecdotes, like Reese Witherspoon in 2006:



America Ferrara did a brilliant job during her 2007 Golden Globe win for Ugly Betty thanking the appropriate suits in a way that's actually a moving expression of her gratitude:



Rather than naming names, director Steven Soderberg paid tribute to all creators:



2: ... But Make Sure to Thank Your Family--and Try to Cry While Doing It

Must of us can only wish for the opportunity to stand in front of the world and tell those we love the most how much they mean to us. It's why seeing tearful stars thank their families resonates so sharply, turning millions of viewers into blubbering messes. Sandra Bullock's masterful acceptance speech at last year's ceremony was equal parts humble, humorous, and heartfelt, but the part that Oscar viewers lived for, really, was seeing her choke up as she thanked her late mother and then-(oy) husband:



While nuclear levels of arrogance can radiate off Jamie Foxx at times, his honest, moving homage to his grandmother is one of the key Kleenex moments in recent awards show memory:



As is Charlize Theron's love letter to her mother. Mothers. Thank your mother, and just watch the waterworks flow:



3. Say Something Meaningful

There are fewer platforms bigger than an awards stage. Actors are skilled at delivering words meant to move and inspire people--that's how they made it up to the podium in the first place. The best speeches are ones that forgo the self-congratulatory lists, and instead deliver something of poignancy. To that regard, grab a tissue and watch Tom Hanks:



Shirley Maclaine used her time in 1984 to acknowledge the privilege of being an artist:



A rags-to-riches story never fails to inspire waterworks, something Whoopi Goldberg showed us during her acceptance speech for Ghost:



And perhaps no one was more cognizant of the historical significance of their win than Halle Berry. Though perhaps excessively histrionic, the spirit of Berry's speech, an homage to all those who have had an uphill battle, is the epitome of an "Oscar moment":



With a better economy of words, Sidney Poitier's succinctly, but just as touchingly, addresses his momentous win:



4. Have a Great Opening Line

Speech 101: Always open with a joke. Cynics and curmudgeons will debate the validity of this advice, but if Barbra Streisand's acceptance speech is any indication, opening with the right one-liner could be as much of a career boon as the award itself:



To say that the "this is so much heavier than I imagined!" joke has become trite would be an understatement, but as Marlon Brando shows, once upon a time it was fresh material:



Julie Andrews became a national treasure with her opener:



And Dianne Wiest proved herself nearly as funny as her Oscar scribe Woody Allen with her ice-breaker:



5. Don't Read off Notecards

There's a Pavlonian groan that happens whenever an audience sees an award-recipient march up that marble staircase with a piece of paper in hand. It's as if they're suddenly shocked after spending more than four weeks as a nominee that there's a chance they'd have to actually say something. You're actors. Memorize it. Awards magnet Tina Fey is a shining example of the brilliance of a prepared speech:



As is Sacha Baron Cohen:



But if you are going to read something, it better be a joke. Emma Thompson, bring your notes to the podium anytime:



Steve Carell, you get a pass as well:



6. Acknowledge Your Fellow Nominees

It's just classy.

Dustin Hoffman, show 'em how it's done:



7. Smile, Dammit

You just won the Oscar.

Is there anything more irritating than watching someone mosey to the stage as if they're on a funeral march? Take lessons in enthusiasm from the adorable Ben Affleck and Matt Damon:



Lose yourself in the moment like Marion Cotillard, perhaps the only person in the world to still believe there are angels in LA:



The most beautiful people on the planet are at the Oscars each year. Why not make out with one of them?:



Or use your time in the spotlight to show off your pique fitness with some calisthenics?



Let the joy takeover your body like a goofy Italian man:



You just won the Oscar. Pumping your fists as you cross the finish line is more than appropriate, as Richard Dreyfuss shows us:



As Jack Lemmon exhibits, jubilation can be composed and still effective:



And if you're Julia Roberts, you have carte blanche to employ your trademark guffaw at will:



8. If All Else Fails, Keep It Short and Sweet

One of the best parts of old Hollywood was its efficiency. Just look and this brief, yet highly appropriate acceptance speeches from the likes of Grace Kelly:



And Audrey Hepburn:



Jane Fonda spoke volumes with her brevity, given common knowledge of her politics:



And the as-short-in-words-as-she-is-in-stature Ruth Gordon:



9. But If Really All Else Fails, Think WWMD: What Would Meryl Do?







Jump to comments
Presented by

Kevin Fallon is a reporter for the Daily Beast. He's a former entertainment editor at TheWeek.com and former writer and producer for The Atlantic's entertainment channel.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Why Do Men Assume They're So Great?

Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, authors of this month's Atlantic cover story, sit down with Hanna Rosin to discuss the power of confidence and how self doubt holds women back. 


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

Just In