The Oscars have certainly had their share of unplanned, live-TV moments. Last night offered perhaps the most shocking one in the ceremony’s almost century-old history, in the form of an openhanded slap from an A-lister who would win his first trophy only 15 minutes later. But if Will Smith’s smackdown of Chris Rock became the most-talked-about incident from yesterday’s show, it also came to overshadow some significant wins—wins that yielded the kind of moments that proved how fundamental live speeches are to the Oscars.
This year’s producers had relegated eight categories to receiving awards before the telecast, which meant those winners’ acceptance speeches had to be delivered to a half-empty room. The show prioritized entertaining potential viewers over honoring trophy recipients, but no amount of embellishing—whether the assorted bits from the three hosts or the Oscars-themed version of “We Don’t Talk About Bruno”—could stop a pair of performers from proving the power of taking the stage on air and in front of their peers.
Early in the night, before the Smith moment, West Side Story’s Ariana DeBose and CODA’s Troy Kotsur won for their supporting performances in their respective films. In their history-making triumphs—DeBose is the first openly queer woman of color to win an acting Oscar, while Kotsur is the first deaf male actor to win—they offered potent reminders of why the acceptance speech deserves everyone’s full attention.
DeBose’s win was the first of the night, and she conveyed her gratitude while speaking directly to viewers who may have waited decades for a moment like hers. Through her words, DeBose underlined the importance of the Oscars’ visibility. “Imagine this little girl in the backseat of a white Ford Focus,” she said. “Look into her eyes. You see a queer—openly queer—woman of color, an Afro Latina, who found her strength and life through art. That’s what I believe we’re here to celebrate. To anybody who has ever questioned your identity … or found yourself living in the gray spaces, I promise you that there is, indeed, a place for us.”
An hour later, Kotsur covered similarly personal ground (CODA would go on to win Best Picture). Although his acceptance was slightly more humorous—he admitted he had wanted to teach President Joe Biden some “dirty” sign language during a recent visit to the White House—his time on stage had an even more immediate and stirring effect. His words inspired a standing ovation, and nearly the entire audience inside the Dolby signed their applause.
“I read one of [Steven] Spielberg’s books recently, and he said that the definition of the best director is a skilled communicator,” Kotsur signed as he shared his gratitude for his own director, who later won for Best Adapted Screenplay. “Sian Heder, you are the best communicator … you brought the deaf world and the hearing world together. You are our bridge, and your name will forever be on that bridge.”
The Oscars can be a bridge, too, between the pageantry of the awards and the sincere recognition felt by those honored. Not every speech will captivate people at home, but DeBose and Kotsur, in their concise, beautifully delivered comments, showed the potential of an unaltered acceptance. Sure, neither’s time on stage was the most dramatic moment of the night. But consider the way, late into Kotsur’s speech, his interpreter tried and then failed to hold back tears as he translated Kotsur’s words. Sometimes, the Oscars need little fanfare to resonate with those tuning in—just a place for such heartfelt emotion to be expressed.