Dan Kois, Troy Patterson, and Dana Stevens will be on Slate’s Facebook page at 11 a.m. on Monday to chat with readers about Sunday’s Oscar ceremony.
This Sunday, four more actors will win Oscars, justly or unjustly going down in history as some of the great performers of all time. But each winner will have one more great performance required of him or her: the speech. Over the past 10 years, 39 actors have given acceptance speeches during the Oscar ceremony (Heath Ledger, of course, could not), ranging from Morgan Freeman’s 32-second moment of grace to Halle Berry’s four-and-a-half-minute aria of gratitude. I watched and catalogued each one to see what patterns emerged.
With all the heightened emotion an Oscar win brings, how do the stars ever remember whom to thank? The Academy urges winners not to read speeches, knowing that it’s bad television. (And really, should any Oscar-winning actor claim not to be able to remember lines?) It’s my firm belief that what comes out in the moment—or doesn’t—is a true reflection of feeling, whether the speech feels rehearsed and polished or immediate and spazzy. And in Hollywood—and what’s more Hollywood than the Oscars?—billing matters.
First is best, of course. Agents may battle for top billing on their clients’ behalf, but they rarely get it themselves on Oscar night—just one acting-Oscar winner in the past 10 years, Tilda Swinton, thanked an agent before thanking anyone else. Last in the speech is also special; if you can’t get top billing make sure you get the “And …” spot that in a film’s credits might be reserved for the biggest star of all. Most winners end with a loved one, usually a spouse or child—even an unborn child. Catherine Zeta-Jones was very pregnant when she won for Chicago at the 75th Oscars (“My hormones are just too way out of control!”) and ended by mentioning that she’d share the Oscar with her impending arrival.
The tool below allows you to see who was thanked in each actor's speech, and when: first, second, third, in the rabble in the middle, or in that glorious final position.
Certainly it’s better to come last than to be forgotten entirely. It’s perhaps ungenerous to remind them but here goes: Best actress and Million Dollar Baby Hilary Swank attempted to apologize to her husband Chad Lowe at the 77th Oscars for forgetting to thank him the first time she won, but she couldn’t help but congratulate herself in the process: “I'm going to start by thanking my husband, because I'd like to think I learn from past mistakes.” They were divorced two years later. Sean Penn thanked Robin Wright the first time he won for Mystic River at the 2003 Oscars but forgot her when he took home his second for Milk. They divorced a year later.
Winners are most likely to become choked up when they mention their family members, which could be one reason they save them for the finale. Moms are referenced most often, though dads are hardly snubbed. Occasionally a winner will mix it up with an inspirational grandparent. When Jamie Foxx told a loving story about his grandmother repeatedly whipping him, the atmosphere in the room seemed to change from exhilarated to should we be clapping?
Though it seems a cliché to thank fellow nominees, it actually happens less often than you think. That’s why Sandra Bullock’s extremely generous speech for The Blind Side at the 2009 Oscars—wherein she addressed each and every one of her fellow nominees by name—was so unusual; no wonder she’s beloved in the industry.
Hollywood (and by extension the academy) is notoriously hard on actresses, so is it any surprise that they receive fewer standing ovations than the men—yet work harder at ingratiating themselves to the powers that be? Actresses start by thanking “the Academy” more often than their male counterparts, and once they get going they aren’t as quick to stop, generally citing a longer list of people. More interesting still is that they have long memories, often ceding credit to those who helped them rise to fame. The Reader’s Kate Winslet thanked Peter Jackson at the 2009 Oscars presumably because he discovered her with Heavenly Creatures, 15 years before. Penélope Cruz, who won the same night for a Woody Allen picture, thanked three earlier directors, including “my friend Pedro Almodóvar for having made me a part of so many of his adventures.” Halle Berry and Natalie Portman had similarly deep appreciation for the directors who gave them their big breaks.
Male winners occasionally looked back to early influences, but only if they were family members. Jeff Bridges, for example, thanked his mom and dad for “turning me on to such a groovy profession” and told a story about his dad teaching him the basics of acting. Colin Firth thanked Harvey Weinstein for “discovering me when I was a mere child sensation” but it was a joke referring only to previous collaborations when he was a touch younger. He had to thank Harvey anyway for backing The King’s Speech.
You’ll hear Harvey’s name, and loudly at that, this Sunday night, even though he’s pushing a silent film. The Weinstein Company impresario helped shape the modern (relentless, shameless) style of awards campaigns, and his methods work. Perhaps you can even blame him for the amount of publicists who are thanked by name on the big night. It says something about the Oscars, or at least about celebrity actors, that their publicists are thanked by name so much more often than the people who help shape their award-winning performances. Costume designers, cinematographers, editors and the like usually have to settle for the sad generic tent of “cast and crew”—though Natalie Portman’s Black Swan speech made a heartfelt name-filled detour towards her costumers, makeup artists, camera operators, and even the first AD.
When a name crops up without a connection to the winning film, it’s usually a legendary celebrity. The past 39 speeches held multiple mentions for Oprah Winfrey (2), Sidney Poitier (2), and Meryl Streep (4). The last is still famously waiting for someone to read her name from a winning envelope for the third time; nevertheless, she just might be sick of hearing her own name.
Though it won’t surprise anyone who thinks of Hollywood as a contemporary Babylon, God has only been thanked three times. Oscar is the world’s shiniest and most coveted false idol, the golden calf in the Hollywood Hills. It’s not that God is never mentioned: Denzel Washington started with “God is great” and Jennifer Hudson claimed, “Look what God can do!” (Make the other four nominees lose?) There’s a reason for this notable lack of the divine and it isn’t the absence of religious faith. It’s just that to actors, the director is God.
“You’ve truly rocked my life,” Marion Cotillard shouted to her director with the fervor of someone born again. Halle Berry named hers “a genius” and cried for his gentle guidance. Tilda Swinton directly noted the divine when she won for Michael Clayton. “Tony Gilroy walks on water. It’s entirely official as far as I’m concerned.” Only three of the 39 actors skipped their director by name in their speech: Mo’Nique, Alan Arkin—and George Clooney, whose speech might have been the most curious of all.
When Clooney won for Syriana he began by quipping, “All right, so I’m not winning director,” referencing his other nomination that night for Good Night, and Good Luck. The speech that followed had a couple big laughs but was mostly a serious ode to the Academy’s progressiveness—and, by extension, George Clooney’s own. He thanked no one directly. Who needs to worship a false idol when the man in the mirror is a golden god?
Denzel Washington and Jamie Foxx by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images; Adrien Brody and Renee Zellweger by Mike Coppola/Getty Images; Sean Penn by Michael Buckner/Getty Images; Philip Seymour Hoffman by Samir Hussein/Getty Images; Forest Whitaker and Jennifer Hudson by Mark Davis/Getty Images; Daniel Day-Lewis by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images; Sean Penn #2, Helen Mirren, Alan Arkin, and Mo'Nique by Kevin Winter/Getty Images; Jeff Bridges by Jemal Countess/Getty Images; Colin Firth by Dave J Hogan/Getty Images; Halle Berry by Joe Corrigan/Getty Images; Nicole Kidman by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images; Charlize Theron, Kate Winslet, and Tim Robbins by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images; Hilary Swank by Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images; Reese Witherspoon by Noel Vasquez/Getty Images; Marion Cotillard by Francois Durand/Getty Images; Sandra Bullock and Jennifer Connelly by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images; Natalie Portman by Rabbani and Solimene Photography/Getty Images; Jim Broadbent and Penelope Cruz by Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images; Chris Cooper by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images; Morgan Freeman, Christian Bale, and Catherine Zeta-Jones by Jason Merritt/Getty Images; George Clooney and Tilda Swinton by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images; Javier Bardem by Angelika Warmuth/AFP/Getty Images; Christoph Waltz by Valerie Macon/AFP/Getty Images); Cate Blanchett by Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images; Rachel Weisz by Alexandra Wyman/Getty Images; Melissa Leo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images.