Data-Crunching a Decade of Oscar Acceptance Speeches

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Feb. 19 2013 2:38 PM

Does Oprah Get Thanked More Than God?

No, but Meryl does. Crunching the numbers on a decade-plus of Oscar acceptance speeches.

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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 and generally cite 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 again on Sunday night if Jennifer Lawrence wins Best Actress for Silver Linings Playbook. 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 toward her costumers, makeup artists, camera operators, and even the first assistant director.

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When a name crops up without a connection to the winning film, it’s usually a legendary celebrity. The past 43 speeches held multiple mentions for Oprah Winfrey (two), Sidney Poitier (two), and Meryl Streep (four). Meryl, ever wittily self-deprecating, couldn't help herself when she won last year, confessing  "when they called my name I had this feeling I could hear half of America going, ‘Oh no! Oh, c'mon why? Her? Again?’ "

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 four of the 43 actors skipped their director by name in their speech: Mo’Nique, Meryl Streep, 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?

Nathaniel Rogers blogs daily at the Film Experience. Follow him on Twitter.

Chris Kirk is Slate's interactives editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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