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.

Actress Natalie Portman accepts the award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role for 'Black Swan'.
Natalie Portman accepts the Best Actress award at the 2011 Oscars.

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Slate has updated this article and interactive feature to reflect the 2012 Oscars.

When Daniel Day-Lewis wins his third Oscar on Sunday night—an event as likely as last year's Best Actor Jean Dujardin struggling adorably with "Quvenzhané Wallis" while reading the Best Actress nominees—whom will he thank? After Day-Lewis’s first win for My Left Foot, he thanked only Christy Brown, the man he'd played in the film. The second time he held an Oscar aloft, for There Will Be Blood, he was more effusive, mentioning family members by name and focusing his speech on his director Paul Thomas Anderson’s "mad, beautiful head." Who will this new speech focus on? With the heightened emotion an Oscar win brings, how do the stars ever remember who to thank—especially with the academy requesting that winners speak “from your heart, not from a piece of paper”?

This Sunday, three more actors will win Oscars along with Day-Lewis, and one more historical performance will be required of each of them: the acceptance speech. During the past 11 years, 43 actors have given acceptance speeches during the Oscar ceremony. (We’ve updated our interactive from last year with the four winners from 2012.)  Morgan Freeman delivered a 32-second moment of grace. Halle Berry’s speech was a 4.5-minute aria of gratitude. (Heath Ledger, of course, could not deliver a speech at all.) I watched and catalogued each one to see what patterns emerged. 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.

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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 recently, 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. At last year's ceremony Christopher Plummer ended with a gorgeous, self-deprecating tribute to his wife, Elaine, "who deserves the Nobel Peace Prize for coming to my rescue every day of my life." Meryl Streep, on the other hand, thought this move too risky and placed Don Gummer first "because when you thank your husband at the end of the speech, they play him out with the music." Meryl's fears aside—really, who would ever dare play off Meryl Streep?—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.

Who Thanks Whom

By Actor
By Type
won the Oscar for for a role in .
Top Billing
2nd Billing
3rd Billing
Supporting Players
And Featuring

Best Actor

Denzel Washington
Adrien Brody
Sean Penn
Jamie Foxx
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Forest Whitaker
Daniel Day-Lewis
Sean Penn
Jeff Bridges
Colin Firth
Jean Dujardin

Best Actress

Halle Berry
Nicole Kidman
Charlize Theron
Hilary Swank
Reese Witherspoon
Helen Mirren
Marion Cotillard
Kate Winslet
Sandra Bullock
Natalie Portman
Meryl Streep

Best Supporting Actor

Jim Broadbent
Chris Cooper
Tim Robbins
Morgan Freeman
George Clooney
Alan Arkin
Javier Bardem
Christoph Waltz
Christian Bale
Christopher Plummer

Best Supporting Actress

Jennifer Connelly
Catherine Zeta-Jones
Renee Zellweger
Cate Blanchett
Rachel Weisz
Jennifer Hudson
Tilda Swinton
Penelope Cruz
Mo'Nique
Melissa Leo
Octavia Spencer

Thanked

Thanked by

Year

Whom Is Thanked Most Often?

The graph below illustrates the number of times Oscar-winning actors have thanked each type of entity since 2002. Each block represents an entity thanked, and its color represents the order in which it was thanked.

First Billing
Second Billing
Third Billing
Supporting Players
And Featuring

Industry

Other

Producer

Co-star

Family

Director

Cast and crew

The Academy

Spouse

Child

Writer

Nominee

Role portrayed

God

Cast and Crew

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.

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