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What happens when Hollywood goes off script.
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And the award goes to…
Acceptance speeches are a rare peek beyond the highly filtered veil of modern celebrity. The moment of surprise that comes from winning a major award like an Oscar or an Emmy can throw some stars off so much that they’re left speechless, say too much, or have the kind of awkward moments created by the pressure of live television.
For nominees who are contenders for major awards, like the Oscars, acceptance speeches can boil down to a science—interweaving humility while pleasing the Academy with acknowledgement to the community. Other performers use their platform to make a political statement, bashing politicians, advocating for diversity, or protesting war. The best get clever, with a sonnet, a freestyle, or a Jane Austen homage. Here are some words for the people who really matter, you the readers (and our agents).
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By the digits
5 minutes and 30 seconds: Longest Oscar acceptance speech, given by Greer Garson for Best Actress for the film Mrs. Miniver in 1943
582: Words in Halle Berry’s Best Actress Oscar acceptance speech for Monster’s Ball in 2002, when she became the first African-American to win the award
45 seconds: Maximum length of Oscar acceptance speeches now
2: Words in 16-year-old Patty Duke’s acceptance speech for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for The Miracle Worker in 1963: “Thank you”
12 minutes: Length of the standing ovation Charlie Chaplin received for his honorary Oscar in 1972
19: Nominations it took soap-opera legend Susan Lucci before she got to accept an Emmy
14: Lines in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2016 Tony Awards acceptance speech for Best Score for Hamilton, in the form of a sonnet
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How we 💁 now
Strange and downright cringey off-script moments during acceptance speeches abound. Here are some of the weirdest:
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“This world is bulls**t…. You shouldn’t model your life about what you think we think is cool and what we’re wearing and what we’re saying… Go with yourself.” —Fiona Apple, 1997 MTV Video Music Awards
“This moment is so much bigger than me… it’s for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.” —Halle Berry, Best Actress Academy Awards 2002
“You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there. So here’s to all the writers…. People who have redefined what it means to be beautiful, to be sexy, to be a leading woman. To be black.” —Viola Davis, Best Actress in a Drama Series 2015 Emmys
“For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dare speak the truth to the power of those men. But their time is up. Their time is up. Their time is up!” —Oprah Winfrey, Cecil B. DeMille Award acceptance speech at 2018 Golden Globes
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1929: The first Academy Awards ceremony is held at Hollywood’s Roosevelt Hotel.
1940: Hattie McDaniel is the first African-American to receive an Oscar. “I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything I may be able to do in the future,” she says. “I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race.”
1953: The Academy Awards are broadcast on television for the first time.
1972: Charlie Chaplin receives an honorary award at the Oscars, his first time back in the US since being banned after he was labeled a communist by Sen. Joseph McCarthy in 1952.
1984: Sally Field delivers her iconic line: “And I can’t deny the fact that you like me. Right now, you like me!”
2010: The Oscar producers restrict acceptance speeches to 45 seconds.
2017: La La Land producer Fred Berger gets interrupted mid-speech when Warren Beatty realizes he had the wrong envelope for the Best Picture winner, which was actually Moonlight.
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Million-dollar question: Is this the place for politics?
During Ricky Gervais’s opening monologue at the 2020 Golden Globes, he told the audience, “If you do win an award tonight, don’t use it as a platform to make a political speech… You know nothing about the real world.” It’s become common for winners to voice ways to change the current political and social environment, from Patricia Arquette’s 2015 Oscars acceptance speech about pay inequality to Leonardo DiCaprio urging people to take climate change seriously in 2016. But Gervais might be onto something.
Even well-intentioned political acceptance speeches often don’t say anything groundbreaking, or they can be well-intentioned but tone deaf—Arquette got heat for how she addressed the LGBTQ community and women of color in follow-up comments.
Actors might be better off taking a cue from Marlon Brando, who boycotted the Academy Awards and gave his platform to activist Sacheen Littlefeather to speak on behalf of the treatment of Native Americans by the film industry.
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Before the winners even make their acceptance speeches, the Oscars makes nameplates for all the nominees ahead of time, meaning more than 200 are made almost every year.
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