Sunday night's Oscar ceremony was proof that a lot of famous actors don't get there by thinking of what to say.
The Oscar acceptance speech is the opportunity for recipients to be remembered not just for the work they did, but also for what they graciously said about winning. Many of them, though, arrive on stage not just surprised that they won, but seemingly shocked that they would be expected to say something intelligent if they did.
Admittedly, they are in a bind. This is a professional event and they feel they need to thank people in the industry so they will have a chance to work with them again. And they can't afford to forget thanking their spouse like Hillary Swank, who has never been forgiven for overlooking the husband she later divorced. You have to say, "Thank You," but Anne Hathaway, the winner of Best Supporting Actress, thanked the Academy, the cast, the crew, her family, friends and 25 people by name, one of them twice.
Many of them don't know that the music will come up sooner if all they do is recite a list of names. And the actors need to remember that this is not a private event. They have to say something interesting and entertaining for millions of people watching on television. If Jennifer Lawrence had not fallen on the steps to the stage she would not have had her one good line. "You guys are just standing up because you feel bad that I fell and that's really embarrassing, but thank you." Then she went on to thank people no one outside the business knows.
In 2011 Melissa Leo went up there to accept for Best Supporting Actress with no speech and no class. She said to Kirk Douglas as he handed her the statue, "Wow, mine? For me?" Then she turned to the microphone and went on with "Oh, wow, really, really, truly, wow." After which she said, "Yeah, I am kind of speechless." Toward the end she blurted out the "F" word making her speech memorable in the way of an obscene tattoo on the arm of a pretty girl.
In her role as a presenter this year, Kristen Stewart showed that even when you do give an actor the lines, some will mumble like a teenager ordered to thank grandma for the nice sweater. She was barely able to handle the line, "Here are the nominees for achievement in production design." Didn't her mother tell her to speak up when talking to adults?
Some of the best Oscar speeches are spontaneous, or at least done well enough to make you think so. Sally Field accepting her second Oscar in 1985 famously said, "The first time I didn't feel it. But this time I feel it and I can't deny the fact that you like me. Right now. You like me."
This year a couple of actors schooled the rest on how to do it. Ben Affleck, who was denied even a nomination for Best Director, graciously spoke when his movie Argo won best picture. "I was here 15 years ago or something and I had no idea what I was doing," he said. "I stood out here in front of you all and really just a kid. I went out and I never thought I would be back here. And I am, because of so many of you who are here tonight, because of this Academy, because of so many wonderful people who extended themselves to me when they had nothing to benefit from it in Hollywood." He was humble, articulate, and appealing in his appreciation.
Daniel Day-Lewis won his third Best Actor and opened with, "I've had more than my fair share of good fortune in my life." Then he made people laugh with jokes about him playing Margaret Thatcher and Meryl Streep doing Lincoln.
He used words at their best. "My fellow nominees, my equals, my betters, I'm so proud to have been included as one amongst you." That's the way to say something without just listing names.
Day-Lewis thanked his wife with a charming and self-deprecating joke about how he lives as his character when he's making a movie."My wife Rebecca has lived with some very strange men," he said. "Luckily she's the versatile one in the family and she's been the perfect companion to all of them." Hardly a woman alive would not love to be thanked like that.
And when it came time to name names, he did it cinematically. "At the apex of that human pyramid then are three men to whom I owe this and a great deal more, Tony Kushner, our beloved skipper Steven Spielberg, and the mysteriously beautiful mind, body and spirit of Abraham Lincoln."
That's an Oscar speech. We'd like to thank the Academy for giving us Daniel Day-Lewis.