Funny, stirring, weird, embarrassing: There are all sorts of reasons to love an acceptance speech. The greatest sin one can commit in giving one isn’t, as some seem to think, forgetting to thank your agent: it’s being boring. We love to be moved and inspired by a speech, no question, but an off-colour joke, a lost shoe, or a confusing non-sequitur will also do nicely.
With this year’s Academy Awards broadcast poised to offer more memorable moments on Sunday, let’s look back at some of the most offbeat, delightful acceptance speeches from past awards shows.
In no particular order, the nominees are…
Daniel Kaluuya: Best Supporting Actor Oscar, 2021
The Oscar ceremony broadcast in 2021 was a bit looser than earlier ceremonies, with COVID forcing the proceedings into a smaller venue. The result was the dinner-party atmosphere more familiar to Golden Globes viewers, which meant more chance for the unexpected. Daniel Kaluuya gave a lovely, powerful speech after winning for his role in Judas and the Black Messiah, but the most memorable bit wound up being the moment when he thanked his mum and dad for having sex and creating him, followed by a cut to his slightly confused mother.
Halle Berry: Best Actress Oscar, 2002
“This moment is so much bigger than me,” said Halle Berry of her Oscar for Monster’s Ball. She was, at the time, the first Black Best Actress winner, and understandably emotional regarding her place in history. Though it takes away nothing from her achievement, she remains, two decades later, the only Black Best Actress winner.
Olivia Colman: Best Actress Oscar, 2019
Colman is all of us (well, all of us if we had a shot at an Oscar). She barely holds it together in the most delightful way possible, giving a zippy, rambling speech during which she blows a raspberry to the timekeeper and gets extra excited when she spots Lady Gaga in the front row.
Jack Nicholson: Best Actor BAFTA, 1975
Starring in some of the most important movies of the 1970s, Jack Nicholson’s appearance here represents a fascinating artistic confluence: he’s accepting a dual award for his performances in The Last Detail and Chinatown, but doing so from the set of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest — for which he’d win another BAFTA (and many other awards, besides) two years later.
Frances McDormand: Best Actress Oscar, 2018
Frances McDormand gives nearly as good a speech as she does a performance, and this one was among the most memorable. The highlight moment is when she asks all the female nominees in every category to stand with her, imploring Meryl Street to help her rouse the nominees. She concludes with a surprisingly rousing two words: “Inclusion rider.” Call it the speech that launched tens of thousands of google searches.
Marlon Brando: Best Actor Oscar, 1973
One of Oscar’s most memorable speeches came about because the winner didn’t show: Marlon Brando, with every expectation of winning a Best Actor prize for his turn as Vito Corleone in The Godfather, turned his moment over to Native American civil rights activist Sacheen Littlefeather in protest of Hollywood’s treatment of indigenous characters and people. The speech wasn’t particularly well received at the time, with some finding any discussion of serious topics at the award ceremony inappropriate, and others seeing it as a stunt. Regardless, the speech did draw attention to the then ongoing Wounded Knee Occupation, and it’s a moment that we’ve been talking about ever since.
Michael Moore: Best Documentary Oscar, 2003
Michael Moore used his Bowling for Columbine win as a chance to speak out on the Iraq War, shouting: “Shame on you, Mr Bush!” to audible boos from the audience. Though the passage of time has vindicated his stance, viewers always have a mixed reaction to politically charged speeches. Me? I’m pro-anything interesting that happens during the telecast.
Patricia Arquette: Best Supporting Actress Oscar, 2015
Giving a rousing call for wage equality in America, Arquette fared far better with the Oscars audience than had earlier winners who used their time to make a point. Perhaps it’s an issue whose time had come, even if it’s still…very much an issue seven years later.
The moment even inspired a much-used gif involving Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez. How many award speeches get that honour?
Meryl Streep: Best Actress BAFTA, 2012
Speaking of, the preternaturally composed Streep gives a fine speech, but the memorable moment here involves her trip to the microphone, during which she loses a shoe. Fortunately, her Mamma Mia co-star Colin Firth is on hand to help her out.
Jennifer Lawrence: Best Actress Golden Globe, 2013
Pithily saying out loud what many an actress had probably thought before, Jennifer Lawrence accepted her award with a quote from The First Wives Club: “What does it say? I beat Meryl!” (Meryl Streep was up for her role in Hope Springs.)
Michaela Coel: Best Female Performance BAFTA, 2016
Accepting her award for Chewing Gum (which, OK, is technically a TV show — I’ve opted not to throw away a good speech on a technicality), Cole offered some good advice for “anyone who looks a bit like me, or feels like they don’t fit in,” stating, “You are beautiful, embrace it. You are intelligent, embrace it, you are powerful, embrace it.”
Jodie Foster: Cecil B. deMille Award at the Golden Globes, 2013
It’s a lovely speech in general, but the big moment that everyone was talking about was Jodie Foster’s non-traditional coming out moment. The speech has been interpreted as either brave, defensive, passive-aggressive, cryptic, or all of the above…but, regardless, it was memorable.
Ving Rhames: Best Actor Golden Globe, 1998
Two giants share the stage when Ving Rhames tearfully acknowledged his win as the lead in Don King: Only in America, and then invited speechless fellow nominee Jack Lemmon onstage to share the spotlight.
Hattie McDaniel: Best Supporting Actress Oscar, 1940
The first, and for many decades the only, Black winner in a major category, Hattie McDaniel’s win for Gone with the Wind was a watershed moment in Oscar history, even if the seed planted there has taken far, far too long to bear fruit.
Yuh-Jung Youn: Best Supporting Actress Oscar, 2021
In perhaps the most sheerly delightful speech in Oscar history, Yuh-Jung begins by introducing herself to Brad Pitt from the dais, then expresses shock that she could ever be in competition with Glenn Close and makes a rousing call for the acknowledgement of our shared humanity, before finally thanking her two boys: “who make me go out and work.”
“Mummy works so hard!”
Lupita Nyong’o: Best Supporting Actress Oscar, 2014
Both exuberant and powerfully sincere, Nyong’o concludes her speech by asking that the statue remind “…me, and every little child, that no matter where you are from, your dreams are valid.’
Emma Thompson: Screenplay Golden Globe, 1996
Winning for her adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, Thompson gave her entire speech in character as Jane Austen. What might have been a silly gimmick winds up being unexpectedly charming and funny, and a cute way of giving credit for the original story where it was due.
Hugh Laurie: Best Actor Golden Globe, 2006
At first threatening a list of thank yous running to 172 names, Hugh Laurie concedes that the appropriate volume of appreciation would take much too long. Instead, or so he says, he has placed the 172 names in his pocket and will choose three at random. The rest, he says, can “lump it.” A novel solution.
Julia Roberts: Best Actress Oscar, 2001
Julia Roberts finds another novel solution to the problem of all those thank yous: rather than paring down her list, she warns the timekeepers that she has plenty to say, before thanking “…anyone I’ve ever met in my whole life.”
Roberto Benigni: Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, 1999
It’s surely not the most excited that an Oscar winner has ever been, but it’s certainly the most outwardly exuberant. Benigni wasn’t afraid to let people see how happy he was to have won for his Life is Beautiful, literally climbing over the seats to reach the stage.
Cate Blanchett: Best Actress Golden Globe, 2014
With a reminder that the Globes are always a bit boozier than many of the other major awards shows, an admittedly tipsy Blanchett gets through her speech, but concludes with a thank you “…For plying me with vodka in the way that Judy Garland was probably plied with barbiturates…”
Which is certainly a moment.
Cuba Gooding Jr.: Best Supporting Actor Oscar, 1997
Very nearly matching Roberto Benigni for excitement, Cuba Gooding Jr.’s win for his role in Jerry Maguire is a joy to watch unfold, especially when the band’s attempt to play him off the stage fails utterly.
Bette Midler: New Star of the Year Golden Globe, 1980
Signalling, perhaps, a turn into a more mainstream career, Bette Midler vowed that she wouldn’t swear during her acceptance speech…compromising, instead, by shouting: “I’ll show you a pair of Golden Globes!”
Sacha Baron Cohen: Best Actor Golden Globe, 2007
Not that Sacha Baron Cohen is incapable of seriousness, but what did you expect from an awards speech from Borat himself? The speech kicks off with a bit about the dark side of America being his co-star’s anus and testicles, and things go down- (or up-?) hill from there.
Sally Field: Best Actress Oscar, 1985
Surely this must be the most quoted line in an Oscar acceptance speech? Except most people probably misquote it. She never said, “You really, really like me.”
Anna Paquin: Best Supporting Actress Oscar, 1994
Eleven-year-old Anna Paquin found herself literally speechless as she was called upon to accept her award — one which made her nearly, but not quite, the youngest Best Actress winner (that superlative still belongs to Tatum O’Neal, who was 10 when she won for Paper Moon.)
Tom Hanks: Best Actor Oscar, 1994
This win came at a time when it was perceived as incredibly daring for a straight actor (or a queer one, for that matter) to play a gay man onscreen, which probably helped Hanks chances here. But his performance in Philadelphia also helped to turn a tide toward acceptance of those who were living with, and had been lost to, HIV/AIDS. He memorably honoured them in his speech: “The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels. We know their names. They number a thousand for each of the red ribbons we wear here tonight.”
Marlee Matlin: Best Actress Oscar, 1987
It’s less the content of Marlee Matlin’s speech than its historic nature: beating out some all-time impressive competition (Jane Fonda, Sissy Spacek, Kathleen Turner, and Sigourney Weaver), Matlin’s well-deserved win made her not only the youngest Best Actress winner, but the only deaf winner in Oscar history.
Sidney Poitier: Best Actor Oscar, 1964
Poitier didn’t say much. He didn’t have to.
Chloé Zhao: Best Director Oscar, 2021
Oscar’s reigning Best Director gave a thoughtful and moving speech with a cohesive message centered around the Chinese verse that she quotes, one that translates to: “People at birth are inherently good.” She dedicates the award to those who hold on to the good in themselves, a rather necessary message circa 2022.
Patty Duke: Best Supporting Actress Oscar, 1962
Tied for shortest speech in Oscar history with Anthony Quinn (who gave the same speech in 1956), Patty Duke made history not by saying a lot, but by saying so little.
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