Want to know why I love the Oscars? Well, there are a few reasons, but certainly the most valuable is watching someone achieve their dreams right before your very eyes. Occasionally, someone involved in the film business wins an Oscar and instead of incoherently listing names or reading a speech they’ve written out of annoying presumption, they dig deep and a take few minutes to unveil who they really are. There’s something I find very moving in that experience. I hope you enjoy my picks and forgive the absence of names like Field, Hanks, Palance, Moore and Gooding, Jr. Their speeches gained notoriety, but the ones below drew on sensitivity.
Here are my three favorite speeches given by recipients of Oscar’s Honorary Lifetime Achievement Award.
Alfred Hitchcock (1968)
After a very warm introduction, Hitchcock, who never won a Best Director Oscar, slowly takes the stage, approaches the mic warmly, and delivers a speech only Hitch himself could provide.
Charlie Chaplin (1972)
With a 12 minute standing ovation (I love the guy who yells “Bravo!” over and over), and Chaplin’s overwhelmed reaction, this is, perhaps, the finest moment in Oscar history. And how about the first sentence of his speech? God, it’s just miraculous.
Kirk Douglas (1996)
“I see my four sons… they are proud, of the old man.” Yes, sir, they certainly are.
20. Russell Crowe
Best Actor, Gladiator (2000)
No, I’m not a fan of Gladiator or Russell Crowe’s performance in it. But that certainly doesn’t mean he didn’t give an overjoyed, wondrously heartfelt speech. Props to the control room director for that pan shot up from the statue. Well timed.
19. Gene Hackman
Best Supporting Actor, Unforgiven (1992)
There’s something special about a Hollywood tough guy who gracefully takes the stage, laughs in adulation of his win, then chokes up when dedicating his award to the uncle he’s recently lost. Brief, by extremely moving.
18. Kim Basinger
Best Supporting Actress, L.A. Confidential (1997)
Gloria Stuart was the presumed winner for her efforts in Titanic this year, so most everyone (including Cuba Gooding, Jr. who looks pleasantly surprised when he opens the envelope) was stunned by Basinger’s win. I love when Basinger raises her hands in victory, you can just tell she had no idea this was coming.
17. Mira Sorvino
Best Supporting Actress, Mighty Aphrodite (1995)
Sorvino’s appreciative speech is made exceptional when she tearfully thanks her father, Paul, for teaching her how to act. The big man breaks down, and the place applauds in exaltation.
16. Markéta Irglová
Best Song, Once (2006)
The fact that Irglová was even able to give her speech really speaks highly of everyone behind the scenes of this ceremony. Cut off during her initial speech, the telecast cut to commercial and upon returning, Jon Stewart announced he was going to bring Irglová back out so she could properly enjoy her moment. Well played, Jon. Oh, and damn fine speech, Markéta.
15. Frances McDormand
Best Actress, Fargo (1996)
I’m not sure if there has ever been a more articulate Oscar speech than McDormand’s here. Elegant, composed, and insanely well versed; McDormand wins the crowd over before thanking three final people in the best, most repetitive way possible.
14. Dustin Hoffman
Best Actor, Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
In the past, Dustin Hoffman was as critical about the Academy as George C. Scott, Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda – you name it. So when he carefully walked on stage to collect his prize, everyone wait in bated breath as to what the notoriously outspoken thespian was going to say. The tension was palpable, and he broke it perfectly.
13. Charlize Theron
Best Actress, Monster (2003)
Everyone knew Charlize Theron was going to win her first Oscar for portraying serial killer Aileen Wuornos. And the beginning of her speech is evidence of that: prepared, listing names, and so on. But the fact that she manages to thank her mother (her mother who famously killed Theron’s father in self defense) before breaking down, makes everything else worth it.
12. Branko Lustig
Best Picture, Schindler’s List (1993)
Best Picture Oscar speeches suck. Without fail. The viewers are tired, the in-house crowd is restless, and, most of the time, the winner is a forgone conclusion, so shock is completely removed from the situation. Now, if there was ever a lock for Best Picture, Schindler’s List was certainly it. But when producer Branko Lustig quietly stepped to the mic, he began by listing his number from when he was in Auschwitz, and ended with the crowd applauding over him, standing as they did it. I’m not sure that’s ever happened during a Best Picture speech before.
11. Joe Pesci
Best Supporting Actor, Goodfellas (1990)
The notoriously shy Pesci was vocal about his fear of winning the Oscar, simply because he did not want to have to give a speech. Thankfully, he was persuaded to show up to the ceremony, resulting in one of the most amusing Oscar speeches of all time. I don’t want to ruin it for people who haven’t seen it before. Just… watch this:
10. Geoffrey Fletcher
Best Adapted Screenplay, Precious (2009)
Part of my admiration for Oscar speeches is because of the surprise. Up in the Air was the heavy favorite this year for Adapted Screenplay, so when Geoffrey Fletcher’s name was called, he was as surprised as the rest of us. And this is what the Oscars should be all about (or at least about some of the time): awarding the worthy underdog. It’s a great moment, capped with an overwhelmed, moving, and very unexpected speech.
9. Tom Hanks
Best Actor, Forrest Gump (1994)
I mentioned earlier that I wasn’t going to list Tom Hanks’ Oscar speech, but I was referring to the infamous speech he gave following his Philadelphia win. And sure, while that may be a far more iconic moment, I frankly like the sentiment of his Forrest Gump speech better. Articulate, humble, and ever the loving husband, it’s exactly how we like to picture Tom Hanks.
8. Robin Williams
Best Supporting Actor, Good Will Hunting (1997)
Williams’ Oscar speech is some of the finest stand up he’s ever done. He’s funny, genuinely thankfully, and, for the briefest of moments, serious in the most heartfelt way. I can watch this speech endlessly. And that Billy Crystal hug at the end? Just perfect.
7. Steven Soderbergh
Best Director, Traffic (2000)
I’m hard pressed to think of a more thankful, self-effacing Oscar speech than Soderbergh’s win for Traffic. Just watch this, people. This is what it means to be an artist.
6. Louise Fletcher
Best Actress, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
After thanking those who gave her a shot, Fletcher’s speech seemed like it was going to end on an upbeat, if not somewhat forgettable note. And then she does it. She apologizes to those watching, takes a step back, and signs her most sincere thank you to her two deaf parents. The camera slowly zooms out, and Fletcher barely holds it together before ending her speech. Tell me that doesn’t bring tears to your eyes.
5. Ben Affleck and Matt Damon
Best Original Screenplay, Good Will Hunting (1997)
It all starts with Jack Lemmon’s ecstatic delivery. He reads (or rather, screams) the names of the winners, and hoots and howls as the telecast cuts to the two stunned screenwriters. They take the stage, embrace the grumpy old men, and feverishly try to cram in as many names as they can in their allotted stage time. They’re excited beyond words, and loving every second of it. Damon was 27 at the time. Affleck was 25. I mean, can you imagine.
4. Marion Cotillard
Best Actress, La vie en Rose (2007)
Best Actress 2007 was a lock. Julie Christie was going to win her second Oscar for playing a woman faded with Alzheimer’s in Away From Her. So when Forest Whitaker called Cotillard’s name, the French starlet (who was all but unknown to mainstream American audiences at the time) nearly collapsed in shock, as the other nominees (and everyone else in the theater) exploded into applause. Cotillard, who admittedly spoke very little English at the time, managed to briefly subside her astonishment by delivering one of the best send-off lines of any Oscar speech ever. I just love this moment.
3. Jorge Drexler
Best Song, The Motorcycle Diaries (2004)
This one deserves a little context. Because the Academy is a whore for ratings, they did not let relatively unknown Oscar nominee Jorge Drexler sing his nominated song, “Al Otro Lado Del Río,” during the musical performance section of the evening. Instead, Drexler’s personal friend, Antonio Banderas, performed the number, and that was that. So what did Drexler do when he won? He sang his damn song and let his voice be heard in the best possible way. A perfectly subtle FU to the people who tried to rob him of his moment.
(Note: the official Oscar YouTube channel has never posted Drexler’s speech. But the Spanish commentary from the viewers in the clip below actually makes the moment better.)
2. Gerda Weissmann Klein
Best Short Film – Live Action, One Survivor Remembers (1995)
The Best Short Film categories are treated by many as an excuse to use the bathroom, and nothing more. Fair enough, I suppose. But I think we forget that there are actual people living their dreams on the Oscar stage at that moment. None more so than Gerda Weissmann Klein, who was the subject of the short Holocaust remembrance film, One Survivor Remembers. As the speech begins, director Kary Antholis nervously reads his speech, before Klein steps to the mic and the music begins to cut her off.
Now pay attention here. The conductor who is in charge of cutting off speeches is usually the one who gets all of the shit, but it really isn’t his fault. The conductor is the tool, the director of the telecast sitting high in a control room is the one who tells the conductor to start the music. So, somewhere, a director in a boxed-off control room had the fortitude to have the conductor stop the music, and let Klein say what she had to say. The result is the most moving speech I have ever witnessed from an Oscar telecast. I defy you to not be moved.
1. Adrien Brody
Best Actor, The Pianist (2002)
This wasn’t even close. As soon as I got the idea to draft this list, Brody’s name went right at the top, no hesitation. The Best Actor race was between two people in 2002: Daniel Day-Lewis for his ferocious turn in Gangs of New York, and Jack Nicholson for his restrained brilliance in About Schmidt. If Nicholson won, he would’ve been the first actor to win three Best Actor trophies (which, coincidentally, Day-Lewis is about to do come Sunday). Had Day-Lewis nabbed it, it would’ve been the ultimate consolation prize for the role that drove him out of retirement.
So when Halle Berry gleefully read Adrien Brody’s name, everyone in the house lost it, namely Brody himself, who didn’t seem to believe the moment was real for a good seven seconds. He took to the stage, lent his appreciation to the standing crowd, rushed in for THAT kiss, and simply killed it on stage.
Now, it’s important to note that this broadcast aired on March 23, 2003, three days after George W. Bush declared war on Iraq. It was a tough time for America to say the least. Everyone was on edge, and people like Michael Moore (who earlier had denounced the President while accepting his Oscar for Best Documentary) were adding fuel to the fire that no one in the Kodak Theater wanted to feel. I remember watching Brody give his speech, and right around the time he began talking about war, I said aloud, “Oh, no, please don’t mess this up.” I should’ve had more faith in him, because he certainly did in us.
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