All About Oscar: History and Politics of the Academy Awards

Suppose you won an Oscar, what would you say. How would you grab your 45 seconds in the spotlight?

Oscar speeches are often the show’s most memorable–and most hilarious–moments, perhaps because they still maintain an aura of spontaneity.

Over the years, the speeches have shown great variability in length, substance (or lack of), and originality. The “Thank You” is the only customary note in the speech, but various people and objects have been thanked for different reasons. Maureen Stapleton (“Reds”) outdid them all, when she thanked “everybody I ever met in my entire life.”

Oscar can do strange things to the contenders, as Lili Zanuck, producer of “Driving Miss Daisy”, said: “I hope I’m as religious the rest of the year as I’ve been the last two months.”

Here is a sample of Oscar speeches that capture the flavor of their winners’ personality and their times.

The Long and the Short of It:
The all-time record (over 5 minutes) still belongs to Greer Garson, “Mrs. Miniver”, who thanked everyone, from the Academy to “the doctor who brought me into the world.” Garson’s speech became a joke in Hollywood, imitated to death at parties.

The shortest one is Joe Pesci’s, “GoodFellas”, who simply said, “It’s my privilege. Thank you.”

“I wrote a long movie and I’m going to make a long speech,” quipped John Briley, Original Screenplay for “Gandhi”, and he did. So did Beatrice Straight, whose speech was almost as long as her part in “Network”, practically three scenes!

It’s All in the Timing
“It just happened that this year Mrs. March and I adopted a child and Mr. and Mrs. Beery adopted a child. And here we are, both getting awards for the best male performance of the year.” Fredric March, “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, who split the 1931/2 Best Actor with Wallace Beery, “The Champ”.

The Long, Long Way to Oscar:
“It sure is a wonderful world when a tired crooner like me can walk away with this hunk of crockery.” Bing Crosby, “Going My Way”.

“It took me as long to win this as it took to win the West.” James Webb, Original Screenplay, “How the West Was Won”.

“I thought some day I might win an award for lasting so long! But I never thought I would get this particular award.” A tearful John Wayne, “True Grit”.

Tears, But No Time to Cry:
“I’m happy enough to cry, but I can’t take the time to do so. A taxi is waiting outside with the engine running.” Claudette Colbert, Best Actress for “It Happened One Night”, rushing to the train station.

Oscar Pregnancies:
“I may have the baby right here out of excitement.” Eva Marie Saint, “On the Waterfront”.

“It was a long walk, I didn’t think I would make it. As wonderful as “From Here to Eternity” was, what’s even more wonderful is Eternity to Here.” Donna Reed, “From Here to Eternity”

The Role’s the Thing:
“I accept this very gratefully for keeping my mouth shut. I think I’ll do it again.” Jane Wyman, “Johnny Belinda”, for playing a deaf-mute.

“I’d like to thank Mrs. Christy Brown. Anybody who gives birth 22 times deserves one of these.” Brenda Fricker, “My Left Foot”.

Mixed Nuts:
“I guess this proves there are many nuts in the Academy as anywhere else,” Jack Nicholson “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”.

“It looks like you all hated me so much that you are giving me the award for it. All I can say is I’ve loved being hated by you.” Nicholson’s co-star, Louise Fletcher

Credit Where Credit’s Due
“It reflects a more particular credit on the freedom of expression we have in our American society and the lack of censorship from the government or the people who put up the money.” Warren Beatty, Reds, thanking Barry Diller for greenlighting a movie about Communism.

Don’t Forget the Crew:
“On behalf of the sixty-odd thousand people who worked on this show.” Producer Mike Todd,” Around the World in 80 Days”.

“I’d like to thank the stunt men and women who taught me so well.” Barbara Stanwyck, Honorary Oscar.

Dont’ Forget the Props:
“Half of this Oscar belongs to a horse someplace out in the valley,” Lee Marvin “Cat Ballou”.

“Maybe the award should really go to my car,” Gene Hackman, “The French Connection”, alluding to the breathtaking chase scene.

“If I’d known what I know now, I’d have put a patch on my eye 35 years ago.” John Wayne, “True Grit”.

All in the Family:
“Many, many years ago I raised a son and I told him, if you ever become a writer or a director, please find a good part for your old man.” Walter Huston, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, directed by John Huston.

“This means a lot to me, since it comes from a role in which I was directed by my father. And I know it means a lot to him.” Anjelica Huston, “Prizzi’s Honor”.

“I guess I’m lucky that my grandmother was such a terrible driver.” Alfred Uhry, Adapted Screenplay, “Driving Miss Daisy”.

“I’ve got a spirit that guides me, starting from a great-grandmother who died at the age of 117.” Louis Gossett, Jr.
“An Officer and a Gentleman”.

All You Need Is Love:
“I have had an orthodox career and I wanted more than anything to have your respect. The first time, I didn’t feel it, but this time I feel it and I can’t deny the fact you like me–right now, you like me.” Sally Field, “Places in the Heart”.

“I’m so in love with my brother, right now, and he just tells me and says he loves me, and he’s so happy for me.” Anjelina Jolie, “Girl, Interrupted”.

Pomp and Circumstance:
“I would like to thank my colleagues, Brahms, Bach, Beethoven, Richard Strauss.” Dimitri Tiomkin, Dramatic Score Award, “The High and the Mighty”.

“I believe a writer worth his salt at all has an obligation not only to entertain, but to comment on the world in which he lives, not only to comment, but maybe have a shot at reshaping the world.” Abby Mann, Adapted Screenplay, “Judgment at Nuremberg”.

Vive Democracy!
“It’s very fortunate to live in a country where any man, no matter how humble his origins, can become a president, and to be part of an industry where any picture, no matter how low its budget, can win an Oscar.” Producer Harold Hecht, “Marty”.

While the Going’s Good:
“I hope this isn’t a mistake, because I won’t give it back for anything in the world. Yul Brynner, “The King and I”.

Dream Come True:
“I’ve been daydreaming about this since I was 9 years old. Tearful Joanne Woodward, “The Three Faces of Eve”

“Ever since I was a little kid, I wanted this. As a kid I lived in the projects and you’re the people that made me want to be an actor. I’m proud to be an actor. And I’m gonna keep on acting.” Whoopi Goldberg,” Ghost”.

The Thrill of It All:
“I don’t think ever in my life so many people were so directly responsible for my being so very, very happy.” A humble Marlon Brando, “On the Waterfront”.

“No matter how much you try to imagine what this is like, it’s just so incredibly thrilling right down to your toes.” Meryl Streep, “Sophie’s Choice”.

“I never expected in a million years that I would be in this position, it’s a miracle. I am on Cloud 9!” Jessica Tandy, Academy’s oldest Best Actress, “Driving Miss Daisy”.

Sour Grapes
“When I was 19 years old, I was the number One star for two years. When I was forty, nobody wanted me. I couldn’t get a job.” Honorary recipient, Mickey Rooney.

“I’m especially grateful that this does not come wrapped as a gift certificate to Forest Lawn.” Paul Newman, Honorary Oscar. The next year, Newman won a competitive Oscar for “The Color of Money”.

International Oscar:
“I wanted to be dignified, but I can’t. You can’t imagine what it means to me, being French.” Simone Signoret, “Room at the Top”.

“What you’ve done for the British film industry! You may have started something: The British are coming!” Colin Welland, Original Screenplay, “Chariots of Fire”.

Collegiality–But Oscar Is Still Mine:
“It would only be proper to cut it in half and give it to the two most valuable players–Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine.” Billy Wilder, “The Apartment”.

“Right now, I’m so happy I want to thank all the members who didn’t vote for me.” Burt Lancaster, “Elmer Gantry”.

“I’d like to thank Sidney Poitier whose friendship gave me the knowledge to enhance my performance–and we shall overcome.” Rod Steiger, “In the Heat of the Night”.

“And all you other four guys, this is ours.” Louis Gossett Jr. “An Officer and a Gentleman”.

“I think we’re all marvelous, but I’ve got it.” Milena Canonero, Costume Design, “Chariots of Fire”.

Ladies First:
“I have to thank two fair ladies,” Rex Harrison, My Fair Lady, referring to Julie Andrews, who played Eliza Doolittle on stage, but lost the screen role to Audrey Hepburn, snubbed by the Academy at nomination time.

“I am grateful to have Dustin Hoffman as my leading lady.” Jessica Lange, “Tootsie”.

And Justice for All:
“This is unfair. I want this award to go to Valentina Cortesa (“Day for Night”). Please forgive me Valentina, I didn’t mean to.” Ingrid Bergman, “Murder on the Orient Express”, winning a third Oscar for a tiny role.

The Ten Percenters:
“I’d like to thank Mary Pickford who, incidentally, was the first actor to get a percentage of her pictures. Speaking of percentages, last but not least, I thank my agent, who about ten years ago said I had no business being an actor.” Jack Nicholson, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”.

Outing for Inspirational Reasons
“I would not be standing here, if it were not for two important men in my life, Mr. Farnsworth, my high school drama teacher who taught me act well the part there all the glory lies, and Mr. Gilkerson, one of my classmates, two of the finest gay Americans, wonderful men whom I had the good fortune to be associated with and fall under their inspiration at such a young age.” Tom Hanks, “Philadelphia”.

Oscar as the Nobel Prize:
“Your great folk hero, Martin Luther King Jr. was inspired by Gandhi. Lech Walesa, that noble Polish patriot, came out of prison the other day and said that what he had attempted to do was not going to work. The only way in which we could find human dignity and peace was through the philosophies and teachings of Gandhi. It’s not me…you truly honor.” Richard Attenborough, “Gandhi”.

Oliver’s Sermons:
“What you’re saying is that for the first time you really understood what happened over there, and that it should never, ever in our lifetime happen again. Oliver Stone, “Platoon”.

“My deepest thanks for your acknowledgement that Vietnam is not over…. Vietnam is a state of mind that continues all over the world, for as long as man, in his quest for power, interferes in the affairs of other men.” Oliver Stone,” Born on the Forth of July”.

Here’s Looking at You:
“Hellow, gorgeous,” Barbara Streisand, citing her line from “Funny Girl”.

If you want to read more about Oscar Seppeches, please consult my book, All About Oscar: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards (Continuum International, 2003).