Oh my God. Thank you. Thank you. I can’t…God, I’m so nervous! This is, just, this is incredible. So unexpected—I didn’t even prepare anything! [surreptitiously unfolds piece of paper stored in cleavage]. Firstly, I have to thank the Academy, without whom I wouldn’t be here today, bringing you this feature about the most Memorable Oscar Speeches ever. And I have to thank the Editors, Rodrigo and Kevin, and my fellow features writer Oli, and all the nominees (whose company I am so humbled to share, though I don’t know how the hell Meryl Streep got into this category too).
You know, when we look at the Oscar acceptance speeches of years past, there have been moments of great triumph, and moments of great adversity, as winners have taken the podium to say a few words that they’ve presumably been rehearsing since they were tall enough to look in the bathroom mirror (shout out to Kate Winslet for admitting as much in her speech). We’re here today to recognize those who have achieved not just excellence in their field of expertise, but excellence in another field—that of walking onto a stage and delivering a few seconds of airtime that, for better or worse, are hard to forget.
But just before we run down, in no particular order, twelve memorable Oscar speeches, I wanted to… wait, what? You’re playing me off? But I have so much more to…[forgets to thank Harvey Weinstein; has no subsequent career]
Gwyneth Paltrow – Best Actress at the 1999 Awards for “Shakespeare in Love“
Highlights: It’s a little unfair that Gwyneth’s speech has become a byword, along with Halle Berry’s, for gushing waterworks, because she does manage to get through the first 1m40s quite creditably, even delivering a little joke about agents’ reputations. But that’s before mentioning (seemingly every member of) her family, especially her mother Blythe Danner, which brings on the tears and, more detrimentally, the squeaky-voiced sobs about how everyone apparently means the world to seemingly everyone else.
Bonus Trivia: Recipient of a kind-of-outrageous-seeming 9 Oscars, “Shakespeare in Love” also took Best Picture that year, causing a minor scandal in beating out “Saving Private Ryan.” We wonder if any of the other nominees in that category would have managed higher than 53 in our rankings of every Best Picture?
Cuba Gooding Jr – Best Supporting Actor at the 1997 Awards for “Jerry Maguire“
Highlights: Perhaps bested only by Roberto Benigni’s turn two years later for sheer, uncontainable joy, Cuba Gooding Jr.’s speech is mostly a lot of thank yous, delivered with especial fervor to God and Tom Cruise. But what’s fun is how he says, at the start, “you can cut me off, I won’t be mad at you—and then when that happens, and the orchestra strikes up, Gooding Jr. basically treats the music as a soundtrack for the rest of his love-brimming speech and carries on regardless. It works surprisingly well.
Bonus Trivia: Gooding Jr.’s “brother” Tom Cruise was also nominated, in the Leading Actor category for Cameron Crowe’s film, which was the second of his three nominations so far, but he lost this time to Geoffrey Rush for “Shine.”
Christopher Plummer – Best Supporting Actor for “Beginners” at the 2012 Awards
Highlights: The very beginning: [addressed to his statuette] “You’re only two years older than me, darling. Where have you been all my life?” and the very end (weirdly cut off in the video below), where he touchingly thanks his wife Elaine who he claims “deserves the Nobel Peace Prize for coming to my rescue every day of my life.”
Bonus Trivia: Plummer is only a Grammy away from a full EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) sweep, already having two Emmys, two Tonys and now an Oscar. If a retrospective Grammy for “Edelweiss” is out of the question, quick, someone cast him for a major audiobook (it’s not like he hasn’t got the voice for it). This needs to happen.
Ruth Gordon – Best Supporting Actress at the 1969 Awards for “Rosemary’s Baby“
Highlights: Short and snappy, our very favorite part of the wonderful Gordon’s speech may be where she waves a casually imperious hand to quiet the applause and laughter, and it works. But “The first film I was ever in was in 1915, and here we are in 1969. Actually I don’t know why it took me so long—I don’t think that I’m backward” comes a close second.
Bonus Trivia: We shouldn’t be surprised her speech was so good. Gordon, in addition to turning in a criminally overlooked (at the time) performance in “Harold and Maude” (1972), and acting for seven decades, was also a three-time Oscar-nominated writer, notably for Hepburn/Tracy vehicles “Pat and Mike” and “Adam’s Rib.”
Dustin Lance Black – Best Original Screenplay at the 2009 awards for “Milk“
Highlights: Addressing the young gay and lesbian people watching, Black finished his impassioned and sincere speech by saying, “You are beautiful, wonderful creatures of value, and no matter what anyone tells you, God does love you, and very soon I promise you you will have equal rights, federally, across this great nation of ours.” It’s rare that a speech so overtly political can also be so personal.
Bonus Trivia: “You Commie, homo-loving sons of guns,” was how Sean Penn started his also-awesome acceptance speech for Best Actor for “Milk,” before also voicing outspoken support for Mickey Rourke (!) and for gay marriage and asking those who voted to ban it to anticipate “their great shame and the shame in their grandchildren’s eyes.”
Billy Wilder – The Irving G Thalberg Memorial Award in 1988
Highlights: With pretty much his whole speech playing as an extended anecdote, the entire thing is a treat, detailing his reason for dedicating his award to a consul in Mexicali whose name he can’t remember but “looked a bit like Will Rogers.” Like so many of his films, the genius is that, while amusing and slightly whimsical, there is a serious heart to the story: Wilder is recounting his fleeing the Nazi regime, his search for a new home and his gratitude to America for being that home.
Bonus Trivia: If that weren’t affecting enough, he ends it on a personal note to co-writer IAL Diamond: “I hope you are watching IAL because part of this is yours, so get well.” Diamond passed away just ten days later.
Halle Berry – Best Actress at the 2002 Awards for “Monster’s Ball“
Highlights: Honored “vessel through which this blessing might flow” Halle Berry actually performed a “reverse Paltrow,” bawling less as her speech went on. Until the orchestra struck up and Berry screeched at them “Hey, 74 years here” referring to the fact that that she was the first black woman to win Best Actress (this was the 74th Academy Awards). That she first used those extra seconds, though, to thank her lawyers, was a bum note as she went on to dedicate her win to every “nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance…”
Bonus Trivia: Berry did regain some kudos by showing up to accept her well-deserved Razzie for “Catwoman” and delivering a rambling, brilliantly bitter speech to a rapturous crowd who, like her, couldn’t quite believe she was there.
Michael Caine – Best Supporting Actor at the 2000 Awards for “The Cider House Rules“
Highlights: “…the Academy changed ‘the winner is’ to ‘the Oscar goes to’ and if ever there was a category where the Oscar goes to someone, without there being a winner, it’s this one.” The mother of all “my fellow nominees are amazing” speeches, Caine name-checks each of them individually, quipping to Tom Cruise who was nominated for “Magnolia” “your price would have gone down so fast [if you’d won]. Have you any idea what Supporting Actors get paid?”
Bonus Trivia: Caine makes reference to the fact that he wasn’t there the “last time” he won to pick up the award. That was for Best Supporting Actor too, in “Hannah and her Sisters,” and the reason he couldn’t be at the ceremony? He was filming “Jaws 4: The Revenge” [RottenTomatoes: 0%].
Julia Roberts – Best Actress for “Erin Brockovich” at the 2001 ceremony
Best Moments From Speech: Roberts’ speech pretty much anticipates the J-Law school of refreshingly unpolished, witty warmth by more than a decade, as she constantly keeps a nervous eye on the “stick man” (conductor of the orchestra): ” Sir, you’re doing a great job, but you’re so quick with that stick, so why don’t you sit, because I may never be here again.” She goes on to thank “everyone I’ve ever met in my life,” and to claim that the film was “sinfully fun to make,” before culminating in a huge grinning scream of delight and “I LOVE being up here.”
Bonus Trivia: The film was nominated for five awards, winning only this one. However director Steven Soderbergh, who was nominated, can’t get too mad at the guy who beat him out—it was himself, winning instead for “Traffic.”
Jack Palance – Best Supporting Actor for “City Slickers” at the 1992 ceremony
Highlights: The one-armed push-ups have since gone down in Oscar lore, but the rest of the speech is pretty unique too, kicking off with the modified quote, “Billy Crystal? I crap bigger ‘n him.” But it’s the end that tickles us most: “1949, my first film, the producer came to me and he said ‘Jack…you’re gonna win the Academy Award.’ 42 years later he was right! How the sonofabitch knew…”
Bonus Trivia: Host Crystal kept viewers posted for the rest of the night on what Palance was doing, including: being on the backstage StairMaster, bungee-jumping off the Hollywood sign and rendezvousing with the Space Shuttle in orbit, along with a crack that he had fathered all of the children in a musical number and won the New York Primary.
Roberto Benigni – Best Foreign Film AND Best Actor at the 1999 Awards for “Life is Beautiful“
Highlights: The exuberance of his speech for the Foreign Film win is hard to overstate, but it was actually a (literal) climbdown after he’d joyously clambered onto the backs of people’s seats on his way to the stage. Later, accepting a controversial Best Actor, any bitterness must have dissipated in this blizzard of charm, with him first excusing himself, saying that on his first trip to the stage “I used up all my English,” and then going on to exclaim “I would like to be Jupiter and lie down in the firmament making love with everybody.”
Bonus Trivia: Benigni’s Best Actor win marked the first time anyone had won in a leading actor category for a foreign language film since compatriot Sophia Loren (who announced the Foreign Film Award) had won for “Two Women” in 1962.
Sally Field – Best Actress for “Places in the Heart“
Highlights: We gotta feel a little sorry for cautionary Oscar-speech-tale Sally Field. The oft-misquoted “You like me, you really like me” was in fact “I can’t deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me” which was itself a riff on a line from Field’s first Oscar-winning role in ”Norma Rae.” However, the overall luvviness of the speech, as well as that tragic miscalculation as to how many of us were going to remember her “Norma Rae” dialogue so well that we’d recognize it, still makes it a cringey watch. Ironically, Field said in the speech that she “wanted more than anything to have your respect,” just as she was losing a good deal of it.
Bonus Trivia: Field, of course, initially had a TV career, first as the titular “Gidget,” and then as “The Flying Nun,” which was actually about a nun who flies—so that she can endure that, get two Oscars, survive the fallout from this speech and come back to play Mrs Lincoln for Steven Spielberg, well, the lady’s got something.
There are plenty of other notable speeches we could mention, but the “stick man” is waving at us, so we’ll settle for a quick shout out to a few choice ones: Christoph Waltz referring to his win and getting a kiss from Penelope Cruz as an “über bingo” and then charmingly bringing an extended ship metaphor home; Sidney Lumet‘s amazingly humble, brief acceptance of his Honorary Oscar; Stanley Donen‘s all-singing, all-dancing acceptance of his honorary Oscar; Meryl Streep worrying about and then dismissing the idea that half of America heard about her win for “The Iron Lady” and thought “Oh no, not her. Again”; Joe Pesci‘s brilliantly brief acceptance for “Goodfellas“; the legendary Akira Kurosawa claiming, through a translator “I don’t feel I understand cinema yet”; Dustin Hoffman dedicating his “Kramer vs Kramer” Oscar, who has “no genitalia and is carrying a sword,” in a very funny speech to actors who drive taxicabs; Sidney Poitier, gracious and eternally elegant, referring obliquely to “the very long journey to get here” as the first black actor to win Best Actor; Louise Fletcher, signing the end of her speech to her deaf parents; and Frances McDormand thanking Joel Coen for “making a woman out of me.”
And that’s not even mentioning a few more WTF moments, like Adrien Brody planting that infamous smooch on Halle Berry, Angelina Jolie passionately declaring her love for her brother onstage, Marlon Brando sending Satcheen Littlefeather to turn down his “The Godfather” Oscar, and of course, Tom Hanks‘ “Philadelphia” acceptance speech, in which he paid tribute to his high school drama teacher and inadvertently outed him—perhaps the only Oscar speech ever to inspire its own movie (“In & Out“—really quite good fun).
But we’ll leave you—thank you, thank you—in tears and being hustled off stage left, with this clip of host David Niven responding with absolute unruffled sangfroid to the appearance of a streaker onstage during the 1974 ceremony. Fingers crossed this Sunday’s celebrations contain anything half as memorable as this, the moments above, or any of your favorites that we’ve missed. Shout ’em out below.