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Oscar Talk: Why Awards-Show Speeches Should Be Longer, Not Shorter

Oscar Talk: Why Awards-Show Speeches Should Be Longer, Not Shorter

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science has spent most of the last several weeks trying to deal with the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, but the producers of this year’s broadcast have another nettlesome problem in their crosshairs: lengthy acceptance speeches. At Monday’s nominees lunch, Reginald Hudlin and David Hill put forward a new plan asking prospective winners to fill out a “scroll card” of thank-yous that will be played over their speech in the event of a win. No more laundry lists of agents and studios functionaries; more room for heartfelt moments and extemporaneous gratitude.

By way of illustrating their point, writes Entertainment Weekly’s Nicole Sperling, “Hudlin and Hill ran tape of last year’s Best Short Documentary winners Dana Perry and Ellen Goosenberg Kent. The two won for ‘Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1,’ which focused on military veteran suicide. Kent soaked up much of the 45 seconds reading off a list of thank yous before Perry graciously pushed her aside to add in quickly before the music played them off that her son died of suicide and it was a subject worth discussing — an important statement but one that was truncated due to the time restraints and the obligatory list.”

It’s a inventive idea, and Hudlin and Hill even gamely tried to sell the notion that being added to the onscreen text crawl could be more meaningful than a movie star’s shout-out, since you can screencap it and show it to your friends. But let’s be real: There’s no way that Hollywood’s movers and shakers are going to be placated with the Oscar-night equivalent of a disclaimer on a pharmaceutical ad. It’s a second-class thank-you, a step above an after-the-fact mention in the press room backstage. It could be the basis for a dynamite comedy bit on the night, perhaps by Will Ferrell, but that’s about it.

Fortunately, I have an alternate solution: Let the winners talk. As long as they want, about whatever they want.

Apart from finding out who won — and trying to catch a glimpse of the losers’ reactions inside those five tiny boxes before the director cruelly cuts away — speeches are why people watch awards shows. (No one has ever looked back on an Oscar broadcast and said, “Wow, that montage about ‘The Magic of the Movies’ was the real highlight.”) We want to hear what the people whose work has meant something to us have to say, to get a glimpse into who they are at this moment of peak emotion. Do they thank the struggling single parents who drove them to auditions every Saturday, or the artists that inspired them in the first place? Their kids? A favorite teacher? Their recent ex-spouse or their new love, or, uncomfortably, both? If you look over a list of the longest and shortest acceptance speeches, it’s the long ones — Matthew McConaughey’s, Halle Berry’s, Jamie Foxx’s — that stick out as truly memorable.

That’s not what the “scroll card” is designed to eliminate, of course; it’s the recitation of agents and personal publicists, managers and high-end dogwalkers that often precedes those heart-tugging tributes. But even that tells us something, although it may not be something we want to hear — that the single person on stage in flattering eveningwear is merely the diamond-tipped prow of a of a massive ship plowing through feet-thick ice, the brightest star in a sprawling constellation. We know that film is a collaborative art form, that performances are drawn from a script, coaxed by directors, and shaped by editors, but it’s not just the art that wins Oscars. No one is quite transparent enough to make the publicists in charge of the awards campaign the centerpiece of their acceptance speech, but that cramped list of acknowledgments serves as a reminder that no one does it alone. People who’ve worked hard enough to win an Oscar aren’t going to forget the people who put them there — not least because they know that even an Academy Award is no guarantee of their next job, and powerful people really don’t like to be overlooked.

It would be nice if we could just jump to the heartfelt bit, but that’s usually the part that comes last — professional entertainers know you close with your best stuff — and thus the most likely to get cut off. I’ll never forget, during one of the first Oscar broadcasts I watched, Martin Landau’s anguished cry when the orchestra cut off what would have been his climactic tribute to the late Bela Lugosi, whom he played in “Ed Wood.” (The Academy-furnished clip of Landau’s speech conveniently fades out before that shameful moment.) Hudlin and Hill’s “Crisis Hotline” anecdote is meant to illustrate the dangerous of letting obligatory thank-yous eat up screen time, but the most obvious lesson is that the orchestra shouldn’t have drowned out a woman talking about her son’s suicide.

So let them talk, if not forever, at least for a minute or two — and not just the stars but the short filmmakers and sound mixers, who sometimes give the evening’s most moving and most surprising speeches. Cut the clip packages that are only good for bathroom breaks, and let the speeches flourish.

The fear is that that removing time limits, or at least expanding them, would make the ceremony interminable. But as a counter-example, look at Richard Horgan’s AdWeek report from last year’s Hollywood Film Awards. “What happens when winners are allowed to talk for as long as they want?” he asks:

“The answer: Folks generally tend to go on for four to five minutes. And without the blare of an orchestra introducing them with excessive pomp and circumstance, and then playing them off, the audience Sunday was treated to a variety of memorable moments. Robert De Niro gave a clever Lifetime Award acceptance; the cast of ‘Straight Out of Compton’ was full of energy; Adam McKay zinged after being introduced by longtime Second City pal Steve Carell; and Will Smith was allowed to delve fully into the complexities of ‘Concussion.'”

That doesn’t sound so bad, does it?

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