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NELSON ASPEN: How About an Award for Best/Worst Acceptance Speech

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Entertainment journalist Nelson Aspen reflects on the award speeches that have stood out for the right – and wrong – reasons

The art of the acceptance speech doesn’t draw as much excitement or scrutiny as  celebrity Fashion, but it’s the time of year where instead of asking “Who are you wearing” we should be wondering, “Who did your writing?”

Few of us can imagine the exhilaration (or terror) of stepping up to a podium to clutch a trophy in front of millions of eyeballs, let alone having to address the audience with important acknowledgements in a minuscule allotment of time.  Even the most seasoned performer would find this adrenaline rush daunting, in spite of how many times they may have fantasised about it in front of the medicine cabinet mirror.  

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The Hollywood Awards season never fails to serve up acceptance speeches ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous:

In 2002, Halle Berry became the first black woman to win a Best Actress Academy Award (“Monsters Ball”) and she was charmingly shocked as tears fell from her eyes, wide with surprise.  Many in the audience leapt to their feet and no one could resist her talent, humility and beauty at breaking that particular glass ceiling.

1985’s Best Actress Oscar winner Sally Field (“Places in the Heart”) infamously accepted with her usual sweetness yet capped it off with a strange, manic “You Like Me!” exclamation that seemed more suited to a therapy session than a global platform.

Just as in our own family holiday gatherings, we are advised to avoid the topic of politics, so should it be in the family of Showbiz.  Liberal and often controversial Jane Fonda wisely followed that advice in 1972, winning for “Klute,” but simply saying “There’s a great deal to say and I’m not going to say it tonight.  I would just like to really thank you very much.”  Her colleague Vanessa Redgrave could have followed that example in 1978, winning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for “Julia.”  When she referred to “Zionist hoodlums,” she met with an immediate round of hisses and boos which her director, Fred Zinnemann, recalled “in 30 seconds the temperature dropped to ice while she, smiling happily, descended the steps.”

You can always count on Sean Penn to opine from atop his soapbox, but no one counted on Marlon Brando declining to accept his trophy for 1972’s career-reviving “The Godfather” so his surrogate, Sacheen Littlefeather, could address their shared protest of Hollywood’s treatment of Native Americans.  

Executives and Producers of these Awards shows want to attract viewers to tune in to their telecasts, but they maddeningly never seem to learn that 3+ hours is usually beyond the average attention span and that for every entertaining musical moment (thank you, Billy Crystal), there are many, many more disastrous ones (1989’s Rob Lowe/Snow White debacle springs immediately to mind and I, for one, didn’t need to see Miley Cyrus twerking on Robin Thicke at the 2013 VMAs).

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in 1992 Jack Palance won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for City Slickers
In 1992 Jack Palance did a one-armed push-up during his acceptance speech

For most of us, we want to see our A-List idols be not only glamorous, but humanJack Palance‘s one-armed push-ups said more about Ageism in Hollywood than a thousand Op-Eds.  Roberto Begnini climbing over seats on his way to the stage was a much needed jolt of fun in an overlong ceremony.  Before there was Covid, there was kissing.  Lots of kissing!  Adrien Brody pulling presenter Halle Berry in for a dip and a lip lock in 2002 had us talking for days.  Similarly, Madonna making out with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera onstage at the 2003 VMAs ensured theirs weren’t the only tongues wagging.

Actors don’t get awarded for improvisation.  The roles that bring them acclaim are born of rehearsal, research and hard work so it would stand to reason that a bit of preparation in the event of a “Win” would go a long way.  During her 2013 Golden Globes speech, Jodie Foster came out as gay with poise, class and humor.  That was no accident.  Fred Rogers (“Mr. Rogers”) accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Daytime Emmys in 1997 in what could have been a Sunday sermon, graciously crafting his remarks to be all about everyone else, instead of himself.  

A once-in-a-lifetime moment deserves significant forethought to guard against mishaps.  What could be worse than forgetting to thank your own spouse (I’m looking at you, Hilary Swank) or mangling a name as John Travolta famously did in 2014 when he bizarrely introduced Idina Menzel as “Adele Dazeem!?”  I am actually relieved to see more winners pulling out their phones to prevent these kinds of gaffes.   In a genre of Auto-Cues, most celebs get into trouble when they’re working solely off their memories or, worse, speaking extemporaneously.

Keep it short.  As Shakespeare wisely told us, “Brevity is the soul of wit.”  No one should have to be played off by the band…trust me, the conductor feels badly about it.  Of course there are exceptions, such as Michelle Yeoh‘s groundbreaking Best Actress win at this year’s Critics Choice Awards, dismissing with humor and elegance the musical cues to wrap it up.

How are stars stacking up this season so far?  Eddie Murphy at this year’s Golden Globes was ready for the moment and ended up getting the best laugh of the night by invoking Will Smith‘s famous pre-slap profane tirade from 2022’s Oscars.  At the Critics Choice Awards, Brendan Fraser‘s speech for his comeback reward for “The Whale” had most of the audience in tears…while a gum chewing Cate Blanchett left folks scratching their heads by referring to the entire awards season as a “patriarchal pyramid” and “televised horse race.”  It seemed ungrateful, especially as she still opted to take her new statuette home with her.  Maybe it’s a moot point if you believe director Sam Mendes who thinks it’s “perfectly reasonable” and all but “inevitable” to have genderless awards and the SAG Awards have decided to skip a television broadcast and opt for streaming.  No more need for a “Delay” or “Mute” switch.

We still have several weeks to go with the 2023 Awards season.  A heartfelt suggestion for nominees: you hired a stylist, personal trainer and agent.  How about a writer?

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Nelson Aspen
Nelson Aspen
Nelson Aspen is an award-winning journalist based in NYC.

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WATCH | First look at new season and judging lineup for THE VOICE AUSTRALIA 2024

The spectacular combination of brand-new coaches LeAnn Rimes, Adam Lambert, Kate Miller-Heidke and returning coach Guy Sebastian promises a season filled with phenomenal performances, emotional moments and life-changing opportunities.