Oscar Acceptance Speech: What Does a Toothbrush Have to Do with the Oscars?

Seventy-one percent of the tears shed during the Academy Awards acceptance speeches occurred after 1995. Women tend to hug the statuette, whereas men raise it in a gesture of triumph.

Billy Crystal, a frequent host of the Oscars ceremony, cannot imagine running the show without a toothbrush in his pocket. It reminds him of his childhood days, when he used it to practice improvised Oscars speeches. Such a toothbrush – visible or not – is perhaps owned by any Oscar nominee. In 2009, Kate Winslet, awarded for her role in “The Reader,” claimed she would be lying if she said she hadn’t practiced her speech. She practiced in front of a mirror when she was eight. Pointing to the golden statuette, she added: “This would have been a shampoo bottle. Well it’s not a shampoo bottle now.”

The speeches, practiced to any sort of a ”microphone,” are exactly what entices around 45 million viewers every year to spend more than four hours in front of the TV and listen to a series of 45-second, more or less, carefully elaborate orations.

Race to the Microphone

They were meant to last 45 seconds, but in 2010, when the average speech was noted to last two minutes (when first broadcast, the ceremony speech was three times shorter than that), such a time limit became official. In practice, the orchestra starts performing after 1.5 minutes, but that doesn’t seem to hinder the winners who carry on despite the music, shouting to the microphone for nearly a minute longer, especially if they read from earlier-prepared notes. Sometimes, the speeches get even longer, like in the case of Halle Berry, awarded for “Monster’s Ball,” who carried on for nearly 4.5 minutes, heading toward a notoriously long record belonging to Greer Garson. The actress, honored with the Best Actress Award in 1943 for the film “Mrs. Miniver,” spent nearly seven minutes giving her acceptance speech. Some historians claim that it was only six minutes. It will remain uncertain, since the ceremony was televised for the first time in 1953.

The countdown begins with the moment the winner reaches the microphone, countdown timing which was used by Adrien Brody. Not worried about the time running out, he began by giving a passionate kiss to Halle Berry, who presented him with the award. Winners don’t have to, as Roberto Benigni did, leap from chair to chair or run to the microphone, unless it’s a group award, when it often turns out that all the last speaker has time for is a short “thank you.”

However, the winners can always fight for their right to speak, just as it happened during the Best Documentary Short Subject Award in 2010, which went to “Music by Prudence.“ Ross Williams, the director, began speaking, when Elinor Burkett, the producer, snatched the microphone from him. “The man never lets the woman talk. Isn’t that just the classic thing?” she said, and wouldn’t let him utter another word. They’ve not been on speaking terms since then. Later, Burkett suffered media backlash, but she explained that when accepting earlier awards, Ross Williams had never let her speak, so she couldn’t bear that it would happen again when picking up the most prestigious award of all.

The winner usually makes it to the stage without problems – unless her name is Jennifer Lawrence, who, picking up her Oscar for “Silver Lining Playbook,” found walking up the stairs in her long gown too much. “You guys are just standing up because you feel bad that I fell and that’s really embarrassing,” she stated, not realizing, perhaps, that she incidentally improved statistics, which show that women receive standing ovations less frequently than men.

It happens that winners don’t make it to the Oscar gala stage at all. Sometimes it is simply not possible, like in the case of Heath Ledger (“The Dark Knight”) or Peter Finch (“Network”), who both received their Oscars posthumously. Sometimes, though, absence is a statement. Marlon Brando, awarded for “The Godfather,” sent Sacheen Littlefeather on his behalf, an artist fighting for Native Americans’ rights. Despite not managing to read Brando’s full, 15-page long speech, she got the message across, describing how badly Native Americans were treated in the film industry.

They Cry and Send Messages To Save Dolphins

Many stars often use the ceremony as a chance to touch on important social maters. Tom Hanks, awarded for “Philadelphia,” mentioned gay rights (accidently revealing his previous teacher’s sexuality). Halle Berry, the first black actress to be awarded an Oscar, talked about racial matters, mentioning past winners, who, due to their skin color, used to have a separate seating area at the ceremony. Sean Penn, when accepting his Oscar for “Milk,” supported the legalization of same-sex marriage, while during his acceptance of the award for “Mystic River,” he condemned the U.S. invasion of Iraq (“If there’s one thing that actors know, other than that there weren’t any WMDs…, it’s that there is no such thing as best in acting.”) Ric O’Barry, who won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, “The Cove,” talked about the appalling practice of killing dolphins in Japan, and held up a sign with a statement “Text Dolphin to 44144”, whereas Jared Leto, awarded for “Dallas Buyers Club,” expressed support for protesters in Ukraine and Venezuela.

Controversial speeches are not always welcome. In 1978, applause mixed with boos when Vanessa Redgrave (awarded for “Julia”), a supporter of the Palestine Liberation Organization, mentioned “a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums whose behavior is an insult to the stature of Jews all over the world and their great and heroic record of struggle against fascism and oppression.” Michael Moore also met with mixed reactions when, during his acceptance speech (for “Bowling for Columbine”), he condemned the administration of President Bush: “We live in the time where we have fictitious election results that elect a fictitious president. We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons. We are against this war, Mr. Bush. Shame on you.”

Oscars acceptance speeches are a true festival of emotions. What’s interesting is that those who are genuinely overjoyed, e.g. Cuba Gooding, Jr. (“Jerry McGuire”), and who can’t help but bounce around and utter happy cries, are in the minority today. Although, according to Rebecca Rolfe from the Georgia Institute of Technology, who analyzed Academy Awards acceptance speeches from 1952 to 2012, only one out of every five winners cried during their acceptance speech, and it is definitely a growing trend. The entire 71 percent of tears shed during Academy Awards acceptance speeches occurred after 1995. The most spectacular performance was that of Gwyneth Paltrow (who won for “Shakespeare in Love”), but nearly 40 percent of awarded actresses and one out of every five actors cry or speak in a trembling voice on the stage. The emotions are also conveyed by body language. Many women tend to hold the statuette close to their hearts (twice as often as men), whereas men prefer to raise it in a gesture of triumph.

Naked Men, Nuts and Strip Searches

Oscars winners, male or female, try to win over the audience by telling jokes. Meryl Streep, when accepting her third Oscar (for “The Iron Lady”), joked: “When they called my name I had this feeling – I could hear half of America going, ‘Oh no, oh, come on – why her? Again?” and then she quickly proceeded to thank her husband ”because when you thank your husband at the end of the speech they play him out with the music.”

“This is the only naked man that will ever be in my bedroom” – with this comment, lesbian Melissa Etheridge went down in history for comical Oscar speeches. Woody Allen also showed a sense of humor by mentioning in his acceptance speech a thorough body search he was subjected to before entering the ceremony venue “Thank you very much. That makes up for the strip search,” he said. Jack Nicholson’s comment on his win (for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”) was: “I guess this proves there’s as many nuts in the Academy as anywhere else,” whereas Cate Blanchett (awarded for “Aviator”) thanked Martin Scorsese with these words: “I hope my son will marry your daughter.”

However, jokes relating to movies don’t always go down well. “I’m the king of the world,” exclaimed by director James Cameron, was interpreted as arrogance. And Sally Field, to this day, has to explain her 1985 statement (when awarded Best Actress for her 1984 role in “Places in The Heart”): “The first time I didn’t feel it. But this time I feel it. And I can’t deny the fact that you like me… right now… you like me,” which wasn’t an intimate confession, but a quotation from “Norma Rae,” her first role awarded by the Academy.

It Was God’s Will

The Oscar speeches are first and foremost about thanking. The longest list of people thanked was that of “Titanic” producer Jan Landau, with 55 names on it. Anne Hathaway (awarded for “Les Misérables”) thanked 23 people and her agent twice “to be safe.” The agents and public relations advisers are, in general, the people most often mentioned, but acknowledging their names for the first time back in 1960s caused a lot of controversy. The Oscar winners not only acknowledge associates in their thankful speeches, but also their lawyers (mentioned by 9 percent of Best Actress winners), their acting teachers (mainly mentioned by Best Supporting actresses, less often by actors), and sometimes also… psychiatrists.

Forty-three percent of winners thank ”The Academy.” Half of the winners send thanks to their families – mothers and fathers are mentioned more often by women than men, whereas 38 percent of men (as opposed to 28 percent of women) thank their other halves. With various results, men try to be original, just like, e.g., Ben Affleck, who, when picking up his Oscar for “Argo,” thanked his wife for “working on our marriage for 10 Christmases.”

“I’m going to start by thanking my husband, because I’d like to think I learn from past mistakes,” said Hilary Swank (awarded her second Oscar for “Million Dollar Baby”), but that didn’t save her marriage, and she divorced her husband two years later.

The most thanked person in Hollywood award history is Harvey Weinstein, Miramax Films producer and studio executive. His name has been mentioned 24 times so far (not including thanks to his brother Bob or the Weinstein Company in general). It is not a coincidence, considering his devotion and persistence in promoting his own films for the Oscar. According to statistics, Harvey Weinstein gets thanked five times more than God, mentioned only by 3 percent of winners (a slightly higher percentage than Martin Scorsese, Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson and Oprah Winfrey got). It may be for the better though, from the theological point of view. How are other nominees supposed to react, hearing the winner say (as in the case of Jennifer Hudson awarded for “Dreamgirls”): “Look what God can do!”

Therefore, if a winner doesn’t want to forget anyone or is simply speechless, it is better to follow the 10 winners who went down in Oscar history for speeches shorter than 11 words. These 10 include excellent individuals, one of them being the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, who, when accepting the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award for creative producers, limited his speech to a short “Thank you,” before pausing and adding “Very much indeed.”

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