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The Art of Acceptance Speech Giving

Michael Musto | Longreads | September 20, 2019 | 2,135 words
Posted inEssays & Criticism, Feature, Featured, Nonfiction, Story

The Art of Acceptance Speech Giving

Michael Musto looks back at some of the best, worst, and weirdest instances of performers expressing gratitude as they received their shiny trophies.
Angela Weiss / Getty, Illustration by Homestead Studio

Michael Musto | Longreads | September 2019 | 9 minutes (2,135 words)

We’ve heard it a million times: “I was nothing until I got this award, and now I’m everything. But this honor isn’t really for me. It’s for you — all the little people out there in the dark, who now have all the inspiration you need to know that someday you can be as great as I am. You just might be holding this trophy someday long into the future — though right now, it’s me! And I love it! Thank you to the Academy, CAA, and God — in that order!!!!”

Inspirational, right? Nope. That’s actually a tone deaf, self aggrandizing approach to an awards speech, and we usually end up loathing the winner for being so condescendingly grand about their big moment. It comes off extra phony because we sense that, deep down, the winner isn’t really thrilled with the idea that this honor may lead to millions of other wannabes yapping at their heels and trying to win one.

So what should an award winner say? Well, with the mass audience taking to social networks to dissect every moment of awards shows, speechmaking definitely makes a difference, to the point where a 90-second acceptance can make or break a career almost as much as the award itself can. Anne Hathaway seemed to become significantly less popular because of her breathless laundry lists of names (and by starting her Oscar speech with “It came true”), whereas Meryl Streep has become even more beloved because her speeches are invariably witty, pointed, and also touching. (They should let Meryl win every time, even when she’s not nominated, just so we can hear her talk.)

Meryl knows that an acceptance speech should be sincere yet entertaining, succinct yet somewhat comprehensive, and humble yet confident, and there should also be some real emotion involved. In another seeming contradiction, there needs to be serious thought put into what the winner is saying, but they should also make sure to brim with the spontaneity of the moment. Come on, folks, you’re actors — you can do it.

Glenn Close did brilliantly at the Golden Globes earlier this year, when she was a surprise Best Actress winner for The Wife. Glenn looked shocked when her name was called, yet she quickly composed herself to speak about the themes of the movie and to come off truly grateful and honored. And in framing The Wife as being about a talented woman living in someone else’s shadow, she seemed to herself be crawling out from behind Meryl Streep! It was such a terrific speech that I was sure it clinched Glenn the Oscar, but that instead went to The Favourite’s Olivia Colman, who wasn’t necessarily the favorite, but gave a lovably daffy acceptance that was eccentric and droll.

Alas, instead of speeches like those, we usually get Hathaway-like name checks (“I want to thank my accountant, Jim; my trainer, Joanne…”), speeches that leave out key names (In 2000, when Hilary Swank won her first Oscar, for Boy’s Don’t Cry, she forgot to thank then-hubby Chad Lowe; they eventually split), phony bouts of gushing, self-satisfied preening, fake-spontaneous recitations (“I didn’t plan anything”) that seem to have been rehearsed for months, and canned orations full of platitudes and advice, as if we schlepps out there want nothing more than to someday win Best Lighting in a Musical, and the winner knows just how we can get there.

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