The Art of Acceptance Speech Giving

Gearing up for the Emmys, Michael Musto looks back at some of the best, worst, and weirdest instances of performers expressing gratitude as they received their shiny trophies.

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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With the Emmys coming on September 22, I’m here to advise the nominees on exactly what to do, should they somehow make it to the podium. I should know. I appeared in You Like Me: An Evening of Classic Acceptance Speeches, an annual revue which ran for several years at New York hotspots like Joe’s Pub. In the sold-out show, we recreated famed speeches verbatim, while adding a touch of interpretation to make it more performance art than mimicry, and the crowd ate it up, laughing and cheering with glee. As one of the regular performers, I managed to encompass the good, the bad, and the bizarre of acceptance speeches, learning a lot about trophy holding do’s and don’ts in the process, so let me share that wisdom with you. Among the speeches I parroted:

THE GOOD

After 19 nominations, Susan Lucci finally nabbed the Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress (for her bristlingly bitchy Erica Kane in All My Children) in 1999. The belated triumph was announced by presenter Shemar Moore crowing, “The streak is over!” This was one of the all-time feelgood awards moments, and Lucci truly delivered with her speech, which was inclusive, effusive, and heartfelt. And she closed with a rousing, “I’m going back to that studio Monday and I’m going to play Erika Kane for all she’s worth!” It’s a shame she never was as interesting again once she won. The streak was over all right, lol.

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.

THE BAD

When Jacqueline Bisset copped the 2014 Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress in a TV Miniseries for Dancing On the Edge, she wandered onto the stage looking scattered and uttered a four-letter word. With a seeming randomness, Bisset also managed to remember that her mother once told her to “Go to hell and don’t come back,” instructed us that forgiveness is the best beauty regimen of all, and at one point asked for her eyeglasses, then remarked that they were dirty, so never mind. After the dust settled — on her glasses, apparently — and the telecast was over, Bisset explained that she had been told her category was going to come up late in the show, so she was thrown off guard when it was done earlier on. Well, to prove their worth, nominees should be ready to get up and give a fabulous speech at any given moment! Still, for beauty’s sake, I’ve long forgiven Bisset.

THE BIZARRE

This actually wasn’t an acceptance speech at all, but rather a rare refusal speech. Let me explain. In 1996, the mediocre Broadway version of Victor/Victoria garnered just one Tony nomination — for its wonderful star, Julie Andrews. Rather than accept that with a quiet grace, Julie addressed the live audience after a Victor/Victoria performance and expressed her concern that no one else from the show had been deemed worthy of notice. “I have searched my conscience and my heart,” Julie pronounced in those careful tones, “and find that I cannot accept the nomination, and prefer instead to stand with the egregiously overlooked.” Julie’s extreme action no doubt stemmed from an honorable concern for her collaborators (combined with an attempt to drum up headlines in favor of the show), but it proved self-defeating. Having teed off the voters with her refusal, Julie ended up losing the award and Victor/Victoria went Tony-less. I adore her, but my advice at the time would have been to just seethe privately and smile publicly, while realizing there’s no law that everyone has to be nominated. This year, Nathan Lane (for Gary: A Sequel To Titus Andronicus) and Glenda Jackson (for King Lear) were both snubbed by the Tony nominators, and Lane had the right idea — approach this supposedly horrifying gaffe with self mockery. I was there when Nathan won another honor and he cracked, “On June 9th (Tony night), “I’ll be going bowling with Glenda Jackson!”


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Before I join them at the alley, let me continue to dredge up some other examples of acceptance faux pas, so that the Emmy nominees can learn by negative example.

*In 1998, James Cameron accepted the Best Director Oscar for Titanic by yelping the film’s most famous line, “I’m the king of the world!” A pall came over the room — and the planet. Lesson: Don’t be too pleased with yourself. It’s just an award, dear.

*Similarly, in 2001, Julia Roberts nabbed the Best Actress Oscar for Erin Brockovich, as predicted by everyone on earth and their mother. The much loved Julia had been nominated twice before — she was the queen of Hollywood — and Brockovich was an obvious Oscar-bait role that she hit out of the park. Even fellow nominee Ellen Burstyn had to have known that she was wasting her time even being there. But ever the actress, Julia acted wildly surprised by her victory and chatted away in a speech that was way overdone, our star even threatening the orchestra conductor to sit down so she could keep chattering. I felt that Julia was giving us what she thought we wanted — another performance — but I would have preferred some realness. Lesson: You’ve already won. There is no award for best awards speech. Sure, be excited — this is major — but don’t lose sight of yourself in the process. Chill!

*Taylor Swift’s 2009 VMA speech for Best Female Video was one of the most uncomfortable awards moments of all time, but not because of anything she said. It’s because Kanye West, apparently desperate for attention, notoriously stormed the stage in the middle of the speech and announced that “Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time!” That piece of information was extremely irrelevant at that moment — and if true, it was for the winner to say, not a random person from the audience. Kanye should have just let Beyonce silently stand with the egregiously overlooked. Lesson: At an awards show, don’t rain on someone else’s parade. It will make you even more of a loser.

*In 2013, Merritt Wever won a supporting comedy actress Emmy for Nurse Jackie and said, “Thank you so much. Thanks so much. I gotta go. Bye.” And ran offstage! But at least she was there. Christine Lahti was in the bathroom when she won the Golden Globe for Chicago Hope and presenter Robin Williams had to stall because she was in a stall. Jacqueline Bisset is starting to look better, though Wever and Lahti did add some needed wackiness to often dull proceedings. Lesson: Hold it in and sit there until your category is done. Once you win, go up to the stage and say something more than 11 words, but less than Julia Roberts. And congratulations.

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Fortunately, there have also been some fine speeches that folks can learn from, most memorably Ruth Gordon’s when she won Best Supporting Actress for Rosemary’s Baby in 1969, when she was 72 years old. “I can’t tell you how encouraging a thing like this is,” the grand dame gurgled, cutely. And then we have the most famous Oscar speech of all time, which I will defend to my death. In 1986, Sally Field won Best Actress for Places in the Heart and bubbled over with joy, enthusing that on receiving this, her second Academy Award, “I can’t deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me!” Immediately, people started misquoting what she said (It somehow became “You really, really like me!”) and crucifying her for being so transparent and honest about her feelings. I found that exceedingly strange. After all, these people campaign tirelessly and spend tons of money and basically do everything humanly possible to win, but then you’re not supposed to admit that you crave the validation and are thrilled you got it? If we learned anything from the hypocritical reaction to Sally’s filter-less exulting, it’s that you have to act happy to win, but not cop to the fact that it makes you feel accepted. You can’t be a boasting James Cameron, but you’re also not supposed to be a needy Sally Field. What she said was apparently too real for a room full of insecure misfits who excel at playing other people and find solace in endless cries of “Love your work.” But I really, really liked it!

Let me dredge up some examples of acceptance faux pas, so that the Emmy nominees can learn by negative example.

So let me add to my list of contradictions and say that an awards speech should be honest, but not too much so. And if you’re still wondering “Who cares what Michael Musto thinks about all this?” I once criticized Arrested Development’s Jason Bateman for his behavior at the 2005 Golden Globes, when he was nominated for Best Performance By An Actor in a Television Series, Comedy or Musical. When his name was announced as a nominee, Bateman made a face that suggested he felt there was no way he could possibly get this, but when he did win, he ran onstage and quickly pulled out a card with a list of names that he happened to have written down and rattled them off like gangbusters. How did Glenn Close turn so quickly into Anne Hathaway? I ran into Jason some time later and wanted to crawl under a rock and hide, but he calmly approached me and said, “You were right.” He actually thought my critique had been funny and on target. An honest, self-critical celebrity? Now that deserves an award.

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Michael Musto is a weekly columnist for NewNowNext.com and a freelance writer for outlets from the New York Times Styles section to the Daily Beast. He was the longtime author of the “La Dolce Musto” entertainment and nightlife column for the Village Voice and has authored four books, including the non-fiction guide “Downtown” and the roman a clef novel “Manhattan on the Rocks.” Musto is an awards-related commentator for Goldderby.com and as such appears on CNN to discuss the Oscars and other entertainment topics.

Editor: Sari Botton