There will be blubbering and blathering and blabbering at the Oscar podium tonight. Then, after 45 seconds, the music shall swell and, like nursing home attendants, elegant women will lead the winners to their backstage pasture.
Elocutionists actors often are but orators are they only rarely. Standard Oscar speeches are often red hot tranny messes, read from tiny crib notes stained with tears. They needn't be.
Acceptance speeches fall under the general category of epideictic oratory, that is, speeches made for the present to the public. They generally all say the same thing too: thank you. That is, unless of course, they don't [Brando, 1973]. But since the Oscars started being telecast, and Oscar speeches mini-performances in themselves, acceptance speeches have gone from generally wry and direct [Nicholson, 1976; Hepburn, 1954] to being accompanied by rhetorical ornaments such as weeping, shouting and inappropriate touching. [Berry 2002; Gooding 1997; Brody and Berry, 2003]. A 45-second speech is an amuse bouche for most rhetoricians but in the age of soundbites, it's practically a marathon discourse. There's plenty of time to derail. To those lucky few who take home the Oscar, do yourself, and us, a favor, and prepare. Here are a few tips.
0-8 SECONDS: SET EXPECTATIONS LOW
Forty-five seconds is wholly too little time to make any meaningful indentation on the long list of people and entities to whom an Oscar winner rightfully owes gratitude. Acknowledge this at the outset. In his funeral oration for his fallen comrades, the Athenian Pericles begins by poo-pooing the whole idea of orations, "Many of those who have spoken here in the past have praised the institution of this speech at the close of our ceremony.... I do not agree. These men have shown themselves valiant in action, and it would be enough, I think, for their glories to be proclaimed in action."
Oscar Night: "Good evening. I will not and should not attempt to name every individual or organization to whom I owe a profound debt. For I have less than a minute of time in front of this microphone but [X] years of friendships, partnerships, conversations and moments which have borne me here."
9-22 SECONDS: SAY THANKS ANYWAY
After explaining the futility of funereal oration, Pericles finally relents. "It is my duty to follow the tradition," he says, "and do my best to meet the wishes and the expectations of every one of you." Then he totally fucking nails it. Pericles' appeal to complexity only works as a preface. Similarly, during an acceptance speech, one must thank people. There are generally three schools of thought on how to do this. The first is Elliptical and might be called the Pesci School. The second is the Blanket or the Morgan Freeman School. The third is the Particular and might, after the great educer of names, be termed the Joe McCarthy school.
Pesci, in his win for Goodfellas, would have done Basho proud. His speech, in its entirety, reads: "It's my privilege. Thank you." To whom he was offering his thanks exactly is open to reader-response. It's exactly as expansive or exclusionary a cone of gratitude as the beholder can conceive.
Morgan Freeman, upon winning an Oscar for Million Dollar Baby, was slightly more specific, but only slightly. "I want to thank everybody and anybody who had anything at all to do with the making of this picture." Once again, though he does go on to name Clint Eastwood, this blanket of gratitude is sufficiently vague as to cover an indeterminate crowd. It may not be a particularly warm blanket nor one embroidered with proper nouns, but it provides at the least a modicum of gratitude.
The last approach, by far the most treacherous, attempts the impossible: a precise naming of names. Followers of this school include Cuba Gooding Jr. and Julia Roberts. But by embarking down this path, the orator lays himself open to cries of meanness and ingratitude at the worst and logorrhea and hysteria at best. By following this unwise path did Gooding consign himself to indignity, professing love loudly even as the string section played the extinguishing leitmotif of his own exeunt and he, lingering like an estranged father making a toast at his child's wedding, refused to go gently. Thus did Julia Roberts' Promethean attempt to thank all those involved with Erin Brockovich falter for in all her gratitude she had forgotten to thank the real Erin Brockovich. Since not every star has the wherewithal to pull a Pesci, a synthetic approach incorporating the Elliptical and the Blanket Schools is the safest bet. Select a small cadre of those you wish to thank, thank them quickly and wrap up with a catch-all.
Oscar Night: "But, I would be most remiss if I were not to single out [Director], [Producer], [Writer], my agent [Agent] and the countless others who have shown tremendous dedication and without whom I should not be accepting this award today."
23-25 SECONDS: DRAMATIC PAUSE
26-38 SECONDS: DEFLECT THE GLORY
Professions of humility now come standard in Oscar speeches but that doesn't make them anymore believable. The problem, however, isn't that humility is simply a pious synonym for pride but that the professions of it thud so clearly hollow. It's an issue of believability, not veracity. In his 1946 Nobel speech, William Faulkner began his speech with somewhat more genuine, or genuine-sounding, humility that at the same time carried a right and just sense of honor: "I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work—a life's work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before. So this award is only mine in trust." Similarly Ben Kingsley, who won an Oscar for Gandi in 1983, began, "I am custodian of this award for a lot of people," which neatly recognizes the transit of Gloria mundi and treats the statue more like the Stanley Cup than a paperweight.
Oscar Night: "This award is heavy, heavy with honor and heavy with history but it is not for me nor is it mine forever. It, instead, belongs to my work which, I hope, shall exist long after I do. Between now and next year, I am certain movies shall be made and actors shall offer performances that deserve such an honor as this is. And for those movies and for those actors, I shall hold this award in trust."
39-45 SECONDS: PERORATION
There is no greater indignity in Oscarland than overstaying one's welcome. By the time the saccharine music begins playing, the sonic equivalent of a lethal injection, your piece should have been said. There's no arguing with the executioner for only indignity down that path lies. Take the last six seconds of your speech to sum up, succinctly and eloquently, what you took the preceding thirty nine seconds to say.
Begin with an anacephalaeosis, a recapitulation of the facts, wend quickly to an accumulatio, and end with a forceful and simple farewell.
Oscar Night: "Surely I have excluded many, perhaps most, of those to whom I owe my deepest gratitude. But to those who I have named and those I have left unnamed, may this award, which I hold now for you, bring as much joy as the earning of it has brought me. Thank you and good night."