How to make an Oscar acceptance speech
It’s Academy Award time, and lucky winners will be accepting their Oscars and thanking the Academy of Motion Picture Arts, their families, mentors, and colleagues. In linguistic terms, what makes an acceptance speech succeed where others fail?
Thanking is a speech act—a way that we use words to do as well as say. Such speech acts are often indirect and go beyond a simple “thank you” (which would make for a pretty boring ceremony).
To explore this, let’s take a look at a few thank-yous from best actress awardees, some from the mid-twentieth century and some from recent years. Here is English actress Vivien Leigh in 1940, receiving the award for Gone with the Wind: “Ladies and gentlemen, please forgive me if my words are inadequate in thanking you for your very great kindness. If I were to mention all those who have shown me such wonderful generosity through “Gone with the Wind” I should have to entertain you with an oration as long as Gone with the Wind itself.” Leigh begins with a self-deprecating apology to emphasize the depth of her appreciation. It’s a words-fail-me approach.
In 1942 we have Joan Fontaine, employing some polite subordination after receiving her award for Alfred Hitchcock’s film Suspicion: “I want to thank the ladies and gentlemen that voted me this award.” Perhaps she intended not to thank those who had voted for her feuding sister, Olivia de Havilland, who had also been nominated that year for Hold Back the Dawn.
Olivia de Havilland received her first award in in 1947 for To Each His Own, going on a bit to explain her pride in the award: “Since I value highly the profession which has instructed me, rewarded me, and permitted me my share of the world’s work, it will understand and forgive me, I know, for the very great pride I feel in receiving this symbol of its approbation, one of the Awards of Merit, for my part in this past year, what has been done.” Her acceptance in 1950 for The Heiress was more muted but equally humble. She understated: “Your award for To Each His Own I took as an incentive to venture forward. Thank you for this very generous assurance that I have not entirely failed to do so.”
Compare those with Loretta Young’s quip in 1948, accepting the award for The Farmer’s Daughter. She said: “You know, up until now, presentations of the Academy Awards has been a purely spectator sport for me. However, tonight I, uh, dressed for the stage just in case.”
In the 21st century, the language has changed but we find the same rhetorical strategies: pride, self-deprecation, humor, and nonchalance and also some harkening back to childhood. Hilary Swank, winning the award in 2005 for Million Dollar Baby, invoked her origin story: “I don’t know what I did in this life to deserve all this. I’m just a girl from a trailer park who had a dream.”
Helen Mirren, in 2007 for The Queen, and Kate Winslet, for The Reader in 2009, invoke youthful dreams too. Mirren offers a schoolroom image: “Thank you, Academy. Thank you so much. Huge honour. You know my sister told me that all kids love to get gold stars and this is the biggest and the best gold star that I have ever had in my life.” Winslet reveals that she has fulfilled a childhood ambition: “I’d be lying if I haven’t made a version of this speech before. I think I was probably eight years old and staring into the bathroom mirror and this would’ve been a shampoo bottle. Well, it’s not a shampoo bottle now!”
Then there is Meryl Streep, nonchalantly picking up her third Oscar, for The Iron Lady, in 2012. She joked “When they called my name I had this feeling I could hear half of America going, “Oh no! Oh, c’mon why? Her? Again?” You know? But, whatever.”
These are just a sample, but if we were to look at the full range of acceptance speeches who knows what we might find. Different rhetorical strategies by category of award? By gender? Age? Previous wins? Changes in style over time?
Speaking of thank-yous, we should thank the Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills, California, for collecting and digitizing (among other things) over 1,400 onstage acceptance speeches, a treasure trove of linguistic data. Margaret Herrick was the first librarian of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and later served as its Executive Director. And legend has it that she was the source of the term “the Oscar,” saying the award statuette looked like her Uncle Oscar. If the story is true, we have that to thank her for as well.