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Culture Junkie: On Hollywood, the Oscars and why there should be no time-limits on ‘Thank You’ speeches

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First of all, I’d like to thank Hollywood, and all writers and directors, and of course, the actors, without whom we would not have the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild Awards, the Independent Spirit Awards, the Razzies and, most of all, the Oscars.

Yes, the Oscars. It’s that special time of year again.

“Acceptance Speech Season.”

I love this time of year, as the great entertainment machine goes into tinsel-powered overdrive. It’s when some of us obsessively strive to see every movie nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, and an envied few-dozen nominees begin mentally crafting whatever-it-is they might say should their name be announced on Awards night. It all leads up to the actual Oscars, of course, which this year fall on Sunday, February 24. That’s when millions of us will gather around television screens to find out who’s won what, and to witness the one-of-a-kind spectacle of mostly famous people walking, running, bouncing, stumbling and sashaying to the podium to deliver a speech they may or may not have written down, but have certainly been thinking about.

Some of those speeches will be short. Some will be longer. Some will be boring. Some will be beautiful. Some will leave us scratching our heads or wiping away tears or laughing at the sublime pleasure of a perfectly timed and delivered joke. And if we are lucky, some of those winner’s words will be so instantly memorable as to earn a place amongst the best, boldest and most unforgettable Oscar acceptance speeches of all time.

We all have our favorites. Julie Andrews, in 1965, accepting for her performance in “Mary Poppins” by saying “I know you Americans are famous for your hospitality but this is ridiculous!” Marlon Brando sending out activist Sasheen Littlefeather to decline his award for “The Godfather” in 1973. Dustin Hoffman, while accepting for his performance in “Kramer vs. Kramer,” remarking (of the shiny Oscar statue itself), “He has no genitalia and he’s holding a sword,” then flaming the Academy for passing over Robert Duvall’s performance in “Apocalypse, Now” (for Melvyn Douglas’s in “Being There),” and finally delivering a passionate tribute to all the movie artists who are never named or awarded.

There was the year that second-time Oscar winner Sally Field admitted to some Flying Nun-style insecurity before saying, “I haven’t had an orthodox career, and I’ve wanted more than anything to have your respect. 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!” There was that other time when Jack Palance demonstrated one-armed pushup while accepting Best Supporting Actor for “City Slickers,” slamming Hollywood for its reticence to hire aging actors. There the time when James Cameron, attempting to describe how good he felt after winning Best Director for “Titanic,” accidentally came off as pompous and superior my shouting “I’m the king of the world,” a failed callback to the character Jack’s boyish glee in one of the film’s most indelible moments.

And of course there was that time in 2000 when Angelina Jolie momentarily alarmed and surprised the world, while accepting the Best Supporting Actress award for her performance in “Girl, Interrupted,” when she began by saying, “I am so in love with my brother right now.” It was, of course, the then-25-year-old Jolie’s first Oscar nomination. She was clearly in a bit of shock. When announcer James Coburn spoke her name, Jolie’s brother, seated beside her, immediately hugged Jolie and told her how proud he was. A nice sweet moment. So she clearly meant her warm-and-gooshy remark about her beloved bro to be just that, a nice thing. Not a creepy thing. And 19 years later we still remember it.

Of course, there are those who’d rather not have to listen to acceptance speeches at all. These are people who applaud when a microphone cuts off or the band drowns out the winner after reaching the current time limit of 45-seconds. For the record, the longest Oscar speech in history was Greer Garson’s, given in 1942 for “Mrs. Miniver.” She spoke for just under six minutes. It was after that that the Academy implemented time limits. The shortest acceptance speech, for what it’s worth, was given by 16-year-old Patty Duke, winning for playing Helen Keller in “The Miracle Worker.”

The entirety of her speech was, “Thank you.”

Second shortest was Joe Pesci’s speech for Best Supporting Actor in “Goodfellas.”

“Thank you. It was my privilege.”

Personally, I love acceptance speeches.

In my opinion, acceptance speeches are the whole reason for having a live awards show. Without acceptance speeches, you might as well just read off a list of the people who won awards and go home. We want to hear what these people have to say. And though some folks definitely do ramble on about nothing, or prove less skilled at speech-making than they are at filmmaking, there are others who truly do have something to say, lovely and historic and important things to talk about, then can fit into a one-size-fits-all 45-second container.

I remember Tom Hanks, accepting the award for Best Actor for 1996’s “Philadelphia,” in which he played a gay lawyer dying of AIDS. For one thing, it was one of the most instantly riveting openings ever given to an Oscar speech.

“Here’s what I know,” he said, instantly and honestly (and sort of unintentionally) outing his high school drama teacher Raleigh Farnsworth, who he called one of “the finest gay American I know.” From there, Hanks segued into one of the greatest, most moving and calmly defiant speeches ever made during the Oscars. “The streets of Heaven at too crowded with angels. We know their names. They number a thousand for each one of the red ribbons that we wear here tonight. They finally rest in the warm embrace of the gracious creator of us all.”

And I will never forget Halle Barry, tearfully accepting her award for Best Actress for “Monster’s Ball,” in 2002. From the moment her name was uttered, you could see on her face the enormity of that moment, as she became the first black woman in Oscar history to win for Best Actress. The hugeness of the moment appeared to press her to her seat for several seconds, and by the time she made it to the stage, her face soaked with genuine emotion, she seemed to have almost no energy left to make her speech. But in a soft, determined voice she began, “This moment is so much bigger than me. This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Dianne Caroll. It’s for the women that stand beside me: Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett, Vivica Fox. It’s for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance, because this door tonight has been opened.”

Both of those speeches would never have happened had those actors stuck to the rules and stopped after 45 seconds. So in my opinion, let the winners talk. It’s their moment. They earned it. They deserve it.

And the folks they thank. And thank. And thank?

Those people deserve it too.

As Dustin Hoffman went on to say in his “Kramer vs. Kramer speech, “We are laughed at, when we’re up here, sometime just for thanking. But when you work on a film, you discover that there are people who are giving that artistic part of themselves that goes beyond a paycheck, and they are never up here. And we never hear of them. But Oscar is a symbol, I think, and it is given for appreciation, from those people who we never see. Because they are part of our life.”

(Culture Junkie runs every-other-week. Feel free to share your thoughts with David at david.templeton@arguscourier.com)