Hand me now already the statuette award.” With those dipsy doodle words Emil Jannings became the first Academy Award winner for Best Actor. It was a short and sweet speech which set the template for other loopy acceptance speeches to come—well, except for the short part.
Oscar speeches range from funny (“It couldn’t have happened to an older guy,” said 80-year-old George Burns of his Sunshine Boys win) to inflammatory (Michael Moore’s, “Shame on you Mr. Bush! Shame on you!” outburst) to bizarre (“I am so in love with my brother,” cooed Girl, Interrupted Best Supporting Actress Angelina Jolie) to heartfelt (“You like me!” yelped Sally Fields, “You really like me!”) and egotistical (“I would like to thank my colleagues,” intoned composer Dimitri Tiomkin, “Brahms, Bach, Beethoven, Richard Strauss”) but to make a really successful speech there just are four basic rules:
1. Keep it short: The show is long so you’ll be a hero if you keep your speech under 45 seconds. Take the lead from Jane Fonda, Best Actress for Klute, “There’s a great deal to say,” she said, “but I’m not going to say it tonight.”
2. Give Thanks: No man or woman is an island, so you have to thank someone (unless you are screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart who said “I am happy to report that I am entirely and solely responsible for the success of The Philadelphia Story”), but know where to draw the line. Find a happy medium somewhere between Jon Landau who thanked a laundry list of 45 people after Titanic’s Best Picture win and William Holden’s simple “Thank you” after he nabbed Best Actor for Stalag 17.
Also, remember to thank really important people. Don’t be like Hillary Swank who thanked everyone on the planet except her husband Chad Lowe when she won for Boys Don’t Cry.
3. Be memorable: This may be the biggest audience you’ll ever play to so say something unforgettable. More people remember Cuba Gooding Jr.’s exuberant Jerry Maguire speech than any of the movies he’s made since then and De Niro made headlines when he accepted his Best Actor Award for Raging Bull by thanking Jake LaMotta, “even though he’s suing us.”
4. Be Coherent: It’s an exciting moment, but don’t get rattled unless you want to see yourself all over the Net the next day sputtering nonsense. Jonathan Demme must regret using the word “uh” 40 times in his rambling acceptance speech for The Silence of the Lambs, and who knows what Laurence Olivier was thinking when he delivered a head-scratcher of a speech about “the first breath of the majestic glow of a new tomorrow” that left everyone in the audience baffled.
If every winner adhered to these few simple rules Oscar night could be a zippier, fun-filled affair instead of, as Johnny Carson joked, “Two hours of sparkling entertainment spread over four hours.”