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10 Things Every Great Academy Awards Acceptance Speech Needs

I am the author of three middle-grade children's books, and I blog on the side. My favorite topics are movies, writing, and pop culture.

Academy Awards

Award-winning speeches

For a movie lover, there are countless reasons to watch The Academy Awards: the montages, the opening monologue, the In Memoriam tribute, the overdue wins, etc. But when you ask fans of awards shows why they watch these ceremonies, they are unlikely to say the speeches.

It’s kind of funny seeing as how the speech is a big part of the win and takes up a large chunk of the ceremony. But after the winner’s name is called, the excitement tends to dull down, and watches are checked as the audience waits for the winner to rattle off a bunch of names and try to say something profound. This is especially true at the Academy Awards, the most coveted of movie awards, and the ones that tend to have the longest, dullest speeches in spite of its pedigree.

In the intensity of the moment, the winners can easily bore the audience, even when they are reading off of scribbled notes. But sometimes, they deliver really powerful, inspiring, and funny anecdotes that really speak to their efforts, their craft, and their gratitude. Here are 10 elements that make up a memorable and enlightening Academy Awards acceptance speech.

Thanking the real person that they played.

If an actor plays a real person, a script writer adapts a movie from a book, or the film is a remake of another movie, it’s always important to thank the person responsible for the life, story, or idea that made this award-winning movie possible. Not only that, but they should say a few words about their contribution, if any, to the project, and appreciation of the efforts that it took to get them there.

Julia Roberts famously forgot to thank Erin Brockovich after winning an Academy Award for playing the off-color heroine. This was obviously not intentional as she has given numerous interviews praising Brockovich and her inspiring story. But nerves can get the best of you, and it can be hard to stay focused and remember to thank some of the most important people involved in the project.

While not an Academy Awards win, when Emma Thompson won a Golden Globe for best Adapted Screenplay for Sense and Sensibility, she delivered her speech from the perspective of the story’s original author, Jane Austen, as if she had attended the ceremony that evening, incorporating her thank you’s within the faux letter. It’s a creative example of how to show appreciation for the inspiration behind a project and to give credit where credit is due.

Then, there was Jamie Foxx who not only serenaded the audience in the opening lines of his Oscar speech, but thanked the real Ray Charles and the opportunity to play him on screen. Beginning his speech with the most important thank you allowed him to trickle down through the various groups of people that he wanted to acknowledge in his short time on stage.

Jamie Foxx 2005 Oscars Acceptance Speech

Thanking family

What does family have to do with winning an Academy Award? Usually nothing, but a spouse is usually in the audience, children are watching at home, and parents and siblings were there for the genesis of the winner’s career. If they don't thank them right away, I'm usually holding my breath until the winner does thank their spouse, for their own sake.

It’s just common courtesy. It also helps if they share a line or two about an encouraging word that was said or a selfless act that was made in order to allow the winner to carry on with their craft.

When Ryan Gosling won his Golden Globe 2017, he thanked wife Eva Mendez not only for her support but for raising their children and helping her brother fight a losing battle with cancer while he was off making the movie. Her sacrifice was not lost to him, and his gratitude showed when he took the time dedicated to his success to honor her less-flashy but personally meaningful work at home.

But since we're talking about the Oscars, when Meryl Streep won her third Oscar in 2012, she made sure to thank her husband first so that the music wouldn't play over his name at the end of her speech. Clearly, she was familiar with how it works.

Meryl Streep Best Actress in The Iron Lady

Thanking people, not just names.

The most boring Oscar speeches occur when the winner pulls out a list a mile long and starts reading off the names of their crew, entourage, and agents. It helps a little if they add the person’s title to the name. It helps a lot if they explain why they are being thanked, providing one or two sentences with a specific action or role they played in helping the winner to earn their award.

Technical winners (like documentary filmmakers, editors, and cinematographers) are especially notorious for name rattling, hoping to acknowledge those who don’t usually get acknowledgement. But there’s no way to thank everybody involved, and the audience has no interest in hearing a verbal reading of a film’s closing credits.

Even worse is when they don’t have a list to read off of, and they’re desperately trying to think of names of people to thank off the top of their head. Keeping a speech short and sweet means knowing who to thank ahead of time and making sure that you give a reason for thanking them. It’s going to mean more to those who are acknowledged, and it’s going to keep the audience from spacing out.

Patricia Arquette's Speech Notes

Make at least one joke.

Even the most heartfelt Oscar speeches aren’t going to stick in people’s minds without a good joke thrown in. Usually, it comes in the first line of the speech, possibly a self-deprecating remark or a bewildered exclamation.

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When Martin Scorecese won his Best Directing Oscar in 2007 after five previous nominations, his first question after numerous thank you’s was “Could you double-check the envelope?” When Allison Janney won Best Supporting Actress in 2018, she announced, “I did it all by myself.”

Other good ones have included singling out a respected actor or filmmaker from the audience or half-jokingly warning the conductor not to cue up the music once they have gone over on their time. Naturally funny people have an easy time of this. Notoriously serious people can surprise audiences with a good, well-timed joke. It brings an ease to both sides and keeps the winner from getting too emotional.

Allison Janney Oscar Speech 2018

A story about their love of movies.

Audiences like to be reminded that winning an Oscar is one of those American dreams that can happen to anybody from any background, culture, class, or industry. When winners share a story about their history with films, it makes everyone perk up and realize that the win holds more sentimental value than an eight pound gold statue can encapsulate.

Directors talk about making mini-movies with their Dad’s Super 8 camera in the backyard. Costume designers reminisce about sewing their childhood Halloween costumes. Kate Winslet remarked in her speech about her years of practicing for the moment of her win in the bathroom mirror while holding a shampoo bottle.

When Forest Whitaker won his Best Actor Oscar in 2007, he spoke about watching movies in the back of the car at the drive-in to standing up on stage that night. The majority of the people watching from home are a movie-loving audience, and they can relate to that experience and those dreams. The time Whittaker took to mention that in his speech was time well-spent.

Forest Whittaker Oscar Speech 2007

Thanking fellow nominees.

The majority of winners are quick to thank their fellow nominees. This is especially true of the acting awards. In the time leading up to the Oscars, the nominees spend time together at luncheons, press interviews, and roundtables. This often creates tight bonds from actors who have never met previously.

The press ate up Jean Dujardin and George Clooney’s bromance formed by the pre-Oscar events that they attended together in 2012. Clooney was quick to cast Dujardin in his next project, The Company Men, the following year. Gracious winners name their fellow nominees and praise their work, even when the one standing on stage knew that their win was a sure thing. Plus, as Dujardin learned, these connections can lead to your next job.

Buddies Jean Dujardin and George Clooney

Explaining their passion for the project.

Time is limited on stage, and for good reason. No one wants to hear The Gettysburg Address. But a few words about the project itself can help to ground the win in something more than a status symbol.

Even the most controversial winners are not up there because they phoned it in. There was obviously a connection to the project and an understanding that gave them the acknowledgement that they acquired.

A good speech can sum up this experience in a few sentences and provide a detail or an overview of the experience that they had in making the film, from the challenges and insecurities they faced to the drive and determination to make the best work possible. This is why we go to the movies, and this is why filmmakers make them.

Steven Spielberg Best Director Speech 1994

Bring awareness to a cause.

When filmmakers promote a movie, they have to answer the same questions and tell the same stories over and over again. With so many of these interviews available to watch online, even fans can pick up on the monotony of a press junket. Especially when an actor wins an Oscar, they can use the time to say something about their character or the film that they haven’t been asked or to use it to advocate for a cause on which the work was based.

When Tom Hanks won his Best Actor Oscar for Philadelphia in 1994, he was taking a risk by playing not only a gay character but a gay character who was infected by a disease that was considered taboo for its time. Instead of reflecting on overcoming that career test, he used the time to bring awareness to the countless AIDS-infected individuals and to humanize them as people instead of as a walking plague.

Movies do help bring awareness to issues that do not readily command the spotlight. So, when a well-known personality has the time to speak about a cause, it can help to inspire real world change.

Tom Hanks Best Actor Speech for Philadelphia

An encouraging message.

Filmmakers aren’t curing cancer or building skyscrapers, but they are people trying to achieve personal and professional success. Most of those working in creative industries will never make it to an event as prestigious as The Academy Awards, but they can sometimes get a boost of confidence from those who have made it to the top. A good winner remembers the struggle of getting noticed, finding work, and doing whatever they needed to do to make ends meet while they pursued their career.

Acknowledging this struggle is always admirable and inspiring to fans who are pursuing similar long shot career paths. When Penelope Cruz won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 2009, she made a point of acknowledging her long shot odds and spoke specifically to her fellow Spanish citizens about continuing to pursue their long shots.

When audiences hear stories about how an actor struggled in the industry for 30 years before getting their big break, was told they would never become a leading actor because of their weight or ethnicity, or decided to go on one more audition before quitting and landing a steady job, it shows that there is no formula for success and nothing written in stone saying who gets chosen for success and who doesn’t. It’s half hard work, half luck, and watching one person overcome those odds can inspire others to keep going as well.

Penelope Cruz Oscar Speech 2009

A dedication

When J.K. Simmons won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Whiplash in 2015, it was one of several where he ended with a shout out to his deceased parents. In this way, the award was a dedication to them. When Sam Rockwell won the same award in 2018, he dedicated his win to deceased fellow actor, Oscar winner, and friend, Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

Director Kathryn Bigelow dedicated her 2010 Oscar win to all of those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan and risking their lives for our country. These dedications stand out in a speech, capping off the acceptance with gracious, and sometimes surprising, shout outs.

Kathryn Bigelow Oscar Speech 2010

What are your favorite Academy Awards acceptance speeches, and what information did they entail? Leave your answers in the comments below!

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