Oscar speeches: Seize the moment or play it safe?


The Academy Awards keeps a searchable database of more than 1,400 acceptance speeches delivered during the show’s 89-year history. A journey through this digital time machine will make two things clear: thanking your mom never goes out of style and there’s an art to finding words that will — unlike a statue — not lose their shine over time.

When this year’s victors take the stage, they will find themselves speaking to a country that President Donald Trump himself calls “divided.”

So will this year’s Oscar winners use their moment to talk about what’s really on their minds? Or will they play it safe?

Host Jimmy Kimmel has a simple suggestion: Speak from the heart.

“[I hope] people say what they want to say — whether it has to do with what’s going on in the country or the world, or maybe they just want to thank their mom and dad and their acting teacher,” he said. “I just hope the speeches are sincere and in the moment.”

‘The Twitterverse would have gone crazy’

Peter Davis flew to Los Angeles from New York on April 8, 1975 not knowing that by the end of that night, he would be part of a moment that would live in Oscar infamy.

Davis’ film, an arresting Vietnam documentary called “Hearts and Minds,” was nominated for best documentary feature.

He thought the film’s chances for winning were slim, he told CNN in a recent interview. He assumed the award would go to Shirley MacLaine’s “The Other Half of the Sky,” a doc about China.

Davis was wrong.

Davis spoke first, thanking those who worked on the film, his late wife, and his sons, “who I hope will grow up in a country and atmosphere somewhat different from the one we had to portray.”

The film’s executive producer Bert Schneider went next and gave a portion of his time to reading a telegram from Viet Cong official Dinh Ba Thi.

It read: “Please transmit to all our friends in America our recognition of all that they have done on behalf of peace and for the application of the Paris Accords on Vietnam. These actions serve the legitimate interest of the American people and the Vietnamese people. Greetings of friendship to all the American people.”

Accounts from the night, documented in books and newspapers, recall turmoil backstage as a result of Schneider’s speech.

Bob Hope, one of four co-hosts, wrote a statement on behalf of the Academy for fellow host Frank Sinatra to read. Hope had not been authorized to speak for the whole body, but Sinatra read it nonetheless before presenting the best adapted screenplay award.

“Ladies and gentleman, to deviate for one second, I’ve been asked by the Academy to make the following statement regarding a statement that was made by a winner,” Sinatra said. “The Academy is saying, ‘We are not responsible for any political references on this program and we are sorry that they had to take place this evening.'”

A mix of cheers and boos followed.

“I think the Twitterverse would have gone crazy with that — against [the film] and for [the film],” Davis said.

Behind the scenes, MacLaine, also one of the night’s hosts, defended the filmmakers to Sinatra and Hope.

“Bless her,” Davis said.

Earlier in the day, Schneider had told Davis about the telegram he’d received from a mutual contact, who was sending the note on behalf of the ambassador. Schneider asked Davis if he’d read it in the event they won.

Davis declined.

“I didn’t think it was offensive or even propaganda,” Davis said. “I told him, ‘Bert, I wouldn’t read this telegram because it really distracts from the film itself.'”

Davis wasn’t shocked when Schneider ultimately read it on stage. (“I didn’t have to tell him it was okay — neither one of us censored what the other was going to say,” he said.) He also wasn’t shocked when the move did, in fact, distract from the film for a period of time.

Davis recalled that a publicist from Warner Bros., which distributed the film, being particularly “disappointed” about Schneider’s move.

“He came over to our table — you know, in the after party — and he congratulated both Bert and me,” he said. “He didn’t seem upset at all, but that was before the wave of dissatisfaction or disapproval broke over the film — or at least over us both, I guess.”

Warner Bros. even had Davis call a press conference a couple of days later in New York City to clear the air, “which I thought was ridiculous,” Davis said.

“The whole reason for the press conference was really because of that telegram, and it wasn’t that I was supposed to disown the telegram,” he said. “All I said — it was just one of the silliest press conferences that I can imagine — ‘Hearts and Minds’ had no narration before the Oscars, and it has no narration now.”

Davis never held anything against Schneider, he said. They stayed “complete friends” until the Schneider’s death in 2011.

Sage advice

Throughout the pre-Oscars period Hollywood calls award season, there’s been no shortage of impassioned acceptance speeches, many opposing Trump’s policies and rhetoric.

See: Meryl Streep’s 6-minute speech at the Golden Globes. “Stranger Things” star David Harbor’s fiery SAG screed. Or Patton Oswalt’s entire performance as host at the Writer’s Guild of America awards.

But what’s an Oscar winner to say in 2017?

One week before the Oscars, Oliver Stone was honored at the WGA awards for his lifetime of achievements. He jokingly told CNN ahead of ceremony that his speech was going to be “about two hours long.”

Stone, who gave his own memorable Oscar speech back in 1987 while accepting for his work on “Platoon,” didn’t need that long to make his point. (Among other things, his comments encouraged the room of young writers to “be critical of your government and your society,” and he received a warm audience response.)

What’s his trick?

He smiled. “I’ve never been obvious and I’ve never followed the crowd.”

“Arrival” scribe Eric Heisserer, nominated for best adapted screenplay, suggests authenticity.

“I would never deny anyone whatever it is they want to do when they get up to that stage — even if it’s something I don’t agree with,” he said. “I want to make sure they feel free enough to talk about it themselves because a lot of our freedoms have been in question lately.”

Allison Schroder, writer of “Hidden Figures” and the only female nominated in a screenwriting category this year, also has a game plan. But it doesn’t necessarily involve politics.

“I think for us, if we get the honor of being up there, it’s definitely going to be a message about inclusivity and positivity — that if we work together for a common goal, regardless of our race or gender, we can achieve extraordinary things,” she said.

Impact doesn’t have to go hand-in-hand with controversy, she said.

As for Davis?

“Say something they’re going to be proud of 34 years later.”

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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