Portrait of American actress Hattie McDaniel (1892
- 1952) holding her Academy Award from the film
'Gone With the Wind,' 1940. (Photo by John D.
Kisch/Separate Cinema Archive/Getty Images)
For an amazing 85 years, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been honoring the actors, directors, musicians, designers, and so many others who make movie magic happen. And over the course of those 85 years, we’ve seen hundreds upon hundreds of Oscar acceptance speeches. Given just a few brief moments on stage, it’s each winner’s challenge to be eloquent, to be properly grateful, to thank all the right people without leaving anyone out. It’s a tough gig, one that’s hard to do perfectly.
The winners might not all do it exactly right, but their speeches are often memorable. Most lists of the greatest Oscar acceptance speeches remember the over-the-top ones – Sally Field’s oft-misinterpreted “You like me,” Roberto Benigni’s Tigger-style bouncing to the stage, Jack Palance’s one-armed pushups, Marlon Brando’s politically-charged no-show.
But to us, the truly memorable ones are not the stunts, but the speeches that touched our hearts. We’re focusing on five of the most moving Oscar acceptance speeches today.
5. Ruth Gordon, 1969, Rosemary’s Baby. Ruth Gordon didn’t emote or tear up as she accepted her first Academy Award, but her simple and frank opening statement – “I can’t tell you how encouraging a thing like this is” – did more than make us chuckle. It conveyed all there was to say about a career that began in 1915 and was finally recognized 54 years later. We loved her speech almost as much as we loved her turn as the film’s meddlesome – and ultimately evil – Minnie Castevet.
4. John Wayne, 1970, True Grit. When the legendary man’s man won his one and only Oscar, he offered an eloquent thank-you. And was that a tear or two he wiped away as he accepted his award? We can’t say for sure, but Wayne certainly sounded emotional as he remembered the times he had been on the Oscars stage in the past… to accept awards for others. We wouldn’t blame him for being a bit overcome as he received an Oscar of his own – it’s hard even for us not to feel the huge import of that moment, and we’re just the audience.
3. Hattie McDaniel, 1940, Gone With the Wind. Hattie McDaniel made history as the first African-American actor to win an Academy Award, for her performance as Gone With the Wind’s Mammy. Her speech was heartbreakingly emotional, as she couldn’t hold back tears for long after saying, “My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel.” It was a watershed moment for the movie business and for actors of color everywhere. And yet, for many fans, the true heartbreak was in the fact that McDaniel had to return to her segregated table for two after accepting the highest honor in her profession.
2. Charlie Chaplin, 1972, Honorary Oscar. One of the most influential stars in Hollywood’s history, Chaplin nevertheless was not much honored by the Academy before 1972. He won one special award in 1929 and that was it, despite years and years of prolific and groundbreaking work. After his 1952 exile from the U.S. on the heels of accusations of anti-Americanism by the McCarthyites, Chaplin may have despaired of ever receiving the recognition he deserved. But his return in 1972 was triumphant. When he was presented with the honorary award for “the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century,” he spoke only briefly, asserting that in the face of such an honor, “words seem so futile – so feeble.” But perhaps the audience’s record-setting 12-minute standing ovation said it all.
1. Billy Wilder, 1988, Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award. By 1988, Wilder had already won six Oscars and been nominated for 15 more. But a Thalberg Award is a particularly high honor, and it’s not surprising that the winner would, like Wilder did, wish to reflect on his time in the movie industry as he thanks the Academy. But Wilder’s reflections became so much more than a simple trip down memory lane. With equal parts humor and dramatic tension, Wilder recalled his escape from Nazi Germany and the way that the movies – and one compassionate immigration official – saved his life. It’s an amazing story, and it has our hands-down vote for the greatest Oscars acceptance speech of all time.
Written by Linnea Crowther