You'd think, with all the speeches delivered every year at the Oscars, there'd be a formula to delivering a great one. There isn't. A great Oscar speech is an enigma. Or perhaps it’s best summed up with the same language that the Supreme Court used to define pornography: “We know it when we see it.” In this case, it’s that certain combination of gratitude, celebration, emotion and personality that makes you involuntarily clap along with those in attendance.
Here, I've picked my twelve favorites from over the years, listed in chronological order, because attempting to rank them all might just kill me.
Ruth Gordon - 1968 / Best Supporting Actress / "Rosemary's Baby"
"I can't tell ya how encouragin' a thing like this is." At age seventy-two, Ruth Gordon finally got some encouragement from the industry she'd worked in for over fifty years. Accepting the award for playing the nefarious Minnie Castevet in Roman Polanski’s body-horror classic, Gordon was sprightly and succinct, thanking the members of the Academy who voted for her. "And all of you who didn't," she chirped, "please excuse me." Gracious, humble, and funny, all at once? That's rare.
Jane Fonda - 1971 / Best Actress / "Klute"
Jane Fonda had a particular task in front of her with this speech. This was in early 1972, in the thick of the "Hanoi Jane" era, and while she may have gotten the votes for Best Actress and some loud cheers when her name was read, she knew enough to expect a divided room. It doesn't help that the crowd was warmed up by Walter Matthau's dour attempts to throw shade at George C. Scott. Fonda elegantly walked a line, neither addressing her views on Vietnam nor apologizing for them. "There's a great deal to say," she said, "and I'm not going to say it tonight. I'd just like to really thank you very much."
Cher - 1987 / Best Actress / "Moonstruck"
Over the years, Cher's sparkling whisper of a Bob Mackie dress became the most notable aspect of her Oscar-winning night. But for me, it will always be her thanking her "Silkwood" co-star, one "Mary Louise Streep" for her support and friendship. One of my favorite things is when an award recipient doesn't hide the fact that they honestly wanted to win, but finds a way to make that desire endearing. Clearly, Cher took this award as a validation of her long and winding path to respect from her peers. Also, oratorically, nice job bookending the speech with that quote from her mother about being somebody.
Daniel Day-Lewis - 1989 / Best Actor / "My Left Foot"
Thank God Daniel Day-Lewis consistently delivers gracious and endearing acceptance speeches, because he sure gives them an awful lot. Upon winning his first Oscar, Day-Lewis - "Last of the Mohicans" hair on full display - thanked the Academy for giving him "the makings of a wonderful weekend in Dublin," before delivering a touching tribute to the real-life Christy Brown (bonus points: look at how happy Morgan Freeman was for him!).
Emma Thompson - 1992 / Best Actress / "Howards End"
Emma Thompson - 1996 / Best Adapted Screenplay / "Sense and Sensibility"
If I could arrange it for Emma Thompson to accept an award at every single award ceremony every year, I would. She's that delightful a personality. Her first Oscar win saw her power past nerves to deliver a lovely speech, including a shout out to producer Ismail Merchant for cutting her check. Four years later, she was more composed, but no less funny, accepting for her Jane Austen adaptation. Interestingly, both her Oscars were presented to her by her "Howards End" co-star Anthony Hopkins.
Michael Caine - 1999 / Best Supporting Actor / "The Cider House Rules"
What an unexpected little gem this was. Caine wasn't present when he won his first Oscar, for "Hannah and Her Sisters." He made up for it here, with a heartfelt dedication to his five co-nominees. That kind of nod can seem insincere, but Caine was truly dedicated to giving these men their due. Imagine being little Haley Joel Osment and a screen legend like Caine is taking time out of his Oscar speech to find you in a crowd.
Steven Soderbergh - 2000 / Best Director / "Traffic"
It's a tricky balancing act with an acceptance speech. Will you use your time to thank the people who helped make this moment possible, or will you use the occasion to make a statement. There's usually not time to do both. Soderbergh went with the latter option, always a tricky one, and nailed it, delivering an emphatic, no-frills dedication to "anybody who spends part of their day creating." A simple and uniting statement, and chances are, if you're watching the Academy Awards, "this world would be unlivable without art" speaks to you on some level.
Julia Roberts - 2000 / Best Actress / "Erin Brockovich"
This is a divisive one, and with good reason. If the self-aggrandizement of celebrities pushes your buttons, you're likely to loathe Julia's Big Moment. But I find the whole thing fascinating, watching an actress just go full-bore into buying her own mythology. Girlfriend just parked herself on that stage with no plans on leaving anytime soon. But the really crazy thing is that she makes the whole thing endearing, through sheer force of her giant personality. The whole things becomes this event unto itself, and anyone less than America's Movie Star would seem waaaay too big for their britches, but on Julia, it fit. Crazy laugh and reprimands to the "Stick Man" and all.
Adrien Brody - 2002 / Best Actor / "The Pianist"
I'm a firm believer than all lists should have one entry that you're actually ambivalent about. So it goes with Adrien Brody's speech. The part that everybody remembers, where he takes the stage and plants one on Halle Berry, looks less charming and more sexual-harassy every time I see it, particularly given Halle's not-cool-with-it reaction (Calista Flockhart agrees with me). But everything else about the moment - the energy in the room, his honest astonishment, tearfully thanking his parents - is so endearing. Notably, he declines to gush over Roman Polanski so maybe that balances the feminist ledger a bit. As for the bit about the war at the end, celebrities congratulating themselves for their correct political views is never going to go down easy with everybody. But the 2002 Oscars were a strange time where nobody seemed to know quite what tone to take towards the just-declared Iraq War. That standing ovation was as much in gratitude to someone who finally struck the right chord as anything else.
Sandra Bullock - 2009 / Best Actress / "The Blind Side"
It's almost impossible to watch this speech without feeling bad, as it features numerous teary-eyed reaction shots to Bullock's unfaithful creep of a husband, Jesse James. When you think about the fact that Bullock probably can't watch video of the biggest night of her professional career without being reminded of that ass, it's actually tragic. It's too bad, because it's a wonderful speech that speaks to her place in the Hollywood ecosystem and how aware she is that the community of her peers is finally looking at her differently than they have before. By the time she gives it up to Helga B. for not letting her ride in cars with boys, she's not the only one tearing up. (...So is her rotten husband. Damn it!)
Meryl Streep - 2011 / Best Actress / "The Iron Lady"
"When they called my name, I had this feeling I could hear half of America going, 'Oh no. Come on, why? Her? Again?" That was Meryl's one concession towards humility as she accepted her third career Oscar trophy, for her performance in "The Iron Lady." Then, with a wave and her hand and a wry "whatever," she traded in humility for sincere gratitude. She had twenty-nine years of practice in between her second and third Oscars, and the wait paid off. She flipped the script and thanked her husband, Don, first rather than last, so he wouldn't get drowned out by the band. "Everything I value most in our lives, you've given me." Guys, I love the Gummer marriage so much, it scares me a bit. Too much. After a warm shout-out to her longtime makeup artist, Streep went on to reflect on her long and rewarding career, looking out into the crowd at all her friends, old (Glenn Close) and new (Viola Davis), here and departed. The best Oscar speeches transcend a mere reading of names and are instead celebrations of working in such a fun, creative artform. Meryl gets it and always has.