In my February issue print column, I offered Martin Luther King's famous “I Have a Dream” speech, as well as President Obama's recent oratory tour de force in Tucson, AZ, as examples of the communications impact speeches can possess.
Obviously, Oscar speeches are not in the stratosphere of importance as the two I highlight above. However, in the world of personal brands – something actors should seriously consider – these are unique opportunities to connect with the public. Conversely, they could be harmful to any reputation if butchered badly enough on some level.
Let's take a trip back to 2001. Julia Roberts won her only Best Actress Oscar for Erin Brockovich. Upon accepting the accolade, she laughed incessantly. Hyena-like guffawing. What was so funny? I still haven't a clue.
A bit later, she wanted to continue speaking past her allotted time. It is common for Academy Award winners to run long with speeches. In such cases, the show orchestra is instructed to start playing to prompt the celebrity to wrap it up quickly. Roberts was having none of that, which is actually fine, except calling the conductor “Stick Man” and telling him to put his stick down is not exactly the most respectful way to do it. Overall, she came off as incredibly aloof and entitled.
As a quick contrast, when Adrien Brody won his Best Actor Oscar in 2003 for The Pianist, he also requested more time to speak. His words were along the lines of: “Cut it. I'll only get one shot at this, so…” Ah, humility. And he didn't insult anyone.
My favorite speech was in 2005, when Jamie Foxx won Best Actor for Ray. He teared up, but just a little. He acknowledged the importance of the moment to him as an African American, but he did not dwell. He was genuinely funny, but appropriately so. His best line, though, was thanking his daughter, who was sitting next to him the whole evening, for telling him just before the winner was announced that “he was still good” no matter the outcome.
Foxx owned Hollywood's elite for that moment, but he was relatable to the general public. And though he surely prepared words before the event, he came off as refreshingly natural. That performance was nearly as powerful as the one for which he won the honor. For our purposes, perhaps it was even better.