FEATURE: The Importance of the Speech

1 03 2010

At the Screen Actors Guild Awards, they call it “Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role.”  At the Golden Globe Awards, they call it “Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture.”  But at the Academy Awards, the most celebrated show of them all, they call it simply “Best Actor.”

This distinction is important because at the Oscars, it is not just the performance that is rewarded.  It is the actor themselves.  The Academy elects four actors each year to become the face of quality of their industry to the world.  These actors can forever affix the title “Academy Award Winner” to their name on any poster or trailer they so desire.  Thus, they vote not only for a great body of work but also for a face and a personality that represents them well.

The performance gets a select group of actors some attention.  Their name and reputation gets them to the next step: consideration.  Then, a few big groups take a leap and select one of them.  At this point, the part of the voter is done.  It is up to the actors to let us know where they stand.  With their acceptance speech, it is their job to convince us why they deserve the highest honor that their craft has to give.  It is their job to show voters what a vote for them really means.

Let’s take a look at the five actors who have won top prizes from the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild.

Jeff Bridges

A vote for Bridges is a vote for a well-respected and unassuming industry veteran to have his moment of supreme recognition.

Bridges has accepted both awards with a very authentic humility, quipping at the Globes, “You are really screwing up my under-appreciated status!”  He is obviously aware of the chatter surrounding him, most of it around the fact that he is long overdue for the Oscar.  Both of his wins were greeted with rousing standing ovations, which displayed the high regard that the industry holds him in.

In his two most public speeches, he has thanked his long-time stand-in.  Giving thanks to someone who usually goes unlauded has been a genuinely gracious and appreciative move, and it definitely bodes well with the voters.

Sandra Bullock

A vote for Bullock is a vote for an actress who decides to completely reinvent herself.

It’s arguable that Bullock really delivered the most powerful performance by a female last year, but she most assuredly has had one of the greatest stories of the year.

She gave herself a giant boost when she said in her SAG speech, “I’m so proud to be in a room full of faces who inspire me and allowed me six years ago to say ‘I’m going to stop working’ because I wasn’t doing good work and audition again.  And you say goodbye to the money and you say goodbye to all the things you became comfortable with.”  Most actors make a few bad movies, but for comedic actors especially, this often turns into a long downward slide ultimately followed by irrelevancy.  Bullock has proven that it is possible to make a career turnaround, and she has become the success story that voters and audiences love.

Bullock isn’t your typical “awards bait” actress, and she definitely has a lot of weapons in her comedic arsenal.  She pulled out a great one to open her SAG speech by saying, “If this were only not televised so I could use the appropriate words I am feeling right now.”  She has been a hit with both crowds by simply being herself and talking as if she were talking to friends.

We’ve seen this formula before: a popular and likable actress in a generally likable movie playing a strong character.  It’s a different kind of acting to reward, but Sandra Bullock has soundly established her case for why she should win it.

Meryl Streep

A vote for Meryl is a vote to reward an actress who consistently delivers outstanding performances.

She is the actress of our generation, and her record-breaking 16 Academy Award nominations are the biggest testament to this.  When she steps onto the set of a movie, the assumption now is that she will be Oscar-nominated for it.  You can’t buy that kind of respect.

She has only taken home an award from the Golden Globes, but her speech displayed the composure that one gets from receiving so many of these things.  She started off by joking that she wanted to change her name to T-Bone Streep (after fellow Globes winner T-Bone Burnett).  She followed by hilariously stating that because she has been known for playing extraordinary women that she often gets mistaken for them, but she recognizes herself as a vessel for their stories.

However, the most touching moment in her speech came from her description of the role she played in “Julie & Julia.”  She wasn’t merely impersonating the famous chef Julia Child; she was channeling her mother’s passion for life.  Really, the speech just reminded us what we already knew: Streep is an eloquent actress who gives us no reason to doubt her reverential status.

Christoph Waltz

A vote for Christoph Waltz is a vote for a class act and for discovery of new talent, no matter what age.

Waltz has been the most prepared actor of them all at the podium.  Does it mark overconfidence in himself?  Not necessarily, but it’s nice to know that he wants to do something meaningful with his minute on the world stage.  The impressiveness of his calm and collected behavior at the podium starkly contrasted at the SAG Awards with television winner Drew Barrymore, who constantly uttered “um” when she wasn’t stumbling over the few words she could manage.

His speeches have been thematically relevant to the occasions in which they have been presented.  In his Golden Globes speech, Waltz talked about how “Inglourious Basterds” and Quentin Tarantino rocked his globe.  At the SAG awards, he gave one of the most insightful speeches that reflected on the many pain-staking steps that help to bring a performance to the screen.  This involved thanking actors, producers, directors, writers, and even the projectionist who literally puts his performance on the screen.

Waltz is a new phenomenon on the Hollywood scene, an Austrian actor getting his first big role with “Inglourious Basterds.”  The performance has had to make up for his lack of status among the actors, but as response to his speeches have shown, they seem to have no problem taking him in.

Mo’Nique

A vote for Mo’Nique is a vote for the best performance of the year, even if the actor’s habits and personality may lack refinement.

Mo’Nique hasn’t exactly been a charmer on the campaign trail, refusing to show up to lesser awards ceremonies unless she gets paid.  It normally costs an actor greatly when they don’t humbly suck up to the voters; it killed Eddie Murphy in 2006.

But her speeches have let us know how much the awards mean to her.  In her two moments in the worldwide spotlight, she has won over crowds with her heartfelt gratitude.  She has thanked God in both speeches in a very sincere way and graciously thanked the usual suspects.

However, her most emotional and touching moments have come from her speech dedications.  At the Golden Globes, she dedicated her speech to all victims of domestic abuse and incest like the characters in “Precious.”  She told them that it was okay to come forward and get help and that it was their time.  This was an expected move, but I was particularly touched by her SAG acceptance speech when she thanked the child with Down Syndrome who played Precious’ daughter for her special gifts.  Although few who hadn’t seen the movie would have understood this, it still communicated well to all audiences.

As we kick off Oscar week, who has impressed you the most at the awards ceremonies?  Has there been anyone that has improved their standing with you based on their speeches?


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