Science Analyzes the Academy Awards Speech

An unlikely study of 60 years of acceptance speeches offers a peek into the human condition

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AFP / Getty Images
AFP / Getty Images

Gwyenth Paltrow cries as she receives the Oscar for Best Actress for her role in "Shakespeare in Love" in 1999.

It’s hard to say how many little Oscar speeches you’ve delivered in your head—and you sure ain’t telling—but it’s a cinch that there are at least a few. Odds are it was for one of the big awards—as long as you’re fantasizing, you may as well aim higher than sound editing in a documentary short. Odds are you’ve pictured at least a few people who snubbed you in high school who would be sitting home gnashing their teeth while they watched your golden moment. And odds are you looked fabulous. Academy Award speeches are the artistic equivalent of  attending your own funeral: an event that’s wholly, utterly, solely about you and one that, for most of us at least, is a metaphysical impossibility.

But the exclusivity of the thing doesn’t make it any less of a cultural touchstone and, like State of the Union Addresses and post-game press conferences by Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks, one that comes with its own set of tropes and traditions. This year’s awards ceremony will be the 85th since the private dinner at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in 1929 at which the films of both 1927 and 1928 were honored. That’s a whole lot of speeches, a whole lot of thank yous and a whole lot of sometimes convincing, sometimes actorly tears.

Something with that kind of history deserves a little scholarly attention and finally, Academy Award speeches are getting it, thanks to a study by Rebecca Rolfe, a Georgia Institute of Technology graduate student conducting a research project on human gratitude and how it’s expressed. Gratitude is a hard thing to parse, both because it typically comes so swaddled in the crinoline of manners that all of the life is choked out of it, and because when it does emerge in its genuine form there is rarely a scientist around to see it.

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“A real statement of gratitude requires a comparatively deep relationship between the giver and receiver and that’s not possible to replicate in the lab,” Rolfe says. What’s more, we feel grateful for many different things—a loan, a gift, a kiss—each of which elicits its own valence of thanks. Oscar speeches solve all of these problems neatly. “You have 85 years of them, the setting is normalized—pretty much the same year after year—and it’s the only part of the ceremony that’s not scripted,” says Rolfe.

To conduct her study, Rolfe began at 1953, which is as far back as the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences maintains reliable film records. To keep things manageable, she limited her speeches to what most people consider the Big Five awards for individual recipients: best actor and actress, best supporting actor and actress and best director. That should have come out to 300 speeches over 60 years, but the Academy doesn’t post them all, so she was limited to 207. Still, that’s a big enough number to reveal some robust trends.

For one thing, Oscar winners talk a lot more than they used to. The average length of a thank-you speech was 44 seconds for men and 39 seconds for women from 1960 to 1969. It has since stretched to 1 min., 57 sec. for men and 1 min., 56 sec. for women. Over the entire span of the study, the average speech delivered without notes runs 1 min., 23 sec; with notes it’s 2 mins., 2 sec.

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The addresses, of course, are all about thanks—who gets included and, more gossip-worthy, who gets left out. (Think Chad Lowe—the ex-Mr. Hillary Swank—left standing at the thank-you altar when his wife copped gold in 2000 and somehow never mentioned his name.) Avoiding the gaffe of omission is one reason the speeches have gotten so long—especially in an era in which stars live their lives with a permanent scrum of managers, handlers and agents. That has led to a certain protocol not only for who gets thanked , but in what order.

“They all start with some version of ‘I’m so happy to be here,'” says Rolfe. “Next, they mention their film and the people they worked with, sometimes including people from previous films. Then they go to the core team: the publicist and the other handlers. Finally they get to their families.”

Not all of the recipients began increasing the size of their thank-you list at the same time. It was supporting actresses who first began thanking their agents, back in 1969; leading actresses came along last, not giving a nod to the 15-percenters until 1988. Children got mentioned first by a leading actress, in 1976. Supporting actors were last in that category, finally acknowledging the kids in 1995.

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Crying is less common that you’d think: only 21% of actors and actresses choke up and a mere 3% of directors do. And it’s a relatively recent phenomenon: fully 71% of the tears have come since 1995. “This may be about social expectations,” Rolfe says. “The audience knows the award is important to you and they want to see you cry, so you give them that.” That doesn’t mean the tears aren’t real—at least for some—but it doesn’t mean we’ll ever know for sure, either. These are, Rolfe stresses, actors.

Recipients handle their trophies differently too. Twenty-six percent of men practice the one-handed celebratory hoist over the head, while just 12% of women do. Forty-seven percent of women clutch the Oscar to them with both hands, compared to 21% of men. “The women hold it like it’s a baby,” says Rolfe. “It’s a don’t-take-this-away-from-me gesture.” Jack Palance, he of the famed one-armed push-up during his supporting-actor acceptance speech in 1992, did neither. “He was the only person who simply laid his flat on the podium while he talked,” says Rolfe. “I liked that.”

Rolfe has posted all of her findings on an interactive website, which includes the text of most of the speeches and breaks down her findings by names, by years, by thanks, by tears—and is exactly as addictive as you’d think it would be. Ultimately, of course, there’s only so much to learn from an event with as much kabuki theater as the Oscars. But in the same way that other American trademarks with similar cultural penetrance—McDonalds, football, political conventions—can give us broad insights into how we like to eat or play or govern ourselves, so too can awards ceremonies reveal at least a bit about how we choose to honor and appreciate each other. Alas, however, no word about the gowns.

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