When Kate Winslet won an Oscar in 2009, she began her acceptance speech by breathlessly recounting how she had practiced that moment in the bathroom mirror as a child, using a shampoo bottle as a figurine. “Well, it’s not a bottle of shampoo now!” she said, as if trying to convince herself. The actress then sought out her father in the crowd asking him to whistle, whipped towards the sound and blew kisses in her parents’ direction with pure excitement.
Winslet was honored for her role The reader, a movie I’ve never seen and probably never will. However, more than a decade later, the video occasionally pops up in my YouTube suggestions and I watch it every time. The way Winslet clutches the award like it’s about to be taken away from her. her reverent tribute to two of the film’s producers, who had passed away. her disbelief at being in the same category as Meryl Streep — never fails to give me a huge smile. I’m probably over a dozen views at this point.
For me, acceptance speeches are undoubtedly the best part of an awards show. Most shows have canned bits between presenters, and maybe a well-executed musical number (or, at the very least, a campy exaggeration of the show). But the credits feel like humanizing moments, unscripted by a producer. Celebrities, so often portrayed as singular talents, thank the people who got them to this pinnacle of their careers—a wonderful reminder of how success is a team effort. Their joy tends to be contagious. And, thanks to the internet, speeches can last long after the ceremony as bite-sized clips. They are a packaged euphoria for viewers to consume on demand. Whether viewers know anything about the winning circumstances or not, the most popular videos usually have two elements the internet loves: celebrities and apparently honest reactions.
The speeches themselves can be repetitive: Winners tend to call out their families, the cast and crew of the play, their agents, God. But this similarity is part of the point. I can sit through dozens of monologues knowing they will deliver the sentimentality I want. Each feels like a restrained emotional arc. There is tension as the presenter lists the candidates. the thrill when the winner is announced. the speech itself; the hasty, orchestra-assisted introduction of the winner off stage; The ending is always happy. (When the speeches deviate from the usual format, they’re also a fun surprise—like actor Merritt Wever’s Emmy speech, which said, about 10 seconds in, “Thank you… thank you very much… Thank you very much… I have to go, bye. “)
The similarity of these videos makes them perfect for the more positive kind of YouTube rabbit hole. The algorithm can understand that I’ve watched a few speeches and direct me to similar content, until I find myself tearing up at Michael Jeter’s Tony Awards speech given a decade before I was born, for a musical I’d never heard of. Even Frank Sinatra’s 1954 acceptance speech doesn’t look much different than it might today, except it was shot in black and white.
I repeat the acceptance-speech-watching ritual every couple of months or so, especially during awards season. When I’m having an evening and feel like I have nothing to watch, I’ll gather some of my favorites and spend the evening with artists and their trophies. Some classics include Jennifer Hudson winning Dream girls, where she talks about her inspiration from her grandmother, who never had the chance to become a singer. A young Ben Affleck, along with Matt Damon, said there was “no way we could do this in less than 20 seconds” after the pair won best original screenplay for Good Will Hunting; Bong Joon Ho using his speech to thank the other directors in the room for inspiring him. young, tiny 11-year-old Anna Paquin hyperventilating hers; I just don’t tire of them. And I can’t help it: When winners cry, I cry.
Of course, the effectiveness of these speeches cannot be separated from the fact that many of them are spoken by professional actors, whose entire job is based on their ability to deliver credible displays of emotion. Some speeches are clearly more repetitive than others. Speakers have a list of names handy or burst into song. Theatrics don’t have to undermine the emotion—make no mistake, Sheryl Lee Ralph’s speech at last year’s Emmys was incredibly moving—but it does make it clear that an acceptance speech is still a performance. Viewers can also pick up a little knowledge about the artists—how they were told to take up a backup career like welding, for example, or that their dad has an impressive whistle—from a late-night interview or a celebrity tabloid, even if it gets greater impact when broadcast from Hollywood’s biggest stage.
After all, the acceptance speeches are an apt encapsulation of what entertainment is today. They are honest enough to evoke the viewer’s emotions and glossy enough to be a joy to watch. They are predictably soothing and have a short operating time. In an age when social media has blurred the lines between real life and entertainment, there’s a strange honesty about shows like the Oscars, which have spent decades perfecting this hybrid format: They don’t pretend to be anything but a show.