You can forgive George VI, the central figure in “The King’s Speech,” for painfully picking through his syllables when he steps up to the microphone. Like all stammerers, the guy lived in terror of public speaking.
But don’t we deserve some speechifying for the ages from the Hollywood elite that win Academy Awards on Sunday? They’re paid millions for their creative talents, so why do they often bore the stuffing out of TV audiences with droning thank-you lists?
The problem, said “King’s Speech” screenwriter David Seidler, expected to win the Oscar for original screenplay, is that if recipients fail to deliver a monotonous litany of thanks, they hurt a lot of feelings in a town of big, fragile egos.
“You’re stuck. If you don’t thank a long list of people, you have a long list of people very upset, and if you do thank a long list of people, you have a billion people out in the audience bored stupid,” Seidler said.
And if he wins? “I’m not quite sure what to do,” he said.
Oscar overseers know what they’d like winners to do, though. They’re making their usual exhortations to nominees that should they win, don’t lull the world to sleep by thanking their agents, managers, hairstylists and latte fetchers. Say something remarkable.
“Leave your list in your pocket,” Oscar producer Bruce Cohen advised contenders at their annual nominees luncheon three weeks before the show. “Nothing is more deadly than a winner reading a list of names.”
“If you are lucky enough to get up there, tell us how you feel about being up there. What is this moment in your life like? Speak from the heart,” said fellow Oscar producer Don Mischer. “When winners pull out a list on a piece of paper, we lose viewers by the hundreds of thousands.”
At the end of “The King’s Speech,” which leads Oscar contenders with 12 nominations and is favored to win best picture, Colin Firth as George VI muddles through with a rousing radio address to inspire his nation as World War II approaches.
The king overcame his stammer with help from an unconventional speech therapist, Lionel Logue (played by Geoffrey Rush), who coached, counseled and cajoled that grand oration from his patient.
“King’s Speech” director Tom Hooper said winners at Sunday’s Oscars would “do well being coached by Lionel Logue. … He teaches the king a lot about the importance of being relaxed and in the moment. That key idea, which is very central to broadcasting, is: ‘Don’t say it to the millions of people watching, say it as if you are saying it to one person. Say it as if you are saying it to a friend.’ That is his advice to the king, and it remains great broadcasting advice today.”
Being in the moment has resulted in some of the most memorable occasions, good and bad, in Oscar history.
Jack Palance did one-armed push-ups on stage when he won for “City Slickers.” Adrien Brody won for “The Pianist” and planted a wet, sloppy kiss on Halle Berry, who presented his award. Roberto Benigni climbed the furniture like a kid on a swing-set and declared he wanted to “make love to everybody” after winning for “Life Is Beautiful.”
“Titanic” creator James Cameron proclaimed himself “king of the world,” '‘Bowling for Columbine” director Michael Moore castigated President George W. Bush for going to war in Iraq, “Moonstruck” acting winner Olympia Dukakis gave a shout out to her cousin, Michael Dukakis, who was then running for president.
When Julia Roberts won for “Erin Brockovich,” she thumbed her nose at the 45-second time limit for acceptance speeches, declaring “I may never be here again” and speaking giddily for about three minutes. Greer Garson went on about twice that long when she won for “Mrs. Miniver,” while Joe Pesci, who later confided he had not expected to win for “Goodfellas,” took the stage and simply said, “It was my privilege. Thank you.”
When she won her second Oscar, for “Million Dollar Baby,” Hilary Swank started off memorably with the line, “I’m just a girl from a trailer park who had a dream,” then lapsed into list mode, thanking sparring partners, cinematographers, editors, her publicist.
At the nominees luncheon, producers Cohen and Mischer advised contenders to save their laundry list of names for backstage, where they can gush thanks to as many people as they want in front of a camera whose video goes online.
Academy president Tom Sherak joked Friday that steps have been taken to prevent list reading: “They have done away with the metal detectors, and they are going to have paper detectors,” he quipped. “So before (winners) come up, they’re going to walk through a scan that will make sure they have no paper in their pockets.”
David O. Russell, a best-director nominee for “The Fighter,” said the producers “gave all the nominees a speech-therapy session, which was badly needed. Because you need to finally produce the show like films are produced: Keep it real, keep it short, keep it entertaining. Youwouldn’t do that in your film, why do you want to do it on television?”
One of those most likely to land a speaking role at the Oscars is Firth, the guy who plays King George. Firth has been the best-actor front-runner throughout awards season, and he’s a witty, expressive speaker himself.
“He is funny and articulate and eloquent,” said Helena Bonham Carter, who plays his devoted wife, Queen Elizabeth, in the film. “It is a good job that Colin is going to win, because he is going to give a good speech.”