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Oscars: the most controversial acceptance speeches in the history of the Academy Awards

Far from being inappropriate, many of the most controversial acceptance speeches highlighted important issues in the film industry. 
Credit: Kevin Winter / Getty Images
Key Takeaways
  • Most Oscar acceptance speeches play it safe, with winners thanking colleagues or loved ones. 
  • Some, however, use the opportunity to speak up on important issues that they think ought to be addressed. 
  • Though these speeches are not always well received, they often highlight issues with the Academy, the film industry, or the world at large.

“That’s really intimidating,” Charlie Kaufman said when he accepted the Academy Award for best original screenplay for his 2004 indie hit, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He was referring to the little monitor that, hidden from television viewers, tells Oscar-winners how much time they have left before they have to get back to their seats. 

Usually, this monitor is set to between 30 and 90 seconds. That is hardly enough time to process your emotions, let alone communicate them to a global audience. Even so, numerous actors, writers, and directors in Oscar history have managed to deliver acceptance speeches that are as moving as the films that won them their awards. 

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Some acceptance speeches have gone down in history for their brevity. When Patty Duke was awarded Best Supporting Actress for her role in 1963’s The Miracle Worker, she had only two words: “Thank you.” Joe Pesci, who won for his role in Goodfellas, added the phrase, “It was my privilege.” Both actors were off stage before the audience finished applauding them. 

Fittingly, Charlie Kaufman acknowledged how intimidating acceptance speeches can be. (Credit: Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences / ABC)

Other acceptance speeches are infamous not for their actual content, but the memes that were created around them. Leonardo DiCaprio won Best Actor for The Revenant after internet trolls had convinced both himself and the world that the actor — who starred in several Oscar-nominated films over the course of his career — was cursed never to receive a statuette. 

There are many different types of acceptance speeches (Vulture has identified 19), and the vast majority of them are uncontroversial, with winners thanking fans, parents, or colleagues. However, not all speeches are received positively. Instead of applause, some have been met with booing or baffled silence, even when, in hindsight, they did not deserve that kind of response.

The politicization of the Academy Awards

When actress Venessa Redgrave accepted an Oscar for her role in the 1977 film Julia, she saluted those members of the Academy who “have refused to be intimidated by the threats of a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums whose behavior is an insult to the stature of Jews all over the world and to their great and heroic record of struggle against fascism and oppression.” 

When Redgrave returned to her seat, the Jewish screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky — three-time Oscar-winner for the films Marty, Network, and Hospital, appeared on stage to announce the award for Best Screenplay. Before Chayefsky did so, however, he delivered a response to Redgrave’s preceding speech which was met with loud applause from the audience. 

“I’m sick and tired,” Chayefsky said, “of people exploiting the occasion of the Academy Awards for the propagation of their own personal political propaganda. I would like to suggest to Miss Redgrave that her winning an Academy Award is not a pivotal moment in history, does not require a proclamation, and a simple ‘thank you’ would have sufficed.” 

Venessa Redgrave received an immediate response from presenter Paddy Chayefsky. (Credit: Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences / ABC)

The broader context of this altercation might have been lost on television viewers, especially contemporary ones. Redgrave had previously been threatened by the Jewish Defense League for producing and starring in a documentary film called The Palestinian. The League had burned effigies of Redgrave and, according to The Hollywood Reporter, even placed a bounty on her head. 

Despite the backlash she received, Redgrave has no regrets about her speech. “I didn’t realize pledging to fight anti-Semitism and fascism was controversial,” the actress — who had demonstrated against both the Vietnam and Iraq wars and attempted to run for office in Britain as a member of the Trotskyist Workers Revolutionary Party — told THR several decades later. 

The condemnation of the Academy Awards

One of the most infamous acceptance speeches in the history of the Academy Awards is one that never took place. Marlon Brando was one of the greatest actors of his age, and The Godfather is widely considered to be one of the best movies ever made. When Brando won an Oscar for his performance, the Academy was expecting quite the speech from him. 

Shocked were its members when, instead of Brando, Apache actress and civil rights activist Sacheen Littlefeather appeared on stage to reject the award in his stead. Brando, she explained in an earnest and deeply touching speech, had asked her to use this opportunity to protest the film industry’s mistreatment and misrepresentation of Native Americans. 

Littlefeather refused to take the statuette from actor Roger Moore. The reasons for this, she explained, “are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry… and on television in movie reruns, and also with the recent happenings at Wounded Knee. I beg at this time that I have not intruded upon this evening.” 

Littlefeather was actually booed by some Academy members. (Credit: Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences / ABC)

“It was the first time anyone had made a political statement at the Oscars,” Littlefeather went on to state in a documentary about the speech and the impact it had on her career. “It was the first Oscars ceremony to be broadcast by satellite all over the world, which is why Marlon chose it. I didn’t have an evening dress so Marlon told me to wear my buckskin.”

Response to the speech was mixed. Littlefeather received timid applause from some Academy members, booing from others. Although Brando had supported her in the time leading up to the ceremony, he was largely absent during the media storm that followed. Littlefeather said she was blacklisted from Hollywood and never worked in film or television again. 

The rejection of ceremony

Marlon Brando isn’t the only actor to have refused an Academy Award. In 1971, George C. Scott refused to attend the Oscars in spite of the fact that everyone expected him to win Best Actor for his role in the World War II biopic Patton. Scott called the ceremony “a two-hour meat parade, a public display with contrived suspense for economic reasons,” and stayed home. 

When Matt Stone and Trey Parker scored an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song through a film adaptation of their satirical sitcom South Park, they had little interest in attending the event. Much to the dismay of contester Phil Collins, the two showed up to the event in drag after having taken LSD — a metaphorical middle finger aimed at the Academy’s self-aggrandizing conceit. 

Honorable mention: Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globes

Perhaps no other person has worded the hypocrisy and nonsensicality behind awards ceremonies as succinctly as the British comedian Ricky Gervais. Actors and directors complained that Gervais’ harsh comments ruined their big night. Gervais, who has hosted the Golden Globes five times, ridiculed them for feeling like they needed a big night to begin with. 

Unlike most of the attendees, Ricky Gervais “does not care.” (Credit: Golden Globes / NBC)

“Do I pander to the 200 privileged egos in the room,” Gervais asked himself out loud during his last appearance, “or do I try and entertain a global audience of 200 million people sitting at home who aren’t winning awards?” He touched upon Hollywood’s inflated ego, poor or bland taste in movies, whitewashed awardees, and passivity in combatting organized sexual assault. 

Gervais, like many of the aforementioned individuals, is not being controversial for the sake of being controversial. Rather, he is highlighting important issues with the film industry. Thanks in part to their words, these issues are now being addressed more fervently than they were before. Awards ceremonies are becoming more diverse, and Hollywood is creating new regulations to prevent abuse. 


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