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March 22, 2002, 8:24PM

Not all Oscar speeches can be described as eloquent By RICHARD ROEPER Copyright 2002 Chicago Sun-Times Every year they prove how much they need those screenwriters.

Even though nominees have six weeks to prepare for what could be the crowning moment in their careers, their acceptance speeches are typically overwrought, incoherent, rambling disasters, punctuated by nervous laughter, self-indulgent tears and squinting attempts to read notes scribbled on cocktail napkins.

Whether it's Julia Roberts squawking, "I love the world," or James Cameron proclaiming, "I'm the king of the world," Al Pacino looking and sounding like an absent-minded professor or Sally Field uttering the needy-artist words that would haunt her for the rest of her life, we often long for the sounds of the orchestra rudely starting up. At least we know then that the winner will have to wrap it up before a complete nervous breakdown kicks in on worldwide television.

And even when the winner isn't present, the acceptance speech can be a howler. When Marlon Brando was named best actor in 1972 for The Godfather, one Sacheen Littlefeather was allowed to take the stage in Apache buckskin and headdress to announce that Brando was refusing the Oscar to protest the treatment of American Indians by Hollywood.

It was later revealed that "Littlefeather" was actually a B-movie actress named Maria Cruz -- and she later revealed all of her voluptuous form in a Playboy layout before vanishing into obscurity.

At the ceremony in 1978, Vanessa Redgrave accepted the best-supporting-actress award for Julia (1977) and thanked the academy for voting for her "despite the efforts of a small band of Zionist hoodlums."

Screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky later chastised Redgrave for using her golden moment to spout "personal propaganda." Perhaps Redgrave should have taken a cue from Jane Fonda, who in 1972 had the grace and good sense to accept her best-actress award thusly: "There's a great deal to say, but I'm not going to say it tonight."

Other memorable moments from presenters and winners:

In 1978, Shirley MacLaine said to brother Warren Beatty: "Imagine what you could accomplish if you tried celibacy." Beatty grimaced as girlfriend-at-the-time Diane Keaton slumped in her chair.

Accepting the best-actor trophy for Philadelphia, Tom Hanks gave an incredibly moving tribute to AIDS victims -- though it didn't make a whole lot of sense at the end: "We know their names. They number a thousand for each one of the red ribbons that we wear here tonight. They finally rest in the warm embrace of the gracious Creator of us all, a healing embrace that cools their fevers, that clears their skin and allows their eyes to see the simple, self-evident common-sense truth that is made manifest by the benevolent Creator of us all."

Hanks was crystal clear compared to Laurence Olivier, who in 1979 said, "In the great wealth, the great firmament of your nation's generosities, this particular choice may be found by future generations as a trifle eccentric, but the ... prodigal, pure, human kindness of it must be seen as a beautiful star in that firmament which shines upon me at this moment, dazzling me a little but filling me with warmth of the extraordinary elation, the euphoria that happens to so many of us that the first breath of the majestic glow of a new tomorrow."

When Michael Caine won the 1999 best-supporting-actor award for The Cider House Rules, he told fellow nominee Tom Cruise that winning would have dented his bank account: "Your asking price would have gone down so fast. Do you have any idea what supporting actors get paid? We get only one trailer, a small one, in the back."

Presenting the 1984 award for best visual effects, Cheech Marin observes to his partner Tommy Chong that Daryl Hannah of Splash should win for "best tail."

In 1993, at the height of the ribbon-wearing fad, nearly every presenter and nominee wore a red ribbon to symbolize AIDS awareness, with the exceptions of Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman, who wore purple ribbons to demonstrate their stance against urban violence.

Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon used their air time to urge the U.S. government to admit 266 HIV-positive Haitians into the country, while Richard Gere made a plea for the world to join him in communicating telepathically with Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping:

"I wonder if Deng Xiaoping is actually watching this now, with his children and his grandchildren," said Gere, apparently operating under the illusion that Deng was participating in an Oscar pool with the family.

"Something miraculous and really kind of movielike could happen here," he continued. "We could all send our love and truth and a kind of sanity to Xiaoping right now in Beijing, that he will take his troops and take the Chinese away from Tibet and allow these people to live as free, independent people again. So send this thought out, send this thought out."

Tinker Bell lives.

And to think that Sally Field is the one who gets mocked for giving the most embarrassing Oscar speech of all time.

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-- me6 (, March 23, 2002

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