Speaking Role

Photo: AP Photo

This Sunday, some of the world’s most famous actors will face the most treacherous moment of their careers—that is, if they happen to win an Oscar. Because then they’ll have to give a speech. In theory, this shouldn’t be hard: You stand up; you say thanks; you sit down. Yet the shoals of stardom are littered with careers that have run aground thanks to catastrophic speeches.

Consider Kate Winslet’s gaffe-tastic performance at this year’s Golden Globes, during which, as she attempted to acknowledge her fellow nominees, she slighted Angelina Jolie (“Oh God, who’s the other one?”) and generally seemed so weirdly and suspiciously shocked at having won that you’d have thought she just came out of a coma. Or Cuba Gooding Jr.’s ebullient Oscar acceptance in 1997: Many people were charmed by it, but his career started sinking right away, weighed down by the fact that, when you look at him now, it’s that crazy speech you think of, not the role that led to his making it.

A great irony about actors is that we venerate them for the skill of not being themselves, yet we want to believe their screen personas reflect who they really are. The acceptance speech gives us a fleeting glimpse of the “real” celebrity, who we hope will live up to our prefabricated ideal. Tom Hanks’s reputation as a genial, upright fellow was cemented by his classy Oscar speech after winning for Philadelphia in 1994. It allowed us at home to think, See? He really is as decent as all those characters we love to watch him play. Similarly, Meryl Streep was not thought of as a comedienne in her early film career, but she’s been consistently charming and funny when accepting awards—and, perhaps not coincidentally, she now gets a lot more chances to play charming and funny onscreen. By contrast, it’s now tough to venerate Winslet, so elegant and confident onscreen, after seeing her at the Golden Globes, tearing up and flapping her hands as though she’d just bitten into a jalapeño.

Of course, Winslet’s speech—like Gooding Jr.’s; like Sally Field’s (“You like me!”); like Gwyneth Paltrow’s oft-lambasted Oscar speech—was criticized mostly for being too, well, happy, which seems like an odd fault to find. After all, she just won a freaking award! But this is the peril actors face. If you don’t seem excited or surprised enough, you’re aloof and arrogant; if you’re too excited or flabbergasted, you seem either cuckoo or, worse, disingenuous. (Most commentators accused Winslet of the latter.) We want stars to be thrilled but not overwhelmed. (Halle Berry got a pass, barely, because her win was historic. Then she had to go and thank her lawyer.)

Actors may think it unfair that we judge them at this fragile, vulnerable moment of jubilation—like having strangers critique your reaction to a surprise marriage proposal. But the best stars understand that the acceptance speech is just another performance, and that it will be reviewed accordingly. Winslet apparently regarded her Globes meltdown as a kind of bad dress rehearsal: Her SAG speech was a slight improvement, and her BAFTA speech was demure and composed. Like a promising show, she’s improving in previews. Of course, the real performance won’t come until Sunday. If she really is one of our best actresses, she should finally nail this tricky role, on the fourth take.

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Speaking Role