In light of Jodie Foster's widely discussed Golden Globes Award acceptance speech last night, I think it's only appropriate to take a look at the top 5 greatest award acceptance speeches in history:
5. Jodie Foster
Let's start with the oratorical performance that is setting cyberspace afire right now ... Jodie Foster's acceptance of the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award at Sunday night's Golden Globes ceremony. What made her speech so noteworthy (and so worthy of lasting memory) was its adroit synthesis of the highly personal with the fiercely private. Although the media is most likely going to focus on her clever bait-and-switch with potential revelations about her sexual orientation, the true greatness in Foster's speech emerged when she discussed her right to privacy:
"But seriously, if you had been a public figure from the time that you were a toddler, if you’d had to fight for a life that felt real and honest and normal against all odds, then maybe you too might value privacy above all else. Privacy. Some day, in the future, people will look back and remember how beautiful it once was."
Let us remember that Jodie Foster has close friendships with several celebrities who have been torn to pieces by the modern media's merciless dogs of journalism (Mel Gibson and Kristen Stewart immediately come to mind). When this realization is combined with her own horrid experiences at the hands of the press (including but by no menas limited to the aftermath of the Ronald Reagan assassination attempt), it becomes obvious that she was commenting not only on the ordeal imposed by our culture on celebrities, but on the larger implications this phenomenon has on the very notion of privacy at all. Like all great artists, Foster found greater meaning simply by exploring the most deeply personal ... even if, on this occasion, her deeply personal side was paradoxically the same one protecting its own right to privacy.
4. Joel Cohen (of the Cohen Brothers)
While few people still discuss the Coen Brothers' acceptance of the Best Directing Oscar in 2008 for No Country for Old Men (one of my favorite movies), they should. In a refreshingly brief and direct statement, the duo that has been famously dubbed "two-headed director" made it clear that the key to a successful artistic career comes not from trying to create "great works of art," but by simply doing what you love and (if you're lucky) convincing others that they should actually pay you for it. This goes a long way toward explaining Joel Cohen's self-consciously humble statement to Oscar voters:
"Ethan and I have been making stories with movie cameras since we were kids. In the late '60s when Ethan was 11 or 12, he got a suit and a briefcase and we went to the Minneapolis International Airport with a Super 8 camera and made a movie about shuttle diplomacy called 'Henry Kissinger, Man on the Go.' And honestly, what we do now doesn't feel that much different from what we were doing then. There are too many people to thank for this. We're really thrilled to have received it, and we're very thankful to all of you out there for letting us continue to play in our corner of the sandbox, so thank you very much."
In spite of all the practiced eloquence seen on awards nights, the speeches that resonate most deeply are still the ones that clearly come directly from the heart.
3. Arthur Miller
While it is normal for award recipients to heap platitudes on the virtues of their crafts, Arthur Miller's acceptance of the American Letters Award in 2001 was noteworthy for its insightful analysis of what exactly it mean to be a playwright. After observing that practitioners of his particular craft were "not generally thought of as literary," he went on to observe how playwrights tended to be minimized in the eyes of the public:
"The situation has changed in recent decades, but I wonder if the basic acknowledgement of a play author's existence is basically as a constructor and shaper of the action rather than that of a word artist. It is almost but not quite the present situation of the screenwriter. I have yet to meet anyone who went to see a movie because it was written by somebody. In effect, play writing was commonly thought of as a form of engineering, engineering with laughs, suspense or tears. A play was built rather than written.
"This rubric, I suppose, is part of the mythology of authorial neutrality or literary bricklaying. A bricklayer has no ulterior ideology concerning the aesthetic or moral value of his work. It is enough that it be plumb and level and not fall down. If the Europeans quite differently assumed that a play of any moral or aesthetic pretensions was inevitably intended to mean something and was unavoidably metaphorical, the notion was close to anathema here. If you have a message, send it by Western Union was the wisdom of the day."
Perhaps I'm biased given my own sporadic forays into playwriting, but Miller's speech continues to strike me as among the most thought-provoking award acceptances ever delivered.
2. Sacheen Littlefeather
Everyone knew that Marlon Brando was going to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor at the 1973 Academy Awards. What they didn't suspect was that he would use his free airtime to advance a cause that meant a great deal to him - i.e., the struggle of Native Americans to receive meaningful social equality in America, from their regular mischaracterization within show business to the recent debacle at Wounded Knee. To make this point, Brando asked an Apache/Yaqui activist named Sacheen Littlefeather to accept the award in his stead. Although Brando had written a much longer acceptance speech for Littlefeather to deliver on his behalf, time constraints forced her to improvise an address within 30 seconds:
"Marlon Brando has asked me to tell you, in a very long speech which I cannot share with you presently-because of time-but I will be glad to share with the press afterward, that he must ... very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award.
"And the reason [sic] for this being ... are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry … excuse me … and on television in movie re-runs, and also the recent happenings at Wounded Knee.
"I beg at this time that I have not intruded upon this evening and that we will, in the future ... our hearts and our understanding will meet with love and generosity.
"Thank you on behalf of Marlon Brando."
Perhaps not the most memorable address, but the symbolic gesture on Brando's part ultimately mattered far more than the details of what exactly was said at the time. To this day, Brando's decision to have Littlefeather accept his Oscar remains one of the most memorable moments in American cultural history.
1. William Faulkner
There is no question who belongs at the top of this list. When Faulkner accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950, he did so to a world that was only beginning to adopt on a massive scale the cynical attitude that has been so pervasive for so long today that we take it for granted. In his acceptance speech, Faulkner denounced the tendency of modern artists to focus on what was wrong about the modern human condition and defiantly proclaimed that, in the end, there is far more to celebrate than decry about humanity:
"I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.
"I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail."
Although Faulkner was railing against evils that are far less frequently discussed in 2013 — foremost among them the proliferation of nuclear weapons — the broader theme of his message remains as ture today as it was 63 years ago. Like the statements made by Foster, Cohen, Miller, and Littlefeather, it is noteworthy because it spoke to issues larger than the comparatively simpler questions about artistic quality normally broached by awards ceremonies.
It is a sign of our times that the richness and courage of Foster's Golden Globes speech is likely to be reduced merely to its most conspicuous part, reducing a thoughtful soliloquy to its most marketable sound bytes (as is so often done these days). One can only hope that future historians who decide to paw through the detritus of early-21st century culture will, with their detached perspective, appreciate her speech for its true worth — and that they will do the same thing for the other artists included on this list.