The Oscars provoke a special kind of emotion as members of the film community come together to celebrate one another’s achievements — and many a tear is shed on stage. Although it would be impossible to catalog every great speech, there are a few that will go down in Oscar history as incredible moments, moments of overcoming great challenges, moments of rapture, and even moments of grief.
Halle Berry, Best Actress In a Leading Role, Monster’s Ball, 2002
When Halle Berry stepped onstage to claim the award for Best Actress in a Leading Role in 2002 for her brilliant performance in Monster’s Ball, she made history as the first African American woman to win an Oscar for a Leading Role. It is no wonder that a teary-eyed Berry felt the weight of the legacy paved for her by so many black women that had gone before. However, her emotion did not overcome her poise as she humbly paid tribute to these remarkable women, saying, “This moment is so much bigger than me… it’s for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.”
Audrey Hepburn, Best Actress in a Leading Role, Roman Holiday, 1964,
When so many Oscar recipients are starstruck and overcome, as they should be, Oscar speeches tend to ramble on! However, not every recipient is capable of the humility and grace that Audrey Hepburn brought to the podium when she won Best Actress for Roman Holiday. It is hard not to define Hepburn’s speech as the perfect example of graciousness and modesty, even when she was visibly overcome (enough to make a wrong turn on her way to accept the award!). She said only, “It’s too much. I want to say thank you to everybody who in these past months and years have helped, guided and given me so much. I am truly, truly grateful and terribly happy.”
Roberto Benigni, Best Foreign Language Film and Best Actor in a Leading Role, Life Is Beautiful, 1999
Roberto Benigni had two big Oscar moments that night in 1999, winning Best Foreign Language Film and later, Best Actor in a Leading Role for the tragicomedy Life Is Beautiful. When Life Is Beautiful was announced for Best Foreign Language Film, Benigni went wild, leaping up onto the backs of seats in a complete abandonment of normal Oscar propriety. During his second speech for Best Leading Actor, Benigni announced a strange desire to “be like Jupiter and kidnap everybody, and lie down in the firmament making love to everybody.”
Needless to say, Benigni’s excited Oscar antics have gone down in history as one of the funniest Oscar in Oscar history. But the sentiments expressed in his comic speeches echoed the touching tragicomic sensibility portrayed in his film. He said in his first speech, “I would like to dedicate this prize to those, because the subject the movie, those who are not here. They gave their life in order [that] we can say, ‘Life is beautiful.'”
Tom Hanks, Best Actor in a Leading Role, Philadelphia, 1992
The first part of Hanks’ acceptance speech was dignified but unremarkable. However, as his speech progressed, Hanks managed to touch on from a very personal level on the same themes tackled by the film, Philadelphia, and his final words were enough to pay a solemn and hopeful tribute to the victims of the AIDS crisis that rings true even 20 years later:
“I know that my work in this case is magnified by the fact that the streets of heaven are too crowded with angels. 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 and was written down on paper by wise men, tolerant men, in the city of Philadelphia two hundred years ago. God bless you all. God have mercy on us all. And God bless America.”
Heath Ledger, Best Actor in a Leading Role, The Dark Knight, 2009
When Heath Ledger’s untimely death at the height of his career broke hearts worldwide, I don’t believe there was much doubt that Ledger would get a posthumous Oscar for his performance of the Joker in The Dark Knight. So when his name was announced, there was a collective feeling of sad reflection as his family took the stage to accept it in his name. While their speech was admirable, what truly stood out was not the speakers themselves, but the feeling of universal support and recognition from the worldwide film community as they celebrated an amazing life.
There are many incredible Oscar speeches and moments from the past century, and this year in March, there will doubtless be many more. These five speeches, however, managed to convey the enduring power the Oscars have to astound, celebrate and entertain, and will endure in our memory for years to come.