10 Most Memorable Award Speeches in Oscars History

And the Academy Award for Most Predictable Speech goes to…

Nearly every Hollywood award winner!

There’s a tradition at the Oscars for the winners to make a show of how unprepared they are to win the award. “I can’t believe it’s me,” they say as they look down at their competitors and thank them for their brilliant performances. They then go on to thank their family members, fellow actors, director, agent, and a plethora of other names that have little meaning for most people watching the ceremony at home. 

Tears fall, praise is given from the adoring crowd, and then the award winner is shuffled off-stage before they get to extend their monologue about how fortunate they are. 

As we said, predictable! But not every speech is tedious to listen to. Some speeches have proven memorable and we list a selection of those in this article.

Can you remember any other Oscar speeches that have taken you by surprise? If so, leave us a comment below with your suggestions. 

Hattie McDaniel 

12th Academy Awards (1940)

Hattie McDaniel was seated at a segregated table during the 12th Academy Awards ceremony. This might be reflective of that particular time in history but it’s still sad to know she wasn’t considered worthy enough to sit with her friends and competitors. 

Regardless, she did win the Best Supporting Actress award for her role in Gone With the Wind, so she was given proper recognition for her acting talents. Her speech was humbling to say the least.

“This is one of the happiest moments of my life, and I want to thank each one of you who had a part in selecting me for one of the awards for your kindness. It has made me feel very, very humble and I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything I may be able to do in the future.

I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry. My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel. And may I say thank you and God bless you.”

Sacheen Littlefeather (on behalf of Marlon Brando)

45th Academy Awards (1973)

In one of the most shocking moments in Oscars history, Native American civil rights activist Sacheen Littlefeather turned up to the awards ceremony in place of Marlon Brando to read out a letter from the actor. The letter didn’t consist of gushing words thanking the Academy for his Best Actor win for The Godfather. Rather, it is a statement announcing his rejection of the Oscar because of the film industry’s treatment of American Indians. 

“Hello. My name is Sacheen Littlefeather. I’m Apache and I am president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee. I’m representing Marlon Brando this evening and he 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 afterwards, that he very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award.

And the reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry – excuse me – and on television in movie reruns, and also with 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 understandings will meet with love and generosity. Thank you on behalf of Marlon Brando.”

Tom Hanks

66th Academy Awards (1993)

Tom Hanks has been honoured with numerous award wins and nominations but it was for his role in Philadelphia that he was able to deliver his most emotionally moving speech. He spoke passionately about the gay Americans who had personally inspired his life and reminded us all about the devastating AIDS crisis that has affected many.

“I would not be standing here if it weren’t for two very important men in my life, so… two that I haven’t spoken with in awhile, but I had the pleasure of just the other evening. Mr. Rawley Farnsworth, who was my high school drama teacher, who taught me to act well the part, there all the glory lies. And one of my classmates under Mr. Farnsworth, Mr. John Gilkerson.

I mention their names because they are two of the finest gay Americans, two wonderful men that I had the good fortune to be associated with, to fall under their inspiration at such a young age. I wish my babies could have the same sort of teacher, the same sort of friends.

And there lies my dilemma here tonight. 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.”

Gerda Weissmann Klein 

68th Academy Awards (1996)

One of the most powerful speeches to be heard at the Oscars was the one spoken by Gerda Weissman Klein, a Holocaust survivor who won the award for Best Documentary Short Subject for her film One Survivor Remembers. During her powerfully moving speech, she recounted her traumatic ordeal and went on to encourage the audience to remember those who died in the Holocaust. 

“I have been in a place for six incredible years where winning meant a crust of bread and to live another day.

Since the blessed day of my liberation, I have asked the question, ‘Why am I here?‘ I am no better.

In my mind’s eye, I see those years and days and those who never lived to see the magic of a boring evening at home.

On their behalf, I wish to thank you for honoring their memory, and you cannot do it in any better way than when you return to your homes tonight, to realize that each of you who know the joy of freedom are winners.”

Halle Berry

74th Academy Awards (2002)

There wasn’t a dry eye in the house when Halle Berry, who became the first Black woman to win the Best Actress award for her role in Monster’s Ball, took to the podium and spoke passionately about winning the award for every woman of colour. 

“This moment is so much bigger than me. This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll. It’s for the women that stand beside me, Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett, Vivica Fox.

And it’s for every nameless, faceless woman of colour that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened. Thank you. I’m so honoured. I’m so honoured. And I thank the Academy for choosing me to be the vessel for which His blessing might flow.”

Michael Moore

75th Academy Awards (2003)

At the 2003 Academy Awards, filmmaker Michael Moore was given the Best Documentary award for Bowling for Columbine. His film, which shined a spotlight on gun violence in America, was deserving of the win, but some members of the audience booed Moore and his time on the stage was cut short. Why? Because he took the opportunity to criticize President George Bush and his “fictitious” war in Iran. 

“We live in a time where fictitious election results give us a fictitious president. We are now fighting a war for fictitious reasons. Whether it’s the fiction of duct tape or the fictitious ‘Orange Alerts,’ we are against this war, Mr. Bush. Shame on you, Mr. Bush, shame on you. And, whenever you’ve got the Pope and the Dixie Chicks against you, your time is up.”

Leonardo DiCaprio

88th Academy Awards (2016)

Leonardo DiCaprio won the Best Actor award for his performance in the gruelling survival movie The Revenant. He used his time on stage to reel off the usual thank you’s before wrapping it up with a reminder to the world about climate change. He had experienced the effects of climate change first-hand while making his 2015 film so these weren’t the empty words of a Hollywood celeb trying to gain points by raising an international concern.

“I just want to say this: Making ‘The Revenant’ was about man’s relationship to the natural world. A world that we collectively felt in 2015 as the hottest year in recorded history. Our production needed to move to the southern tip of this planet just to be able to find snow.

Climate change is real, it is happening right now. It is the most urgent threat facing our entire species, and we need to work collectively together and stop procrastinating. We need to support leaders around the world who do not speak for the big polluters, but who speak for all of humanity, for the indigenous people of the world, for the billions and billions of underprivileged people out there who would be most affected by this.

For our children’s children, and for those people out there whose voices have been drowned out by the politics of greed. I thank you all for this amazing award tonight. Let us not take this planet for granted. I do not take tonight for granted. Thank you so very much”

Barry Jenkins

89th Academy Awards (2017)

Barry Jenkins wasn’t given the opportunity to give his full awards speech at the Academy Awards due to the now infamous mix-up where La La Land was initially announced as the Best Picture winner before Moonlight took the top prize. Thankfully, he did get to give his intended speech when he attended the South by Southwest Festival in 2018 as its keynote speaker. Below are extracts from his speech at the Oscars ceremony and the speech given months later. 

“This goes out to all those black and brown boys and girls and non-gender-conforming who don’t see themselves, we’re trying to show you you, and us. So thank you, thank you. This is for you.”

“[Moonlight writer) Tarell Alvin McCraney and I are Chiron. We are that boy. And when you watch Moonlight, you don’t assume a boy who grew up how and where we did would grow up and make a piece of art that wins an Academy Award. I’ve said that a lot, and what I’ve had to admit is that I placed those limitations on myself, I denied myself that dream.

Not you, not anyone else — me…And so, to anyone watching this who sees themselves in us, let this be a symbol, a reflection that leads you to love yourself. Because doing so may be the difference between dreaming at all and, somehow through the Academy’s grace, realizing dreams you never allowed yourself to have.”

Joaquin Phoenix

92nd Academy Awards (2020)

Joaquin Phoenix wasn’t joking around when he took to the podium to accept the Best Actor award for his role in the movie Joker. He was certainly grateful for his win and position in Hollywood but instead of gushing about his fame, he used his status to raise the “voice of the voiceless.” His subsequent speech about animal rights was probably the last thing anybody expected to hear on Oscars night. 

“I’m full of so much gratitude right now. And I do not feel elevated above any of my fellow nominees or anyone in this room because we share the same love, the love of film. And this form of expression has given me the most extraordinary life. I don’t know what I’d be without it. But I think the greatest gift that it’s given me, and many of us in this room, is the opportunity to use our voice for the voiceless.

I’ve been thinking a lot about some of the distressing issues that we are facing collectively. I think at times we feel, or we’re made to feel, that we champion different causes. But for me, I see commonality. I think, whether we’re talking about gender inequality or racism or queer rights or indigenous rights or animal rights, we’re talking about the fight against injustice.

We’re talking about the fight against the belief that one nation, one people, one race, one gender or one species has the right to dominate, control and use and exploit another with impunity.

I think that we’ve become very disconnected from the natural world, and many of us, what we’re guilty of is an egocentric world view — the belief that we’re the center of the universe. We go into the natural world, and we plunder it for its resources. We feel entitled to artificially inseminate a cow, and when she gives birth, we steal her baby, even though her cries of anguish are unmistakable. Then we take her milk that’s intended for her calf, and we put it in our coffee and our cereal.

And I think we fear the idea of personal change because we think that we have to sacrifice something, to give something up, but human beings, at our best, are so inventive and creative and ingenious. And I think that when we use love and compassion as our guiding principles, we can create, develop and implement systems of change that are beneficial to all sentient beings and to the environment.”

Daniel Kaluuya

93rd Academy Awards (2021)

Daniel Kaluuya won the award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Judas and the Black Messiah. His speech is notable for two reasons. Firstly, he spoke impactfully about Fred Hampton, the Black Panther chairman that he portrayed in the film. And secondly, he gave the usual spiel about how wonderful his family were before surprising everyone (and no doubt his parents too) about his mom and dad having sex. Surely an Oscar first!

“To Chairman Fred Hampton. Bro, man. Man, what a man. What a man. How blessed we are that we lived in a lifetime where he existed, do you understand? You know what I mean? Like, thank you for your light. He was on this earth for 21 years, 21 years, and he found a way to feed kids breakfast, educate kids, give free medical care, against all the odds.

He showed, he showed me, he taught me – him, Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, the Black Panther Party – they showed me how to love myself. And with that love they overflowed it to the Black community and to other communities.

…We got to celebrate life, man. We’re breathing. We’re walking. It’s incredible. It’s incredible! Like it’s incredible my mum, my dad, they had sex. It’s amazing. Like, do you understand, I’m here! You know what I mean? So, I’m so happy to be alive.

So I’m going to celebrate that tonight, do you understand? And I appreciate every single person in the room. Appreciate everyone watching at home, you know? Love. Peace, love, and onwards. We go again.”

Which Oscar speeches stick in your mind? Let us know in the comments below. 


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