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The Academy Awards have played host to many a living legend along its parade of famous and accomplished individuals. One basic quality sets the Academy royalty apart from the basic stars. The essential accoutrement raising the crème to the top is grace, a simple elegance and refinement that seem to emanate from a core realization that life, talent, status and success are all a blessing. So here are 10 Oscar winners who claim their awards in a manner that shows what it means to remain gracious in the face of wild acclaim.
Marlon Brando, 1955
The audience at the 27th Academy Awards can be forgiven for quailing when Marlon Brando, that year's best actor, glowered out from the winner's podium. Brando had just accepted the award from presenter Bette Davis for his pitch-perfect depiction of young thug Terry Malloy in 1954's Elia Kazan-directed On the Waterfront.
Brando hefts the trophy and is perhaps the first winner in Academy Award history to say: “It's much heavier than I thought.”
Presaging a career in which he will become notorious for being unable to memorize his lines, Brando claims he can't remember what he had prepared to say, “for the life of me.” He goes on anyway, and defines gracious acceptance in well under one minute: “I don't think that ever in my life have so many people been so directly responsible for my being so very, very glad. It's a wonderful moment, and a rare one, and I'm certainly indebted. Thank you.”
Walking offstage, Brando looks like the most-respectful honoree the Academy could ever have chosen. That impression would not last.
Ruth Gordon, 1969
In Rosemary’s Baby, Ruth Gordon plays Minnie Castevet, one of the creepiest neighbors ever to insinuate herself across the silver screen, and that’s exactly the prowess that was required to win the best supporting actress Oscar at the 41st Academy Awards.
Who then is this spritely, prim and smiling elder being welcomed to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage by Tony Curtis? In her soft-pink gown, flashing the smile of a woman who has only sweetened with age, Gordon addresses the microphone. Out comes a voice that is both hardscrabble and angelic: “I can’t tell ya how encouraging a thing like this is.”
As she explains in less than a minute, Gordon acted in her first film in 1915. “And here we are and it’s 1969. Actually, I don’t know why it took me so long, though I don’t think, you know, that I’m backward. Anyway… I thank all of you who voted for me, and all of you who didn’t, please excuse me.”
Dustin Hoffman, 1980
Five years before he entered the spotlights at the 52nd Academy Awards and vocalized his emotions upon receipt of the best actor Oscar for his portrayal of Mr. Kramer in Kramer vs. Kramer, Dustin Hoffman had forcefully expressed a set of deeply held criticisms aimed at the concept and reality of acting awards.
In 1975, after receiving a best actor nomination for virtually resurrecting doomed comedian Lenny Bruce in Lenny, Hoffman told a Los Angeles talk-show host, “The Academy Awards are obscene, dirty . . . no better than a beauty contest.”
In 1980, as Hoffman approached presenter Jane Fonda and the Dorothy Chandler podium, Kramer vs. Kramer had already earned supporting actress gold for Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Mrs. Kramer. The film, a divorce drama directed by Robert Benton, would claim the best picture award later in the evening.
Hoffman accepted his coveted token with appropriate solemnity. He patiently endured an extended ovation, and spoke for just over three minutes, starting off with a pair of jokes and going serious from there on out.
The abridged version: “I’m up here with mixed feelings. I’ve been critical of the Academy. And for reason. I’m deeply grateful for the opportunity to be able to work. I’m greatly honored…. I refuse to believe that I beat Jack Lemmon, that I beat Al Pacino, that I beat Peter Sellers. I refuse to believe that Robert Duvall lost. We are part of an artistic family…. To that artistic family that strives for excellence, none of you have ever lost, and I’m proud to share this with you.”
See more over-the-top speeches on the next page.