Oscar speeches are dangerous. Navigating between perils that you might be come off as boring or preachy or self-involved or utterly unable to speak at all is a challenge for anyone who wins an Academy Award. But in the 90-plus years that people have been accepting statues of little gold men, some winners have mastered the art of the acceptance speech.
Here are 10 of the best Oscar speeches of all time.
When Tom Hanks won best actor for his portrayal of lawyer Andrew Beckett in Philadelphia it was the first of two consecutive wins for him in that category. And his speech exemplified not only why he is one of the most beloved actors but one of the most respected Americans period. He was loving to his wife, he was funny and he was genuinely moving as he talked about the countless people struck down during the HIV/AIDS epidemic he brought inspiringly and tragically to life in Philadelphia that year.
Even if you think the Oscars can be too long or self-congratulatory or whatever else, it provides moments of pure joy and Sally Field’s acceptance for her best supporting actress in Places in the Heart was one of the purest.
Cuba Gooding Jr.
Speaking of joy, there is Cuba Gooding Jr. The band tried to play him off but he wasn’t having it. He had a lot of people to thank and he was getting to all of them, no matter what the producers of the show thought.
Matt Damon and Ben Affleck
The Oscars, of course, can also be launching pads for the careers of the movie industry’s biggest stars. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were just 25 and 27 when they won for best screenplay for Good Will Hunting—Affleck was the youngest to ever win the award. They were the kind of exuberant first time Oscar winners so often are. And it’s nice to remember that before they were huge stars Affleck and Damon were just two guys who loved their moms.
Once she got it together Berry’s speech after becoming the first black woman to ever win the award for best actress was boilerplate stuff. But in the emotional moments before that she delivered a speech that was truly memorable. It took her more than 40 seconds after stepping to the microphone to even begin speaking. When she did, she delivered, through her tears, a powerful message for the women of color that came before her and after her.
You might not know Louise Fletcher’s name, but you probably remember her most famous role as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Her embrace of her role as a villain was touching, but even more touching was her use of sign language at the end of her time to speak to her parents.
Barry Jenkins and Moonlight’s win for best picture will be remembered most for the way the announcement was made—Faye Dunaway announced incorrectly that La La Land had won. But Jenkins was so gracious in dealing with the biggest mistake in Oscars history.
Dustin Lance Black
Dustin Lance Black was not the first openly gay man to win an Oscar, but in his speech after winning best screenplay for Milk he gave a message of hope to anyone who felt like they were prevented from being who they were or shamed because of it.
The too-long Oscar speech, droning on with thank yous to hair dressers and every junior film executive an actor ever worked with are the bane of the Oscars. Joe Pesci memorably counter-programmed that sort of speech as he accepted his award for best supporting actor in Goodfellas using only six words. “It was my privilege. Thank you.”
Matlin’s speech after her win for best actress in Children of a Lesser God was more memorable for how it was delivered than what it delivered. There aren’t very many Oscar speeches that aren’t delivered in English. There are even fewer delivered in sign language.