Identifying trends and customs in 60 years of Academy Awards speeches
Feb 19, 2013 | Atlanta, GA
Who is most likely to cry at this month’s Academy Awards? Does everyone actually thank the Academy, or does it just seem like they do? Which person is more popular than God at the Oscars?
Georgia Tech master’s student Rebecca Rolfe (Digital Media) found those answers and more while analyzing 60 years of Academy Awards acceptance speeches as part of a research project that focused on gratitude. Rolfe watched more than 200 speeches from 1953, the first year the awards ceremony was televised, to 2012, and has outlined the trends and patterns on an interactive website. She has also determined the anatomy of an Academy Awards speech, or at least the one that winners tend to give.
Rolfe focused on five categories: actor/actress in a leading role, actor/actress in a supporting role and best director. Because the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hasn’t posted every video on its YouTube channel, Rolfe was able to watch 207 of the 300 speeches since 1953.
While every speech is unique, Rolfe noticed a certain pattern that is used by winners.
“Winners tend to start their speeches broadly by thanking the Academy or fellow nominees, then gradually make it more personal,” Rolfe said. “After reflecting on the win’s significance, they typically thank their peers, colleagues and sometimes even their lawyer before mentioning family.”
Nearly every speech (79 percent) closes with some version of “thank you.”
I’d like to thank the Academy… is one of the most famous phrases in Oscar history, but less than half of the winners (40 percent) actually say it.
Unsurprisingly, leading actresses are almost twice as likely to cry than leading actors. However, crying is a recent trend. Seventy one percent of tears have been shed since 1995, including 12 of the last 15 best actresses. Rolfe can only guess why.
“Much like the movies, acceptance speeches are a type of performance,” she says. “I believe the tears are real, but perhaps, maybe even subconsciously, actresses know what is expected of them when they accept the honor. Maybe the public has come to expect an emotional speech, so actresses are more emotional than they would be otherwise.”
Only one director has ever choked up: Steven Spielberg for “Schindler’s List” at the 1993 ceremony.
Among the other findings: you might see a man hoist Oscar into the air with one hand (26 percent), while nearly 60 percent of winning actresses cradle the statue with both hands, like a baby.
Almost half of winners thank their family. Only 5 percent (11 total mentions) thank God, who loses out to Hollywood power player Harvey Weinstein. The co-founder of Miramax has been thanked the most times (12) in Oscar history.
Speeches have become considerably longer over the years. In the 1960s, a typical speech was about 40 seconds long. Now it averages nearly two minutes, although the orchestra has only cut off nine winners in these prestigious categories.
Rolfe’s website allows users to compose their own speech, which is then compared to actual speeches given throughout the history of the ceremony. She focused on the Academy Awards because the announcement-acceptance format has basically remained unchanged through the years, providing her a consistent way to study gratitude and identify trends.
“In a way, we see a part of ourselves on stage at the Oscars,” Rolfe explained. “While judging speeches each year, we shape the trends and customs society expects and accepts. Some of them, like length and crying, change over time. Hopefully this project is another tool for researchers as they analyze gratitude, an historically understudied field.”
The research project was funded by the AP-Google Journalism and Technology Scholarship Program, which is overseen by the Online News Association.