Friday, March 3, 2017

Famous Speech Friday: Viola Davis accepts an historic 2017 Oscar

It's no secret that I consider actor Viola Davis to be among the best speakers around, featured as she has been five times so far in The Eloquent Woman Index of Famous Speeches by Women. And this week's acceptance speech by Davis at the Academy Awards--for best supporting actress in a feature film--brings her entries here to six.

The speech has a level of electricity that's unusual in awards acceptance speeches. Davis enjoys speaking and storytelling, and famously does not prepare her remarks by writing them down, although she certainly thinks about what she would say. But by the time she stepped onto the stage, what emerged is as beautifully "written" as if the best speechwriters had crafted it. On top of that, Davis layered a delivery packed with obvious emotion and power, so much so that her jaded Hollywood audience was in tears by the end.

Why? The speech was historic: With this Oscar, Davis became the first black woman to win an Emmy, a Tony, and an Oscar for acting, and only the 23rd person overall to do so. It elevated the acting profession for a brief and powerful moment. And with humility and passion, it thanked her colleagues and her loved ones with specificity and memory. The speech was short, but jam-packed with content. Here's a complete transcript:
Thank you to the Academy. You know, there's one place that all the people with the greatest potential are gathered. One place, and that's the graveyard. People ask me all the time, what kind of stories do you want to tell, Viola? And I say, exhume those bodies. Exhume those stories. The stories of the people who dreamed big and never saw those dreams to fruition. People who fell in love and lost. I became an artist—and thank God I did—because we are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life. 
So, here's to August Wilson, who exhumed and exalted the ordinary people. And to Bron Pictures, Paramount, Macro, Todd Black, Molly Allen, Scott Rudin for being the cheerleaders for a movie that is about people. And words. And life and forgiveness and grace. And to Michael T. Williamson, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Russell Hornsby, Jovan Adepo, Saniya Sidney, for being the most wonderful artists I've ever worked with. And oh captain, my captain, Denzel Washington. Thank you for putting two entities in the driving seat: August and God. And they served you well. And to Dan and Mary Alice Davis, who were and are the center of my universe, the people who taught me good or bad, how to fail, how to love, how to hold an award, how to lose. My parents―I'm so thankful that God chose you to bring me into this world. To my sisters, my sister Dolores, we were rich white women in the tea party games. Thank you for the imagination. And to my husband and my daughter. My heart, you and Genesis. You teach me every day how to live, how to love, I'm so glad that you are the foundation of my life. Thank you to the Academy. Thank you.
After she spoke, Oscars host Jimmy Kimmel joked that she should win an Emmy for that speech, and the coverage after the show singled this speech out, again and again, as the best of the evening on an evening of many surprises. What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Start strong, and with a surprise: I can't say it better than this take on the speech in The Atlantic: "Davis’s speech quickly went viral and received wide acclaim for a lot of reasons, and prime among them was simply good writing. She opened with a question and gave an answer few would have guessed. She exploited the power of surprise, a power demonstrated amply elsewhere at the Oscars." Speakers, we're tired of you telling us what you're going to tell us. Surprise us a little. When the audience doesn't know where you're going, it has to pay attention, and Davis, knowing this, had them right in the palm of her hand from the get-go.
  • Every speech has a job to do, and this one fulfilled all its jobs admirably, from thanking the Academy right at the start--lest one forget to do so--to specifically thanking, without notes, some 18 people and companies by name. This may sound or feel like a boring chore, but Davis turns it into a delight by being specific and heartfelt.
  • Tell us why we're really here: You can look at most Hollywood awards ceremonies as if they were a typical industry awards banquet, with better clothes and brighter stars involved. You could say this was just a night to dress up and pick up your award. But, as at any industry banquet, a speaker also can elevate the proceedings by reminding the audience why they are really gathered, in this case, to celebrate the storytelling film can do and the lives it can shed light upon.


(Oscars photo)

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