Sometimes, Best Acting Is in Oscar Speeches

The Academy Awards could be renamed The Other Thanksgiving.

An awful lot of stars have an awful lot of thanks and praise to lavish on the people they worked with when they get up to accept those coveted little golden men. And next Sunday's Oscars ceremony will be no exception.

But come on. This is Hollywood, which isn’t exactly the home of love, encouragement and support. It’s more like Catty Competition Central. So can it really be that lucky Oscar winners admire, care for and enjoy working with their co-stars as much as they say they do?

“Their acceptance speeches are often proof of what lousy actors they are,” said Tom O’Neil, a columnist with The Los Angeles Times’ awards Web site “They’re often thanking people we know they sparred with all over the place.”

In recent years, for instance, a well-documented feud between actress Kate Winslet and director James Cameron on the set of “Titanic” didn’t stop "King of the World" Cameron from paying Winslet homage when he snatched the Best Director award and the movie was named Best Picture in 1998, O’Neil remembered.

“Kate Winslet and Jim Cameron fought like wild dogs during the filming of ‘Titanic,’” he said. “There were notorious clashes between the two. But he won and thanked her."

When Shirley MacLaine snagged the Best Actress Oscar for “Terms of Endearment” in 1984 and famously shouted, “I deserve this!” she addressed her co-star and co-nominee Debra Winger as “dear Debra,” in spite of the fact that she and Winger had major on-set battles, according to Maxim magazine film critic Pete Hammond.

“There were definite problems with Debra Winger,” he said, referring to the actress’ widely reported argumentative nature and nasty antics. “But [MacLaine] did address her in sort of a nice way.”

Sometimes, however, an off-screen rivalry does worm its way into that shining moment when an Oscar winner is announced.

In one of the more famous examples in history, Bette Davis was nominated in the Best Actress category for “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” but her co-star and legendary archenemy Joan Crawford was not. When Davis lost in 1963 to Anne Bancroft for “The Miracle Worker” and Bancroft couldn’t attend the ceremony, Crawford accepted the award on Bancroft’s behalf.

With Davis in the audience, Crawford made an overt dig at her nemesis by gushing about how proud she was of Bancroft and how she really deserved to win the Oscar.

Generally, however, moments like that are frowned upon — and, thus, rare. After all, by the time an actor or director has won the gold, shouldn’t bygones be bygones?

“It’s better that they fake it at the podium and show some class than let old feuds fume,” O’Neil said. “It’s important to forget those petty squabbles, look at the big picture and thank the people they disagreed with.”

Sometimes being vague or grandiose in one’s thanking is a good way around having to acknowledge those less favorite co-stars.

In fact, some of the most over-the-top expressions of gratitude have been sweeping generalities, as was the case in speeches like Julia Roberts’ when she won the Best Actress statuette for “Erin Brockovich” in 2001 and thanked “everyone I’ve ever met in my life”; Roberto Benigni’s when he was named Best Actor for “Life Is Beautiful” in 1999, jumped over the seats and shouted that he wanted to “make love to everybody”; and Cuba Gooding Jr.’s when he won Best Supporting Actor for “Jerry Maguire” in 1997 and said, “Everybody, I love you. I love you all!”

And there are plenty of times when actors, actresses and directors aren’t pretending when they shower their co-workers with compliments. They actually do respect and appreciate them. The love fest is genuine and heart-felt.

Clint Eastwood is a favorite object of affection when actors in his films win awards. Hilary Swank, Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman are among the many who have thanked him profusely for his direction.

“I don’t believe the speeches are phony, in general,” said Hammond. “In most cases, they probably really do admire each other.”

But how many people really get along with all their co-workers? In the world of film, fame and dueling egos, making a movie can’t possibly always be the bed of roses it’s portrayed to be when those much-awaited words, “And the Oscar goes to …”, are uttered.

“They don’t like any of those people,” said film critic Anderson Jones. “It’s all politics. No matter what happens on-set, off-set, all is forgiven when you get that Oscar.”

Because winning an Academy Award is considered the pinnacle of an actor or director’s career, any differences or difficulties encountered during filming are easily forgotten when it comes to accepting such a sought-after honor.

“I’d like to think they’re being honest, but I guess I’m naïve,” said movie fan Cristina Barden, a 30-something retail planning manager from Queens. “They are so euphoric that even if they hated that person, they love them in that moment. And it doesn’t make sense to burn a bridge in Hollywood.”

Indeed. Imagine what would happen if movie stars and directors did let their bitterness toward fellow cast members come out at the Academy’s podium.

“Wouldn’t you love to see someone get up there and go, ‘You know, I hated the director, the producer is a lesbian and my co-star slept with a hundred different boys while we were filming,’” Jones said.

The thing is, those effusive moments onstage, statuette in hand, often seem insincere, whether they are or not. Tears flow. Spouses and significant others are called "my rock" and "my everything." Agents, managers, publicists, makeup artists and assistants are lauded.

If a particular award is a milestone — as was the case when Halle Berry became the first black woman to win the Best Actress Oscar in 2002 for "Monster's Ball" — predecessors are evoked and history is revisited. In fact, Berry's emotional speech was later criticized by some as being overdone.

"Oh, my God. Oh, my God. I'm sorry. This moment is so much bigger than me," she said. "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 color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened. Thank you. I'm so honored. I'm so honored. And I thank the Academy for choosing me to be the vessel for which His blessing might flow."

But truth be told, disingenuous thanking during an Oscar acceptance speech is much preferred over, well, telling the truth — if the truth hurts, that is.

“Nobody’s going to go up there and be 100 percent honest,” Hammond said. “If they did have a problem with someone, I doubt they’d let it play out in front of a billion people on Oscar night. It would reflect badly on them. This is their biggest moment.”