Melissa Leo’s Oscar acceptance speech had to be the worst ever. The problem wasn’t that she lacked the self-possession to keep herself from spontaneously uttering an obscenity. That, if anything, was the high point of her speech because, having been bleeped-out, it afforded the television audience a moment of respite from the idiocy of virtually everything else she said. The real problem with Leo’s speech was that her spontaneity was so transparently affected. Take a look at the F-bomb and decide for yourself:
Do you really believe that Leo was so overwhelmed by the reality of winning an Oscar that she forgot that you’re not supposed to say f*** in front of a full theater and national television audience? Sorry, not buying it. This is a woman who launched a public campaign for this Oscar that was vulgar even by Hollywood standards. Now, clutching her prize, she was realizing an artistic and commercial aspiration that she must have experienced throughout her whole professional life. Is it possible to believe that every one of her gestures hadn’t been rehearsed countless times before?
Accomplished actors are different from the rest of us. They’re in the business of playing characters while we have characters. My thoughts and conduct sound like Ron Replogle’s because that’s who I am. Being unable to sound like anyone else leaves me no choice in the matter. That’s the sort of thing people are getting at when they say that, for most people, “character is destiny.”
Actors have mastered the craft of impersonating other people skillfully enough to enable their audience not to see, or at least temporarily to forget, the artifice. Being able to choose to sound authentically like someone else gives actors much greater latitude than the rest of us in deciding what they "themselves" sound like. We shouldn’t forget that when we see actors trying to parade their “authentic” selves before us on Oscar night. What made Leo’s speech so awful was that she’d visibly decided to present herself as a guileless moron. She’d been unsuccessful, however, as far as the “guileless” part goes.
Although it’s not saying much, Christian Bale had made a better choice. Take a look at his acceptance speech:
Bale's a fantastic actor, justly celebrated, among other things, for the remarkable range and authenticity of his accents. That has to mean that he confronts a wider range of options than you or I do when it comes to speaking in his own voice. Last night, even though he’s fabulously wealthy and undoubtedly spends a good deal of his time rubbing elbows with the rich and famous, Bale presented himself as a down-to-earth working stiff who, except for the Britishness, isn’t all that different from the dissolute guy from Boston he’d played in The Fighter. Maybe that’s the way he really talks. To my ear, however, Bale wasn’t nearly as convincing playing himself as he was playing a Boston low-life.
That brings me, finally, to Colin Firth who gave what’s probably the best Oscar acceptance speech I’ve ever seen:
Firth never pretended that his remarks weren’t carefully scripted. It doesn’t occur to anyone spontaneously to refer to “stirrings somewhere in the upper abdominals which are threatening to form themselves into dance moves.” Granted, Firth had peeled off a layer of artifice by stepping out of character on the Oscar stage. Yet he wasn’t pretending that the operation revealed anything but another layer of artifice beneath it. Now he was playing the charmingly English actor you might encounter in a backstage comedy of manners. How refreshing to be told, politely and stylishly, that the “authentic” Colin Firth was nowhere on display.