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From Halle Berry to Roberto Benigni: 15 unforgettable Oscar speeches

Some weep, some make bold political statements, and one actor says it all in three seconds.

Some weep, some make bold political statements, and one actor says it all in three seconds.

“This is amazing. Make art. Make art," said a gobsmacked Glen Hansard, who won an Oscar for best original song along with Marketa Irglova at the 2008 Oscars. (AFP/Getty Images)

Oscar night is this Sunday, and no doubt there will be all kinds of speeches — gracious speeches, nervous speeches, political speeches — before the winners walk off the stage to the sound of soaring strings.

But out of the hundreds of Academy Awards speeches, which ones have stood the test of time? 

We've gathered 15 of the most memorable. 

Who: Halle Berry
Award: Best actress, Monster's Ball
Year: 2002

Actress Halle Berry was overcome with emotion when she became the first African-American actress to win best actress. "This moment is so much bigger than me," she said tearfully. "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 colour that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened." 

Who: Roberto Benigni
Award: Best foreign language film, Life is Beautiful 
Year: 1999

When Italian theatre legend Roberto Benigni won best foreign language film for Life is Beautiful, a heartbreaking film about a father who tries to shield his son from the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp, the award had him literally climbing over his fellow actors to get to the stage. He showered the audience with almost comical gratitude — "a hailstorm of kindness," as he put it — then said, "I would like to dedicate this prize to those, because the subject the movie, those who are not here. They gave their life in order [that] we can say, 'Life is beautiful.'"

Who: Leonardo DiCaprio
Award: Best actor, The Revenant
Year: 2016 

When he won best actor for the snowy film The Revenant, actor and longtime environmental advocate Leonardo DiCaprio  launched into an impassioned speech about climate change. "Our production needed to move to the southern tip of this planet just to be able to find snow. Climate change is real. It is happening right now. It is the most urgent threat facing our entire species, and we need to work collectively together and stop procrastinating," he said. "We need to support leaders around the world who do not speak for the big polluters, or the big corporations, but who speak for all of humanity, for the Indigenous people of the world, for the billions and billions of underprivileged people who will be most affected by this, for our children's children, and for those people out there whose voices have been drowned out by the politics of greed."

Who: Viola Davis
Award: Best supporting actress, Fences
Year: 2017

Unlike most winners who breathlessly thank the Academy, their co-stars, their directors, agents and families, Viola Davis started her powerful Oscar speech by honouring those whose stories go untold. "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," she said. "I became an artist, and thank God I did, because we are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life."

Who: Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová
Award: Original song, Once
Year: 2008

Indie hearts around the world glowed a little brighter when Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová won an Oscar for their song "Falling Slowly" in 2008. "This is amazing. What are we doing here? This is mad. We made this film two years ago. We shot on two Handicams. It took us three weeks to make. We made it for a hundred grand. We never thought we would come into a room like this and be in front of you people," said a breathless Hansard. "This is amazing. Make art. Make art." But that wasn't the end of the endearing moment; Irglová went to add a few words, but the music came up and cut her off. So after the commercials, host Jon Stewart brought her back to the mic so she could say what she wanted to say. 

Who: Marlon Brando
Award: Best actor, The Godfather
Year: 1973

Many artists have skipped the Oscars for political or other reasons — but famed actor Marlon Brando rejected his best actor award for The Godfather in protest of the treatment of Indigenous Americans in film and television, and the events at Wounded Knee. "I beg at this time that I have not intruded upon this evening and that we will in the future, our hearts and our understandings will meet with love and generosity," said Sacheen Littlefeather, president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee who rejected the award on his behalf, and promised a longer speech would be distributed to the press after the show. "Thank you on behalf of Marlon Brando."

Who: Cuba Gooding Jr.
Award: Actor in a supporting role, Jerry Maguire
Year: 1996

There was no shortage of love in Cuba Gooding Jr.'s speech when he won a best supporting actor for Jerry Maguire in 1996 — especially when the music signalled that he should wrap things up. As the strings soared, Gooding Jr. raced through all of the people he wanted to thank, adding more and more "I love yous" as the crowd's cheers grew.

Who: Dustin Lance Black
Award: Best screenplay, Milk
Year: 2009

The film Milk, which tells the story of San Francisco gay rights groundbreaker Harvey Milk, was one of the most powerful films of 2009 — and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black gave an Oscar speech to match, bringing tears to many of the audience members' eyes. "If Harvey had not been taken from us 30 years ago," he said, "I think he'd want me to say to all of the gay and lesbian kids out there tonight who have been told that they are less than by their churches or by the government or by their families that you are beautiful, wonderful creatures of value and that no matter what anyone tells you, God does love you, and that very soon, I promise you, you will have equal rights, federally, across this great nation of ours."

Who: Matthew McConaughey
Award: Best actor, Dallas Buyers Club
Year: 2016

When Matthew McConaughey gives an Oscar speech, you expect him to be, well, Matthew McConaughey. When he picked up a best actor honour in 2016, he didn't disappoint. With a mix of swagger and self help-style wisdom, McConaughey explained that he needs three things each day: something to look up to, something to look forward to, and someone to chase. The famed actor went on to explain what he meant by each of those things, and he no doubt blew some minds while leaving others scratching their heads.

Who: Robin Williams
Award: Best actor, Good Will Hunting
Year: 1998

"This might be the one time I am speechless," said Robin Williams at the start of his Oscar speech, which mixed humour and heartfelt gratitude. "And most of all, I want to thank my father, up there," concluded Williams, pointing upwards. "The man who, when I said I wanted to be an actor, he said, 'Wonderful, just have a back-up profession, like welding.'"

Who: Anna Paquin
Award: Best supporting actress, The Piano
Year: 1993 

Not many little tykes make it onto the Academy Awards stage, but 11-year-old Anna Paquin joined a very exclusive club when she won the best supporting actress Oscar for The Piano. It's not that her speech is especially memorable; it's what happens before. Sporting a sparkly purple beret and purple dress, Paquin steps to the podium and is suddenly a normal kid — smiling, gasping and giggling to the cheers of the audience — before giving thanks. 

Who: Michael Moore
Award: Documentary feature, Bowling for Columbine 
Year: 2003

Famed documentary maker Michael Moore faced cheers and jeers when he delivered a politically-charged Oscar speech after winning best documentary for Bowling for Columbine, a film about the deadly Colorado school shooting and the proliferation of gun violence. "We like non-fiction and we live in fictitious times. We live in the time where we have fictitious election results that elect a fictitious President," said Moore to mixed reactions from the audience. "We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons — whether it's the fictition [sic] of duct tape or the fictitious [sic] of orange alerts, we are against this war, Mr. Bush. Shame on you, Mr. Bush. Shame on you. And anytime you've got the Pope and the Dixie Chicks against you, your time is up."

Who: Sally Field
Award: Best actress, Places in the Heart
Year: 1984

No list of Oscar speeches can be without Sally Field's dramatic show of gratitude when she won for actress in a leading role in 1984 — but it's often misquoted. Field did not in fact say, "You like me! You really like me!" Rather, she said, "I want to say thank you to you [looking toward the audience]. I haven't had an orthodox career and I've wanted more than anything to have your respect. The first time I didn't feel it, but this time I feel it," said Field. "And I can't deny the fact that you like me! Right now! You like me!"

Who: Tom Hanks
Award: Best actor, Philadelphia
Year: 1995

Tom Hanks has given more than one stirring Oscar speech, including this one for Forrest Gump, where he gave a touching tribute to his wife. But the most memorable was Hanks' impassioned speech when he won best actor for Philadelphia, the first major film about the HIV/AIDS epidemic. "I know that my work in this case is magnified by the fact that the streets of heaven are too crowded with angels. We know their names. They number a thousand for each one of the red ribbons that we wear here tonight," he said, his voice cracking. "They finally rest in the warm embrace of the gracious creator of us all — a healing embrace that cools their fevers, that clears their skin and allows their eyes to see the simple, self-evident, common sense truth that is made manifest by the benevolent creator of us all and was written down on paper by wise men, tolerant men, in the city of Philadelphia two hundred years ago. God bless you all. God have mercy on us all. And God bless America."

Who: Joe Pesci
Award: Best supporting actor, Goodfellas
Year: 1991

If brevity is the soul of wit, then legendary character actor Joe Pesci is one witty guy, because his Oscar speech lasted roughly three seconds. He looked as if he was about to launch into a full speech, then simply said, "It was my privilege, thank you."​

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