The fine art of playing people off at the Oscars



First off, I just want to say thank you.

As a classical music critic, I never imagined I’d one day have the opportunity to write about the Academy Awards, but look at me now! [Pause for extended applause.] So many people to thank: my assigning editor, the entire Bach family, my parakeet (we did it, Wolfgang!) and the whole crew at — hey, what’s that music? Wait! I didn’t mention my mother yet! Unhand me!

The Oscar acceptance speech: Perhaps nowhere else in pop culture does the individual dream of Hollywood stardom collide so unforgivingly with the indifferent plod of show business. If you’re an actor, accepting an Oscar is the stuff of dreams. If you’re one of the show’s producers, it’s a source of great dread.

A decade ago, one report found the average Oscar speech had doubled in length — from a tight 44 seconds in 1960 to nearly two minutes by 2009. (Three if you’re Julia Roberts.)

“Sir, you’re doing a great job,” Roberts told conductor Bill Conti from the stage at the 73rd Academy Awards in 2001 after her best actress win for “Erin Brockovich.” “But you’re so quick with that stick! So why don’t you sit? Because I may never be here again.”

From there, she launched into three solid minutes of gasping flabbergasted appreciation, a speech that, over time, grew self-aware: “I love it up here!” she yelped as Conti glared expectantly from the pit.

Roberts is no Greer Garson ­— the best actress of 1943, whose acceptance speech held an audience captive at the Cocoanut Grove for seven minutes (of which only about three minutes and 56 seconds have survived in the Academy’s database).

Since then, the Academy has tried everything short of releasing hounds to curb rampant celebrity loquaciousness: a 45-second rule (which still holds today); a backstage “thank-you cam” for more robust acknowledgment of the little people; a speedy ticker of pre-submitted thankees running along the bottom of the screen.

But it never quite seems to work — despite how tightly reined the schedule, the final batch of big winners always comes across like a lightning round at the end of a game show, the telecast chronically and clumsily crossing into the time-slot turf of local news affiliates. And this is hardly a phenomenon specific to the Oscars — every major awards show seems to contend with its own play-off dramas, even when there’s no one actually playing. After this past January’s Golden Globes, pianist Chloe Flower had to defend herself from online attacks when audiences (and some winners) assumed she was cutting off speeches from her high-profile perch.

“I would never play piano over people’s speeches!!” she tweeted soon after her name started trending for all the wrong reasons. “I’m only playing when you see me on camera!”

From most viewers’ vantage points on their respective couches, the latitude granted to an Oscar winner’s gratitude often seems gallingly arbitrary — guided solely by cryptic calculations of a given star’s power and the whims of some conductor or director in the shadows, who’s heard enough about your agent.

Bill Ross, a conductor and orchestrator who served as music director and arranger for the Oscars telecast several times between 2007 and 2016, is credited for penning “Too Long,” a creeping nondescript (and apparently discontinued) instrumental that offered a polite but insistent musical gesture toward the wings. According to a 2012 interview with the American University radio station WAMU, Ross had to save face with his own kid, who’d pleaded with his father to quit cutting people off.

“It’s the director of the show,” said Ross. “People think it’s the guy with the baton who’s making that call, and I assure you it’s not.”

Whoever is actually in charge of yanking the proverbial hook, the act of playing folks off the stage has developed over the decades into a fine art, insofar as it begs for interpretations that reach beyond the bounds of mere time management.

Occasionally, this abrupt ixnay on the eechspay is plainly political: In 2003, just three days after U.S. military forces invaded Iraq, Michael Moore claimed the best documentary feature trophy for “Bowling for Columbine.”

“We like nonfiction,” Moore said, surrounded by fellow documentary nominees he’d invited to join him onstage. “We like nonfiction and we live in fictitious times. We live in a time when we have fictitious election results that elect a fictitious president. We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons!”

As Moore continued (“Shame on you, Mr. Bush!”) a din of boos rose from the hall and a hail of nothing-to-see-here horns reared up from the orchestra. Moore raged on: “Any time you’ve got the Pope and the Dixie Chicks against you, your time is up!”

And then his time was up.

Other approaches to shooing the stars have skewed more consciously obnoxious, like in 2013 when producers deployed John Williams’s foreboding two-note theme from “Jaws” to take bites out of speeches. The theme surfaced with eerie irony less than a minute into visual effects supervisor Bill Westernhofer’s acceptance for “Life of Pi” — a film that takes place on a lifeboat. Westernhofer put up a valiant 20-second battle before getting pulled under.

(And while I get the idea with “Jaws,” it’s a tad on the nose. If we’re looking for a soft-approaching, tick-tocking, quickly intensifying encouragement to wrap things up, Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” is sitting right there.)

Indeed, the thrill of the fight is one of the only things that makes the Oscars worth watching.

Like in 2015, when the Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski won best foreign language feature honors for “Ida,” and thanked like no one was watching, speaking unbothered through the swelling intrusion of the orchestra and earning extra applause for his defiance in the face of deference.

“I know I have a little bit of time,” an exultant Cuba Gooding Jr. offered as preface in 1997, when he nabbed best supporting actor honors for “Jerry Maguire.” “So I’m gonna rush and say everybody! You can cut away, I won’t be mad at you!”

He made it about 30 seconds before Conti struck up the orchestra and triggered a minute-long standoff with Gooding, who continued shouting the names of everyone involved with the film (“I love you! I’m a keep going!”) and bringing whole sections of the auditorium to their feet — the play-off theme surrendering into something more like an amplification of his leaping, hooting, fist-pumping ecstasy. They did not cut away, and he was not mad. (Or, not angry, at least.)

The same cannot be said of recent viewers, more and more of whom read the playing-off of those who win lesser-seeming awards earlier in the evening as acts of institutional disrespect. In 2022, many viewers were deeply peeved by the 15 or so seconds granted onstage to director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, whose “Drive My Car” was named best international feature.

(The previous year, during the pandemic, the absence of an Oscars orchestra meant no play-off music at all — much to the chagrin of that year’s music director and in-house DJ, Questlove, who described play-off music to Variety as “my all-time favorite thing.”)

This year’s telecast, airing Sunday evening on ABC, will welcome back music director Rickey Minor, who last presided over a 2020 ceremony that sported zero play-offs, despite some real ice-melters by Joaquin Phoenix and Renée Zellweger.

This year will also restore the live telecast award count to the full 23 categories (eight were controversially and unceremoniously demoted last year), a return to overstuffed-Oscars form that will require Lydia Tár levels of control freakiness to keep on schedule. I feel equal parts gratitude and pity for whoever in the control room gets put in charge of chopping nearly two dozen moments of a lifetime — truly a thankless task.

The 95th Academy Awards air at 8 p.m. Sunday on ABC, DirectTV Stream, FuboTV and other streaming services.

A short documentary from the Washington Post that uncovers the hidden dangers of movie and TV production. (Video: Lindsey Sitz, Ross Godwin/The Washington Post)


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