Ten Best Actress Oscar Speeches to Mend Your Broken Spirit

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Gwyneth Paltrow in Ralph Lauren at the 1999 Academy Awards

Ahead of the most anticipated award ceremony of the season, we showcase a collection of Best Actress Academy Award speeches tailored to illuminate even the darkest of days

Award season consists of four, seemingly never-ending months of monitoring the gowns, the fabulousness and the faux pas of the film industry’s glitterati, culminating in the most revered ceremony of the year: The Oscars. Ahead of Sunday’s main event, we present a compendium of Best Actress acceptance speeches from Academy Award ceremonies past. There’s Gwyneth Paltrow – hysterical in her bubble-gum pink Ralph Lauren gown – and also Halle Berry, as she practically regurgitates her soul from a mouth contorted into a cave of disbelief, upon receiving the accolade for her role in Monster’s Ball (the first woman of colour ever to win the coveted gilt statue). Undoubtedly, there’s a certain kind of escapism that can be found via watching these short videos. For even if only as long as the YouTube playlist runs, one can live vicariously through a Vaseline-smeared lens of schmaltz and the women experiencing such unadulterated, Technicolour joy garnered from their own achievements. And considering the current state of the world, a little cheering up from the Hollywood elite couldn’t hurt. 

1. Elizabeth Taylor, Butterfield 8, 1961

Presented by Yul Brynner (who was always a treat to look at) Elizabeth Taylor accepted the Best Actress award for her role in Butterfield 8 with all the grace and poise that you might expect. Accompanied by her fourth husband Eddie Fisher, she glides toward the podium where she delivers her speech in a breathy timbre, which seems indicative that she might be about to pass out from the shock of it all. Keeping it short and sweet, Taylor gushes: “I guess all I can say is say thank you. Thank you with all my heart.”

2. Katharine Hepburn, Lion In The Winter and Barbra Streisand, Funny Girl 1969

The only Best Actress tie in Academy Award history, Barbra Streisand and Katharine Hepburn both picked up the award in 1969. With Katharine not present at the ceremony to accept her statue – she was probably far too busy elsewhere being fitted for a fabulous suit – Ingrid Bergman collects the award on Hepburn’s behalf. Whilst Barbra, who is truly channelling the mantra ‘the higher the hair, the closer to God’ and wearing a rather transparent ensemble by Arnold Scaasi, greets her own golden figurine with two little words: “hello gorgeous”.

3. Diane Keaton, Annie Hall, 1978

One of Diane Keaton’s most notorious looks is the one she wore to the 1978 Oscars: a dove grey suit jacket, striped Ruth Morley skirt, a pink rosette and ceramics teacher-esque scarf, paying homage to her character Annie Hall (for which she was about to win the Best Actress award for portraying). Name-checking the women who were nominated for the accolade in her speech, Jane Fonda, Shirley MacLaine, Anne Bancroft and Marsha Mason, Keaton is the personification of a Hollywood diplomat, albeit sans satin gown. 

4. Meryl Streep, Sophie’s Choice, 1983

If, like me, you have a slightly sadistic streak and find catharsis through depressing films (as well as making lists of YouTube videos), then Sophie’s Choice is one that you should watch post-haste. Meryl Streep gives one of the best on-screen performances of all time and rightfully took the 1983 Best Actress award for her role as Sophie Zawistowski. For those who have already seen it, the music that plays as Streep walks up to the podium to deliver her speech is enough for there to be a trigger warning accompanying this blurb. In short: you’ll need tissues. 

5. Cher, Moonstruck, 1988

Many would argue that Glenn Close was robbed of the 1988 Best Actress Oscar for her ‘bunny boiling’ role in Fatal Attraction. However, if there was anyone else that was deserving of a win this year, it was Cher for Moonstruck. Accepting the award in full Bob Mackie regalia, she exclaims: “When I was little my mother said I want you to be something… and I don’t think that this means that I am somebody, but I guess I’m on my way.”

6. Jodie Foster, Silence of the Lambs, 1992

Against a backdrop of the most early 1990s-looking set design imaginable, Jodie Foster grasps her Best Actress award for Clarice Starling in hands sheathed by powder pink satin gloves. Foster is also wearing a matching jacket decorated by the red ribbon, as a statement of solidarity for those living with HIV and AIDS. She goes on to dedicate her award to all of the women who came before her; the women who never had the chances that she had; the survivors, the pioneers, and the outcasts.

7. Holly Hunter, The Piano, 1994

In the Jane Campion directed film The Piano, Holly Hunter plays mute Ada McGrath, a part that required her to learn no lines whatsoever. Hunter merely acted out Ada’s turmoil through harrowing facial expressions and her performance of Michael Nyman’s haunting piano score. In her acceptance speech, the actress tells of how she would pretend to play the instrument, tapping out songs on the windowsills of her house when she was younger, a detail that she brought to her on-screen role. 

8. Gwyneth Paltrow, Shakespeare in Love, 1999

During one of the most famous Oscar speeches of all time, Gwyneth Paltrow didn’t accept her award by halves. Wearing that infamous pink Ralph Lauren gown and gesticulating with the classic ‘hand-on-heart-I’m-in-total-disbelief-hand’, Paltrow thanks too many people in her speech to list here. It’s best you watch the above video for yourselves. All together now: “Who?! ME?!”

9. Hilary Swank, Boys Don’t Cry, 2000

Upon winning for her role as Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry – the story of a transgender teenage boy living in Nebraska during the 1980s – the booming voiceover notes that Swank lived as a man for one month in preparation for her portrayal of Teena. The actress proclaims in her acceptance speech that, “we have come a long way. To think that this movie wouldn’t have been made three and a half years ago.” And she’s right; this was a groundbreaking moment in mainstream cinema. But we’re yet to see transgender men and women cast in leading roles and winning such accolades, so let’s hope that the message of progression in Swank’s speech will soon get through to Hollywood producers. 

10. Halle Berry, Monster’s Ball, 2002

“Oh my god! Oh my god!” mouths Halle Berry as her name is read out by Russell Crowe. She struggles on through her tears: “this moment, is so much bigger than me. This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diane Carroll. It’s for all the woman who stand beside me; Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett, Vivica Fox; and it’s for every nameless faceless woman of colour that now has a chance.” All we can ask for now is that Ruth Negga continue Berry’s legacy, by picking up the same award this Sunday evening.