‘Phallic mode’, ‘childlike tears’: decoding Oscars acceptance speeches

From Gwyneth’s blubbing to Adrien Brody’s kiss, body language expert Judi James analyses all

Cuba Gooding Jr Jerry Maguire

Best supporting actor, 1997

Cuba’s Oscars speech was cut off in its prime. “Poor Cuba has barely jumped on stage to perform before his ‘end’ music starts to play,” says body language expert Judi James. “He begins to rush his speech politely while waving his Oscar like a baton, but he suddenly sees the comic potential in shouting over the music, using chopping hand gestures to list his thanks and then pointing to people in the audience like Tom Cruise. Cuba ends with open delight in his victory, dancing and punching the air in perhaps the most honest body language [of the lot].”

Gwyneth Paltrow Shakespeare in Love

Best actress, 1999

Long before consciously uncoupling and vagina steaming, there was that speech. Gwynnie did her best to look convincing in her bubblegum pink dress, but standing up and thanking Harvey Weinstein couldn’t have been easy. “Gwyneth combines childlike tears with a very adult intention of sticking it out until the bitter end,” says James. “She pauses, takes a deep breath and swallows before she name-checks Harvey Weinstein. She lifts the Oscar as she mentions him then brings it down in an emphatic gesture. She’s breathless and tearful but she holds her Oscar in phallic mode, suggesting underlying confidence and feelings of power.”

Angelina Jolie Girl, Interrupted

Best supporting actress, 2000


Jolie celebrated by planting a smacker on her brother James and grinning a lot. “Hugging, cuddling and thanking her beloved brother shows a trait of modesty,” says James. “Angelina’s facial expression is hugely incongruent as she takes to the stage, with a horizontal split. The top half of her face puckers into the classic Oscar expression of ‘tragic’ tears but the lower half is set in a wide smile of utter delight. Like all Oscar winners she performs the hand-to-chest modesty ritual before cradling the Oscar like a baby, which is symbolic because we now know of her uber-maternal traits.”

Halle Berry Monster’s Ball

Best actress, 2002

“This moment is so much bigger than me,” said Berry, as she became the first black woman to win the Oscar for best actress. “There’s a lot of dry sobbing and breathlessness in the manner of a bereft toddler, and this inconsolable routine seems primed to win a nurturing response from her audience, which is why there’s barely a dry eye in the house,” says James. “Halle holds the Oscar like a precious doll, and her cheeks do finally become streaked with tears, but it’s towards the end of her speech that we get a glimpse of more congruent body language. As her time runs out, she becomes less vulnerable: clear-eyed, adult and focused, Halle is finally happy, dancing and punching the air in celebration.”

Adrien Brody The Pianist

Best actor, 2003

When Brody’s making a speech, don’t even think about starting up the music. “Adrien performs a delightful display of humility and modesty up to the point where the music kicks in to cue him to finish his speech, at which point he suddenly takes control and orders them to stop,” says James. “Before then it’s all about the ‘wow’, with some floppy self-clapping, fingers to his mouth in a partial cut-off of diffidence and the compulsory hand-to-chest modesty ritual. He’s already shown his dominant side as he sweeps Halle Berry into his arms on stage and plants a long, passionate-looking kiss on her mouth.”

Contributor

Hannah Verdier

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Oscars: the secrets of the Hollywood stylist
Gwyneth Paltrow’s fashion guru Elizabeth Saltzman discusses the prep and panic of the red carpet

Jane Mulkerrins

16, Feb, 2019 @12:00 PM

Article image
No such thing as bad publicity: five ways to win an Oscar in 2019
The endless party-going and hoop-jumping tactics involved in Academy success

Steve Rose

16, Feb, 2019 @10:00 AM

Article image
'I’m black, I can’t do method acting’: Brian Tyree Henry on Atlanta and Widows
The Tony-nominated actor stars in two of autumn’s biggest films, Widows and If Beale Street Could Talk. So why has he suffered from imposter syndrome?

Touré

03, Nov, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
Who should win? Critic Peter Bradshaw's Oscars picks
From Richard E Grant to Regina King, here’s who most deserves to triumph

Peter Bradshaw

16, Feb, 2019 @7:00 AM

Article image
Lady Gaga and the rise of the Insufferable Theatre Kid Nerd
From A Star Is Born to The Greatest Showman, are actors who cut their teeth in musicals finally taking over?

Paul Flynn

18, Feb, 2019 @9:00 AM

Article image
From Bond to ITV’s Strangers: why is everyone ‘fridging’?
Whether it’s Libby and Shannon in Lost or Julia Stiles’s character in Jason Bourne, the death of a female character is a common and problematic tool

Jack Seale

21, Sep, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
Amy Schumer and Hollywood’s ‘inner-beauty’ problem
The comic’s new film I Feel Pretty follows the likes of Shallow Hal and Never Been Kissed in its ugly definitions of physical attraction

Steve Rose

08, May, 2018 @9:00 AM

Article image
Let me stop you there: why do Oscar speeches get cut short?
Even finally winning the most prestigious award in your field can’t stop you from being drowned out by pesky time-keepers

Stuart Heritage

05, Apr, 2021 @12:00 PM

Article image
Stitches in time: Sandy Powell's Oscar-winning costumes

She has dressed everyone from Elizabeth I to Shakespeare, from lovelorn housewives to gangster dandies. As her work goes on show, Sandy Powell explains the tricks of the trade

Interview by Naomi Gryn

17, Oct, 2012 @6:06 PM

Article image
'I made gay sidekicks the leads': how Ryan Murphy changed TV for ever
With hit series like Pose, Glee and American Horror Story, he brought marginalised characters to the masses. Meet TV’s most powerful man

Jane Mulkerrins

26, Oct, 2019 @6:30 AM