Oscars speeches: Honestly sincere, or expertly faked?

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Los Angeles looks lush.

But as often noted, it is actually an arid wasteland where nothing but artifice and self-interest sprouts naturally. That's the cynical, archetypal reading. For instance, two thirds of the way into Nathanael West's cynical, archetypal 1939 Hollywood novel, “The Day of the Locust“ — the perfect apocalyptic detox for those with the urge to scorch a little earth and cleanse themselves after another interminable Oscar season — Tod Hackett, the book's show-business shark, meets an aging actor. Hackett works as a set designer by day and paints a vast mural named “The Burning of Los Angeles” by night. His interest in the actor is purely duplicitous. He gets close to the actor to get closer to the actor's daughter, a desperate, struggling actress.

He's become a fake.

When he looks into the old man's face, he sees a sort of reflection, an abyss of disingenuousness and artificiality almost too black to comprehend: West writes that the aging actor's head “was almost all face, like a mask, with deep furrows between the eyes, across the forehead and on either side of the nose and mouth, plowed there by years of broad grinning and heavy frowning. Because of them, he could never express anything either subtly or exactly. They wouldn't permit degrees of feeling, only the furthest degree.”

So, anyway, Anne Hathaway ...

I was thinking about all of those Oscar speeches Sunday night, and wondering what they tell us about gratitude and Hollywood, and these lines, West's hellish vision of faux-emotion, kept returning to my head. Not because West's classic felt spot on, but because, even as Hathaway thanked her “team,” coldly noted others for “special contributions,” cooed unconvincingly to her trophy (“It came true”), West's familiar cynicism felt too simple. With apologies to the snarkers on Twitter and Oscar party peanut galleries: Pay close attention to those speeches — to cadences and stumbles, body language and word choices. If you didn't see a nuanced mix of authenticity, self-mythologizing, gratefulness and gas-bag self-regard, it might not be Hollywood alone that's full of show-business-watching sociopaths who lack empathy.

Consider Hathaway.

After an award season somewhat defined by her perceived disingenuousness, she disappointed — a reminder of how on-guard even a professional exhibitionist can seem after a brush with backlash. Her speech included a thoughtful reminder of the larger world — a sped-through blanket hope that someday people will not be as mistreated as her French peasant was in “Les Miserables” — but otherwise seemed efficient, unmemorable. In fact, judging by research on Thank The Academy, a lavish, impressive website/thesis project from Rebecca Rolfe, a Georgia Institute of Technology graduate student who recently studied and quantified every major Oscar speech since the 1950s, Hathaway's speech was stiffly textbook.

“Very typical,” Rolfe told me Monday morning.

Hathaway clutched her Oscar (51 percent of lead-actress winners Rolfe studied clutch), thanked the other nominees (33 percent do), thanked crew members (56 percent do) and did not cry (63 percent of actresses refrain).

But before you crucify Hathaway for not seeming sincere enough, consider golden girl Jennifer Lawrence, whose best actress speech seemed so much looser and more charming than Hathaway's best supporting actress speech. It ended with a casual “Thanks.” Only 2 percent of leading actress winners are that flip, Rolfe said. Forty-eight percent (including Hathaway) finish with “thank you.” (Also, Lawrence forgot to thank David O. Russell, director of her movie, “Silver Linings Playbook.” That is similarly atypical: Only 21 percent of lead-actress winners fail to mention the director.)

Speaking of director...

Ang Lee thanked the “movie gods” in his best director speech. Only 16 percent of directors make any religious reference. But he also thanked his lawyer and agent (“I have to do that,” he said, sheepishly), and only 10 percent of directors thank lawyers (though 32 percent thank agents). Best chance of being thanked by a director? Ideally, be one of their producers (71 percent get thanked) or a member of the cast (68 percent).

Curiously, if you are “the Academy,” you only have a 39 percent chance of being thanked by a director. It's one of the telling tidbits in Rolfe's research, which was gleaned from close study of decades of award-show footage: Though that urge to “thank the Academy” has become a kind of jokey rhetorical trope, no more than 40 percent of recipients of major Oscar awards — actors, actresses, directors — actually say the phrase.

Which is ironic: Rolfe told me her project partly began as a way of attempting to measure gratitude. However, the problem with gratitude is how closely related it is to sincerity, and that's less easy to quantify.

For comparison sake, I watched the Independent Spirit Awards on Saturday night, which are given to independent film, and, of course, context makes a difference. At the Oscars, Lawrence trembled slightly and fidgeted with the base of the trophy, speaking in the nervous rush of a flustered kid. At the Spirit Awards, though, when she won the leading actress award, she got tongue tied, but from the looks of the event — casual chic, in a large tent — she was less awed than unprepared. Likewise, Russell, giving thanks for his best director Spirit award, quipped that Benh Zeitlin, the (favored) director of “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” is “a young man, so Benh Zeitlin will be back.”

You never hear that at the Oscars — or clinks of silverware, or the loud mumbled cocktail chatter.

Trouble is, the majority of televised Oscar winners, so cowed by the circumstances and aware of their limited speech time — and that they have been asked to not carry a stack of thank-you notes onstage, to encourage spontaneity, curiously enough — become even more self-conscious, routine, dull, tentatively giving a heartfelt shout-out to the arts and creativity or hoisting their Oscar trophies in a small show of joy.

Or rather, 31 percent of actors hoist dramatically.

Acting-award winners have a natural advantage in sincerity and drama, as you would hope: They have just been named the best actors and actresses of the year. So while, say, make-up artists for “Les Miserables” might come off less than awed, despite being “overwhelmed,” they have less to work with than, say, Christoph Waltz, surprise winner for best supporting actor, the only actor who included the word “gratitude.”

Not that Daniel Day-Lewis, who indulged a bit of self-mythologizing in his best actor win for “Lincoln” (“My wife has lived with some strange men...”), or Ben Affleck, who accepted an Oscar for best picture, lacked for sincerity. In fact, you might say that, being relative shoo-ins for their respective awards, they pulled off an impressive feat that neither Hathaway nor Lawrence (also relative shoo-ins) could deliver: sincere gratitude.

Day-Lewis, the surest winner of the night, climbed the stage with a long, flushed face of gravitas and red-rimmed eyes, made a nervous joke, thanked his fellow nominees (“my equals, my betters”) in a steady voice, thanked Lincoln and Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner, then waited a beat and thanked his mother.

He did what he has done for decades: He revealed another side, a vulnerable ache. As did Affleck, a born gusher. Noticing the most influential filmmaker of his childhood seated in the front, he thanked Steven Spielberg first, for being Spielberg, a telling act; he recognized the enormity of the moment and paid awkward, heartfelt tribute. In this awkwardness and stumbling you could see tears forming, the self-righteous, self-deprecating gush you compose in a bathroom mirror, out of doubt and anger. “It doesn't matter how you get knocked down in life, all that matters is you have to get up,” he effused, noting his years as a Hollywood pariah.

Was it too much?

Nathanael West would never write that, and his characters would never say that. He would probably note that Affleck lobbied the Academy mightily, and that Day-Lewis gets lost in every role he inhabits, and therefore, being professional illusionists, neither can be trusted. And he would be absolutely right, of course.

But it worked on me, and now it's history, so what does Nathanael West know?

cborrelli@tribune.com
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