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Nominees need to be as polished as Oscar himself

Academy Awards contenders are expected to show good manners and win (or lose) with grace. Anything else can hurt their reputations.

February 25, 2011|By Rebecca Keegan, Los Angeles Times

"I thought, 'Why not?' " said Bonham Carter, who is nominated for supporting actress for her performance as Queen Elizabeth in "The King's Speech." "The red carpet is so ruled by fash-ism, and by that I mean F-A-S-H-ism, the fashion industry. Geez, can't we just dress up and have fun?"

For an actress known for her eccentric roles — Bonham Carter is most recognized these days as the Harry Potter series' villainous Bellatrix Lestrange — the bold declaration of independence was entirely in character.

"Actors are really playing a role at an event," said Anne Ready, a media trainer whose clients include Disney and Warner Bros. "Just as they would for a character in a movie, they need to give thought to who they're playing that night. If your purpose is to focus on your acting, mismatched shoes would be fairly distracting. But if you're trying to make a statement about individuality, that would be the way to do it."

After months of strenuous self-promotion, Oscar winners must surmount one final hurdle — deliver an acceptance speech that thanks the academy, their co-nominees, the real-life people who inspired their characters, their costars and crews, the executives and agents who got their film made and the families who cheered them on, ideally with polish and wit and in under 45 seconds.

"You have multiple audiences," said public speaking coach Lisa Braithwaite. "It's a balance, if there are people politically you need to mention, you also have to remember that the people who actually pay to see your movies are watching."

To underscore the need for brevity, this year the academy gave nominees a practice DVD with a 45-second countdown timer and a video tutorial by two-time winner and Jedi master of the acceptance speech, Tom Hanks. Hanks recommends winners choose in advance who will accept for a group, and never take out a piece of paper to read from. "Reading a long list of names only shows us your bald spot," he said in the video.

What makes Oscar acceptance speeches singularly challenging is that they are delivered to an audience composed largely of losers. Remembering that can help euphoric Academy Award winners avoid awkward moments like James Cameron's "king of the world" speech for "Titanic" in 1998. What Cameron had intended as a display of his exuberance — holding up his trophy and quoting Leonardo DiCaprio's line from the film — came across instead as arrogant to a room that had already seen "Titanic" win most of the Oscars they hoped would go to their own films.

"You want to be gracious winner because next year you might be the one whose movie's butt gets kicked," said Braithwaite.

rebecca.keegan@latimes.com

Times staff writer Amy Kaufman contributed to this report.

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