oscars 2020

A Close Read of Joaquin Phoenix and Renée Zellweger’s Utterly Baffling Oscar Speeches

Joaquin Phoenix and Renée Zellweger. Photo: Shutterstock

There comes a time in an actor’s life when they find themselves seated in the Dolby Theater for the 12th consecutive hour, and they are either working on their face of gracious defeat for when their name is not called out as a winner, or they are optimistically going over a victory speech in their head, ensuring they don’t forget this producer or that agent or that grip on stage. (Or they are running around the bar, asking why the Academy can’t “just do another ‘Shallow,’” which is probably the only reason I have not been invited to the Oscars.) On Sunday night, we got two excellent speeches from actors, and two less excellent ones: Brad Pitt and Laura Dern mixed the intimate with the courteous, thanking their famous families and famous co-stars and reflecting on lives spent in front of the camera. Lead acting winners Joaquin Phoenix and Renée Zellweger, however, had speeches of a different flavor up their sleeves.

It has been said, correctly and coincidentally by me, that Joe Pesci delivered the best-ever Oscar acceptance speech: “It was my privilege. Thank you.” But people keep winning Oscars, so people keep giving Oscar speeches. Today, in the glow of Parasite’s Best Picture win, we are gathered here to decipher two of the most puzzling acceptance speeches from the night: Zellweger accepting her award for playing Judy Garland in Judy, and Phoenix accepting his award for King of Comedy, Revisited, excuse me, that’d be Joker.

Thank you to the Academy. Thank you for inviting me here alongside one of the most special collaborations and meaningful experiences of my life. 

Translation: Thank you for making me sit here, through three host-less hours of jokes and an Eminem performance, to take home this trophy.

I’ve said it before, and I’m going to say it again. Cynthia, Scarlett, Charlize, Saoirse, I have to say, boy, it is an honor to be considered in your company. 

Congratulations to the other nominees! I wish you the best, but at another awards show, during another year, on another stage, ideally when I am not also competing.

David Livingstone, Cameron McCracken, director Rupert Gould, boy, it was a privilege to work with you. I feel so proud to be in your beautiful movie.

It’s around this point in every Renée Zellweger speech where you raise your eyebrows and remember, Oh right, she really does just have that Southern accent.

I’ve gotta thank my stage moms, Matt and Jeff and Eric, Paul, Gary, Jessie Buckley, Finn Wittrock, Rufus Sewell, all the cast and the crew who worked so hard on this film to celebrate Judy Garland. My extended family at CAA, Peter, Brian, and Kevin. Imprint, Nicole and Dom.

A light Lou Bega riff for your Oscar night: A little bit of Matt in my life/ A little bit of Jeff by my side/ A little bit of Eric is all I need/ A little bit of Paul is what I see /A little bit of Gary in the sun /A little bit of Jessie all night long A little bit of Finn here I am / A little bit of you makes me your … Best Lead Actress winner!

Nanci Ryder, thank you for the 25 years. John Carrabino, my handsome date of 25 years. Thank you for always dreaming bigger than I would dare and for bringing it back to the work and joy and gratitude. My immigrant folks who came here with nothing but each other and a belief in the American dream. How about this?

Renée Zelleweger has had the same team — manager and publicist — for literally as long as Sir Shaw Ronan has been alive. That’s showbiz, kid!

Thank you to you big brother Drew, Brandy, Judy, Stone, and Eva for all the love, all the love and support possible that makes you believe anything is possible. 

They’ll push your buttons!/They’ll make you wanna Hug ‘em/A family/A family/Proud, Proud family!

I have to say that this past year of conversations celebrating Judy Garland across genders and … I’m sorry, it’s across generations and across cultures has been a really cool reminder that our heroes unite us.

Conversations, importantly, without Liza Minelli.

No, the best among us who inspire us to find the best in ourselves. They unite us. When we look to our heroes, we agree, and that matters. Neil Armstrong, Sally Ride, Dolores Huerta, Venus and Serena and Selena, Bob Dylan, Scorsese, Fred Rogers, Harriet Tubman.

I know how you started out this night. You were desperate for someone to speak the names of Venus and Serena Williams, Sally Ride, and Martin Scorsese in the same sentence. You didn’t think it could happen. In fact, you were sure they couldn’t pull it off. You put money on this. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is 84 percent white, it’s 68 percent male. There’s no way I’m getting Venus and Serena and Selena in the same sentence. But look what Renée Zellweger did. That!

We agree on our teachers, and we agree on our courageous men and women in uniform who serve. We agree on our first responders and firefighters. When we celebrate our heroes, we’re reminded of who we are as one people united.

[Utterly random, sorry, I don’t know what in the name of a TEDx talk this means.]

No, Judy Garland did not receive this honor in her time. I am certain that this moment is an extension of the celebration of her legacy that began on our film set.

Basically: Y’all are giving this to me because you clowns never gave it to her. Don’t think I don’t know that!

It’s also representative of the fact that her legacy of unique exceptionalism and, uh, inclusivity and generosity of spirit, it transcends any one artistic achievement. 

“Exceptionalism and, u … inclusivity!” are the buzzwords you reach for when you really want the SEO to pop off.

Miss Garland, you are certainly among the heroes who unite and define us, and this is certainly for you. I am so grateful. Thank you so much, everybody. Good night. Thank you.

Ah, alright. Stop.

A bold move to start a speech with a command! Joaquin Phoenix said, “Cut the cameras. Deadass.”

I’m full of so much gratitude right now. And I do not feel elevated above any of my fellow nominees, or anyone in this room, because we share the same love, the love of film. This form of expression has given me the most extraordinary life.

Joaquin Phoenix might be standing on that stage, but he’s not bigger than Big Adam Driver. (I bet you’d forgotten that “Same Love,” was a popular Macklemore song in 2012. That song was most assuredly not about the love of film.)

I don’t know what I’d be without it. I think the greatest gift it’s given me, and many of us in this room, is the opportunity to use our voices for the voiceless. I’ve been thinking a lot about some of the distressing issues that we are facing collectively. I think at times we feel, or were made to feel, that we champion different causes, but for me, I see commonality. I think, whether we’re talking about gender inequality or racism or queer rights or indigenous rights or animal rights, we’re talking about the fight against injustice. We’re talking about the fight against the belief that one nation, one people, one race, one gender or one species has the right to dominate, control and use and exploit another with impunity. 

Nooooo don’t equate veganism with anti-racism — these issues are fundamentally different! — your so sexy aha.

I think that we’ve become very disconnected from the natural world, and many of us, what we’re guilty of is an egocentric worldview — the belief that we’re the center of the universe. We go into the natural world, and we plunder it for its resources. We feel entitled to artificially inseminate a cow, and when she gives birth, we steal her baby, even though her cries of anguish are unmistakable. Then, we take her milk, that’s intended for her calf, and we put it in our coffee and our cereal, and I think we fear the idea of personal change because we think that we have to sacrifice something to give something up.

Brad said stunts rights, Laura said parents-as-heros rights, Renée said Judy Garland rights, and Joaquin says … cow rights!

But human beings, at our best, are so inventive and creative and ingenious, and I think that when we use love and compassion as our guiding principles, we can create, develop and implement systems of change that are beneficial to all sentient beings and to the environment. 

[screams randomly into the void]

Now, I have been a scoundrel in my life. I’ve been selfish. I’ve been cruel at times, hard to work with and ungrateful, but so many of you in this room have given me a second chance. And I think that’s when we’re at our best, when we support each other, not when we cancel each other out for past mistakes, but when we help each other to grow, when we educate each other, when we guide each other toward redemption.

This was a deleted scene from Lady Bird, with Timothee Chalamet’s character, who wants to live by bartering and has only read Howard Zinn and J.D. Salinger.

That is the best of community. When he was 17, my brother wrote this lyric. It said, ‘Run to the rescue with love, and peace will follow.’


A Close Read of Joaquin Phoenix, Renée Zellweger’s Speeches