Producers look to reign in acceptance speeches, again

As sure as winners accept awards on kudocasts, the battle between long-winded recipients and time-hassled producers will play out.

It’s an unavoidable conflict. Whether driven by ego, excitement or a sense of obligation, winners frequently can’t resist running down a long list of people to thank. On the other side are show producers and directors who have visions of viewers at home drifting off to sleep or, even worse, changing channels, just about the point when the winner is thanking Joanie, Chachi and Mr. T.

Not surprisingly, the biggest battles happen on the Oscar telecast. Ever since Greer Garson’s epic speech when she won the best actress trophy for “Mrs. Miniver” in 1942, the Academy has agonized over the length of thank-yous. With the show’s ratings dipping a bit in recent years, the producers are keener than ever that speeches be kept short and sweet.

Of course, judging when a speech goes too long is a subjective decision, and the subject making the speech often determines how strict the 45-second rule for acceptance speeches is enforced.

Woe to the sound editor or costumer who starts to rattle off his or her address book. The musicians in the orchestra pit will be striking up the exit chords before long.

On the other hand, higher profile winners — think Julia Roberts last year — or emotional winners (like Miep Gies when the docu “Anne Frank Remembered” won in ’95) are generally given greater leeway in flaunting the rules.

Already the first volleys in the 2002 battle have been fired. Veteran Hollywood publicist Howard Bragman wrote an open letter to Oscar nominees Feb. 18 in the Los Angeles Times, urging eventual winners to be succinct.

“I won’t go as your date, and you don’t want me to be your stylist, but I can help you with your speech,” Bragman says near the top of his letter. “And trust me: Your best friend, your agent, your manager and your publicist certainly aren’t going to tell you the truth (they all want to hear their names read in front of 1 billion people from the stage of the Kodak Theatre). So it’s up to me.”

He then gets to the meat of the matter: “Is there anything more boring than hearing one of your otherwise talented fellow actors reading off a long list of names from a crumpled piece of paper in bad light without reading glasses on network television? I think not.”

Bragman proceeds to offer pointers on how to structure a “spontaneous” speech.

The folks at the British telecom giant Orange, which sponsors BAFTA’s annual awards, opted for the pages of Variety for their plea to winners at the Feb. 17 event in London. The ad begins: “So we can all get home tonight, would the winners thank … ” and then goes on to list 104 potential mentions — from the director and producer to the venture capitalist, the medical officer, the trailer voiceover artist, the cleaning lady, the parents and so on. Befitting a telecom, it ends the list with “… after the ceremony, by phone please.”

Apparently, Russell Crowe didn’t get the message. The actor was furious that a poem he read in his acceptance speech for best actor at the awards was cut on BBC One’s live telecast. If it makes him feel any better, cabler E! Entertainment ran the longer version in its March 2 rebroadcast.

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