Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
Sunday night was the Emmy award show for television. I like TV, and I like award shows (I know, there’s something not right about me). But at the Emmy’s this year, the acceptance speeches were remarkably dull. Maybe because they were so formulaic.
I wrote about acceptance speeches after the Oscars in February, when the announcers screwed up the Best Picture winner and the folks behind La La Land gave a non-winning acceptance speech. When is an acceptance speech not an acceptance speech? When the speakers didn’t win.
But last night’s Emmys held no such surprises. In fact, the show held almost no surprises, as almost every winner was the expected one (go Julia Louis Dreyfuss! And oh yeah, The Handmaid’s Tale)
So the expected winners gave the expected acceptance speeches.
Here’s the acceptance speech formula, at least from last night, move by move:
In most award shows, I can point to a particularly funny or awkward acceptance speech, somebody who goes off script for at least a word or two. Other than “Lizzy” Moss being bleeped a couple of times, I remember only two different moments.
One was Sterling K. Brown, who won Best Drama Actor, objecting to how loud the music was when it was playing him off and he kept talking anyway, even though he was right it really was loud and you couldn’t hear a word he was saying and then they went to commercial. Somehow he missed the part of the formula about how long an acceptance speech can be.
The other was Ann Dowd, because she made the genre visible. At the end of her quite nice and moving acceptance speech, she finished with, “My husband is here and I love him so. He’s Larry Arancio. And my children. I have some beautiful children and their names are Liam, Emily, and Trust, and I love them to pieces.” I heard it as a recognition that, oh yeah, that’s what people do at the end of their speeches. And I may not be thanking them for my own independent life and work, but I have family, too, don’t ya know.
Maybe I’m reading into it. But I noticed it. And I liked it.
So there you have the Emmy award show this year. There were also, of course, the announcements of the awards. The one off-script moment from that genre was probably the funniest line, other than Stephen Colbert’s opening monologue. Dave Chapelle was set to announce the nominees for an award, and he commented on the number of black people at the show (he counted 11). After saying he’d skipped rehearsal (and was clearly adlibbing), he said he'd start reading off the teleprompter--"Shout out to DC Public Schools.”
Maybe all the winners should add to the formula a thanks to the teachers who taught them to read and write. But no, that would make the speeches go on waaaaaay too long, and the orchestra would have to bring in trumpets to drown them out, and I’d be way past ready for bed.
When is an acceptance speech not an acceptance speech?
When the speaker didn’t win the award!
Hard to imagine that would ever be the rhetorical situation, but it happened last night at the Academy Awards—as you’ve surely heard, even if you don’t follow entertainment news and didn’t watch or didn’t stick around to the end of the show. (I did; I love movies, and I love the Oscars.)
Faye Dunaway announced La La Land as the winner of Best Picture, and the producers, director, cast, and crew rushed to the stage and started giving acceptance speeches. Three producers had given speeches and they seemed to be nearing the end when the stage manager and others came on stage and asked to see the envelope. It said:
Best Female Actor in a Lead Role: Emma Stone in La La Land.
Beatty and Dunaway had been given the wrong envelope, and Dunaway read the name of the wrong movie for the wrong category.
The real winner was the film Moonlight.
That changed everything—including the acceptance speeches.
What a difference one change in the situation can make to the entire event.
Yes, the producers of Moonlight still gave their own acceptance speeches, and they really did win the award. But they didn’t receive the award from the Academy or even from Faye Dunaway. They received it from Jordan Horowitz, a producer of La La Land. He’s the one who announced into the microphone, “There’s a mistake — ‘Moonlight,’ you guys won best picture.”
Mr. Horowitz earned a lot of attention for how graciously he handled the mistake and handed over the award, including the trophy. But that mistake seriously changed the situation for the producers, director, cast, and crew of Moonlight. Mr. Horowitz captured it:
“I got to give a speech and then give you an award,” Mr. Horowitz said.
Instead of the usual buildup of suspense relieved by the act of awarding an Oscar, the moment for excited acceptance speeches was dulled by waiting until after an explanation from co-presenter Warren Beatty and more talk and even a joke from the host, Jimmy Kimmel.
Instead of that winning moment focusing all attention on the makers of Moonlight, their win was overshadowed by a more immediate exigence, a more pressing need to hear: How did such a terrible mistake happen?
Instead of an audience celebrating riotously Moonlight’s big upset, the audience was largely confused and shocked into relative silence.
Instead of getting an Academy Award from the Academy, they got a trophy from a rival producer.
No wonder the makers of Moonlight were slow to come to the stage and slow to give their acceptance speeches. Mahershala Ali, an actor from the film who won Best Supporting Actor earlier, also caught the moment well:
“I just didn’t want to go up there and take anything from somebody, you know?” Mahershala Ali
They weren’t getting an award; they were taking it away from someone else.
Wow. They were ripped off.
And I have to note what some news media are ignoring in their reporting of the event, the unfortunate identities of the two films—this screw-up led to a white producer of an expensive frothy musical about LA and the history of jazz with no starring black actors magnanimously bestowing the Oscar on an African-American producer, director and screenwriter, and cast of a low-budget film about a gay African-American boy growing up in poverty (and, not to generate fake news, also some white producers). Instead of a revolutionary upset from below, a gracious gift from above.
Wow. They were ripped off, at least in that moment.
But everybody was doing the best they could in the surprise situation. The producers of Moonlight valiantly powered through, giving their own acceptance speeches, and they did receive applause and joy in the end. And they did win the Academy Award for Best Picture. A stunning upset made even more stunning, perhaps, by the circumstances.
Hey, mistakes happen. Or as Price Waterhouse Cooper so dodgingly tweeted, in full passive voice,
The apology starts well, but the "error that was made" and "mistakenly had been given" hardly accepts full responsibility (and once again the qualities of a good or bad apology make a difference in my blog).
I had been ready to write this morning about acceptance speeches and how politics was changing some of the nature of that genre. Some of last night’s speeches referenced current politics directly or obliquely—one of the best versions, I think, was winners and presenters from other countries calling themselves “migrant workers.” Winners thanked the usual family members, with some emphasis on Mom this year. I noted especially that winners thanked their teachers more often than I remember from the past.
I doubt anyone remembers much about the acceptance speeches for Moonlight. Instead, I imagine history will remember the two upsets—one that comes from the small picture beating out the big production; the other that comes from the biggest screw-up in Academy Award history.
In fact, I couldn't find any publicly viewable video of Barry Jenkins' acceptance speech for Moonlight. So let's end with appreciation for the incredible actual Best Picture of 2017.