Practice Makes Perfect, or what Oscar Telecast producers could learn from watching Leonardo DiCaprio

Written by

Greta Stahl

No more boring speeches. That was the pledge made by producers of the 88th annual Academy Awards when they announced that winners could list their “thanks yous” on ticker tape that would run live during the ceremony. Instead of subjecting audiences to endless lists of agents, producers, and supporting “teams,” speeches could be kept short, heartfelt, and meaningful.

So did it work?

Not really. Early winners, including Best Supporting Actress Alicia Vikander, walked on stage and continued the tradition of naming all those who’d supported them on their rise to the top. Viewers could hardly blame them. The scroll ran past television screens at the speed of light, hardly a fitting way to say “thanks.” Unless it was hidden somewhere off-camera, ceremony attendees at the Dolby Theater didn’t see the ticker tape at all, leaving this viewer wondering what the point of the exercise was to begin with.

It was hardly the only time I wondered that last night. While the thoughtful words of a few winners reminded us that practice does indeed make perfect, production missteps demonstrated that organizers could still benefit from learning that particular lesson.

Let’s start with the good. For anyone who ever worried that practice would doom them to sound ‘rehearsed,’ Best Actor winner Leonardo DiCaprio showed us how it’s done. After classily paying tribute to those who had contributed to his success, DiCaprio delivered a moving speech on the dangers posed by climate change.

After decades of waiting for this win, DiCaprio was clearly a man who knew what he wanted to say and wasn’t afraid to practice until he got it right. Even his closing line—“Let us not take this planet for granted, I do not take tonight for granted”—was a reminder that speakers benefit from choosing their words in advance and thinking how they want to leave the audience remembering them.

DiCaprio benefitted from being the odds-makers’ favorite going into the ceremony. Mark Rylance did not, and no one would have blamed him for coming unprepared to give a speech. But when the seasoned actor walked onstage to accept Best Supporting Actor, he paid a fond tribute to Director Steven Spielberg and co-star Tom Hanks.

Good speeches weren’t restricted to headline categories. When accepting the award for Best Production Design for Mad Max: Fury Road, Colin Gibson managed to be succinct, touching, and funny. And the team behind animated short film Bear Story used their short time on stage to remember a grandparent and celebrate the first ever Oscar win for their home country, Chile.

But while many winners used their stage time well, questionable production tactics often canceled out the positive messages. I would pay a million dollars if someone could explain the logic of playing “Flight of the Valkyries” to drown out Best Director winner Alejandro González Iñárritu as he pled for “the color of the skin [to] become as irrelevant as the length of our hair.” In an evening focused on the Oscars’ diversity problem, this error seemed in particularly poor taste.

Producers clearly chose to focus attention on the message behind Lady Gaga’s nominated “Til It Happens to You.” In addition to Vice President Joe Biden’s plea for greater attention to the ongoing sexual assault epidemic, dozens of survivors joined Lady Gaga on-stage during her powerful performance. Unfortunately, no one on the production team considered what would happen if the song didn’t win its category. When Sam Smith was announced as the winner for the anthem to the latest Bond film, it felt as if all the air was let out of the room. One wonders if the producers couldn’t have planned the timing of the productions better to account for this possibility. On the other hand, at least they avoided the worst-case scenario: the sexual assault survivors filing off-stage as the award was handed to 50 Shades of Gray.

There’s no excuse for coming unprepared to the Oscars. Nominees have months to get ready for the moment when the envelope opens. But given the fanfare and television ratings garnered by each year’s telecast, you’d expect producers to be just as ready for every possibility. I appreciate the thought that went into the “thank you” scroll even if it didn’t achieve its goal. Perhaps next year they’ll worry less about cutting out names and more about giving deserving messages the time and treatment they deserve.