Instead of making a self-referential joke about finally winning his Oscar after years of being nominated and losing, Leonardo DiCaprio used his acceptance speech for Best Actor at the 2015 Oscars to address climate change. “Climate change is real. It is happening right now,” DiCaprio said. “We need to support leaders around the world who do not speak for the big polluters or the big corporations, but who speak for all of humanity.”
When Arquette took the stage for her Best Supporting Actress win in 2015, she began her speech like most Oscar winners, by thanking her fellow nominees, the people she worked with on Boyhood, and her family. But after running through her list of names, Arquette had an important statement to make. The actress called for an end to the gender pay gap, eliciting enthusiastic agreement from Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez in particular.
Penn used his Best Actor Oscar win for his role as Harvey Milk in Milk to talk about gay rights. At the time of his win in 2009, same-sex marriage was banned in much of the United States, and Penn addressed those who voted for the ban to reflect on “their great shame and the shame in their grandchildren’s eyes if they continue that way of support.” Also that night, Milk’s screenwriter Dustin Lance Black won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and used his speech to advocate for equal rights for LGBT individuals.
While technically not an acceptance speech as Brando actually refused his Oscar for Best Actor in 1973, he did choose to use the time allotted for his speech to send a powerful message about the treatment of Native Americans in the film industry. Brando sent Native American rights activist Sacheen Littlefeather in his place to the ceremony, where she explained that the actor was refusing the prestigious commendation for his work in The Godfather due to his objection to how American Indians were depicted in Hollywood.
After a touching tribute to his mother, Leto turned his acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actor in 2014 to foreign affairs. At the time, economic protests and government repression in Venezuela and Ukraine were making headlines, and Leto used his Dallas Buyers Club win to say that he was standing with the protestors. He also spoke in support of LGBT rights and those living with AIDS.
One of the more controversial Oscars acceptance speeches came from Vanessa Redgrave in 1978, when she won Best Supporting Actress for her role in Julia. The same year Redgrave made the film, she had also funded and narrated a documentary about the Palestinian Liberation Organization, making her an enemy of the Jewish Defense League which protested both the film and the Academy Awards that year. In her acceptance speech, Redgrave called the JDL “a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums.”
In 2002, Halle Berry made history by becoming the first African-American woman to win the Best Actress Oscar. She acknowledged the feat by dedicating her award to “every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.”
Common and John Legend
When Common and John Legend won the Oscar for Best Original Song for “Glory” from Selma in 2015, they used their acceptance speech to advocate for all forms of social equality, with particular attention given to race. “We live in the most incarcerated country in the world,” Legend said. “There are more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850.”
Never quiet about his political beliefs, Michael Moore used his acceptance speech for the Best Documentary Feature award in 2003 to decry George W. Bush’s declaration of war on Iraq. “We live in a time when we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons,” Moore said to a mixture of applause and boos, adding, “We are against this war, Mr. Bush. Shame on you, Mr. Bush.”
George C. Scott
Before Marlon Brando refused his Oscar, George C. Scott was the first actor to decline the award in 1970. Scott won the Best Actor award for his title role in Patton, but boycotted the ceremony calling it a “meat parade.” The film’s producer Frank McCarthy accepted the award on Scott’s behalf.
Julianne Moore won the Best Actress Oscar in 2015 for portraying a woman with early-onset Alzheimer’s in Still Alice. She used her time on stage to bring attention to those with the memory disorder. “So many people with this disease feel isolated and marginalized,” Moore said. “People with Alzheimer’s deserve to be seen so we can find a cure.”
Alejandro Iñárritu had a big night at the 2015 Oscars thanks to his film Birdman. The director/writer won Best Original Screenplay and Best Director for the film, and accepted the awards with standard speeches thanking a list of coworkers, family, and friends. However when Mexican-born Iñárritu took to the stage at the end of the night when Birdman also won Best Picture, he added a message about immigration at the end of his speech. “I want to dedicate this award for my fellow Mexicans, the ones who live in Mexico — I pray that we can find and build a government that we deserve,” Iñárritu said. “And the ones that live in this country, who are part of the latest generation of immigrants in this country, I just pray they can be treated with the same dignity and respect of the ones who came before and build this incredible immigrant nation.”