RIP Cloris Leachman, Oscar Winner and all-around hoot: 1926-2021

Oscar winner, eight time Emmy queen, oh and Miss Chicago, 1946 — Cloris Leachman has passed from life into legend. She was 94, and worked and worked and worked (she was in “The Croods” cartoons) until the very end.

What a career, a so-so opening act, a stellar middle act career that included the Oscar for a sad, neglected housewife in “The Last Picture Show,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and its sequel, “Phyllis,” and then — damn, she kept going, like her MTM co-star Betty White.

I only interviewed her once. She had a picture out and I was scrambling to pull an Oscar story together and thought, “Cloris LEACHMAN has an Oscar story and Oscar advice. You bet she does.” Here she is, the big name in this story, headlined…

“OSCAR NIGHT: Don’t Blow ‘The Big Speech'” — from 2005

It’s a moment you’ve practiced since you were old enough to stand in
front of the bathroom mirror — or “thank the Academy” in the shower.

But as Diane Wiest famously observed, in front of an audience of
zillions, “Gee, this isn’t like I imagined it would be in my bathtub.”

The Oscar acceptance speech is what people dream of, an actor or
filmmaker’s moment in the spotlight, those 45 seconds when you have
the whole world’s attention.

And yet the best-trained, best-paid actors, writers, directors and
producers in history most often get up there, take possession of that
statuette, and blow it.

They choke. They babble. And, heaven help us, they take out index
cards and start thanking their lawyers, their accountants, their
lawyer’s accountant’s pet-sitter.

“The moment one of those index cards comes out, I just die,” says
Oscar-winner Cloris Leachman (The Last Picture Show).

“You can plan for everything under the sun, but at the same time
you’re at the mercy of the guy who is voted best actor, and whether he
pulls out a list and starts reading all these names, or if he’ll let
himself get emotional and give a great speech everybody remembers,”
says Steve Pond, author of The Big Show: High Times & Dirty Dealings
Backstage at the Academy Awards.

“Actors are used to having scripts,” says Oscar-nominated screenwriter
John Logan (The Aviator). “Maybe they just want something they can
read.”

PRACTICE AND IMPERFECTION

Oscar-winner Marcia Gay Harden (Pollock) says she understands the instinct.

“Actors believe in being prepared,” she says. “And to get where you
are, that night, there are people who go all the way back to college
who were encouraging you. There were these waiters I worked with in
New York who would cover my shift for me when I would have to dash out
to an audition. Every single person counts!”

And there’s that nagging feeling that “it’s your one shot up there,
and ‘So-and-so is going to be upset if I don’t mention him,’ ” says
Pond, who covers the Oscars from backstage for Premiere magazine. “But
for every person you mention because you’re afraid they’re going to be
upset that you don’t mention them, there’s five others you’re
forgetting.”

Jennifer Connelly may never get another shot. When she won her best
supporting actress Oscar for A Beautiful Mind, she looked as though
she’d just been dumped (she had). And then she pulled out the laundry
list.

Martin Landau spent the summer and fall of 1994 practicing his speech,
a tribute to Bela Lugosi and the award Bela — his character in Ed
Wood — never won.

It was great. It was poetic. And you didn’t get to hear it Oscar night.

Because Landau used his Oscar, basically a lifetime achievement award,
to thank everybody who ever crossed paths with him.

Pond was sitting behind Oscar producer Gil Cates that night. “You
could feel the tension just growing and growing and growing,” he says.
“You could never sense that this guy was about to get to something
emotional and moving. You just had the feeling that this guy was going
to keep on naming names until he named everyone he knew, or Cates cut
him off.

“So Cates played him off the stage.”

Big moment, blown. There’s no greater indignity than being “played
off,” especially when the orchestra is playing you off to the Mission:
Impossible theme as with Landau.

“It seems that no matter how many times at the nominees lunch you hear
the producer say, ‘Don’t pull out a list,’ people still do,” Pond
says.

BUT WHAT IF?

It is, Logan says, “bad luck” to prepare a speech you might never get
to deliver. But Leachman, a best supporting actress winner for 1971’s
The Last Picture Show, says you should have something in mind to say,
even though she didn’t.

“I worried about finding a dress that ‘walked,’ you know, open in
front and back so I could get up and walk to the podium,” she says.
“But I gave no thought at all to having something to say, because
Ellen Burstyn and Ann-Margret had won the big pre-Oscar awards.

“I turned to my date, who happened to be my estranged husband, and
said, ‘My God! What if I win? Should I thank my teachers?’ And I
mentioned a couple of them to him. He paused for a second and said,
‘Those are funny names.’ “

When “the winner is, Cloris Leachman” rang out, the actress was
flustered “beyond belief.” But she came up with something, a funny
little dig at “all those kids” who made fun of her in elementary
school.

In 2001, Harden was prepared to win, but expected to lose.

“That’s why I was wearing a bright red dress with lots of ‘Notice me!’
cleavage, that night,” she says with a laugh. She had a speech —
actually it sounds a lot like a laundry list — scribbled on a napkin.

“But I picked up the Oscar, and the note was in the same hand. And
they’re right when they say it’s heavy. I was embarrassed to take the
Oscar out of my hand and read something. So I just winged it, and
forgot to thank my teachers.”

Adrien Brody made a heartfelt appeal for peace, after laying an epic
smooch on Halle Berry. Michael Moore made it a political diatribe.
Sally Field went off into “You really like me” land. Randy Newman
joked about how many times he’d been nominated without winning.

“I don’t want your pity.”

But Jonathan Demme rambled incoherently. James Coburn sputtered and blew it.

In the Internet age, there’s no excuse for not having something to
say. There’s even an Oscar-speech generator
(chickenhead.com/stuff/oscar/index.asp) for those who can’t think of
anything themselves.

So don’t prepare if that’s bad luck. But if your moment comes, have
something to say.

“It’s a TV show. You should be willing to entertain,” says Leachman.

Mike Leigh, Oscar nominated for writing and directing Vera Drake, says
that not prepping should be no handicap, considering what everybody in
the Kodak Auditorium does for a living.

“If the time comes, and I don’t expect it will, I’ll get up and, if
necessary, give them a few lines from Macbeth, a joke and something
they’ll remember,” he says. “It’s not all that hard, is it? There’s
only a billion people watching.”

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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