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LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - The acceptance speech is the ultimate Hollywood audition.
As the winners are invited to the podium ("But I didn't expect this; I have nothing prepared") and handed their trophies ("It's so heavy!"), all acceptance speeches do risk blurring into one ("And most of all I want to thank my husband/wife/partner-in-life; and to my kids watching at home, you can go to bed now").
But for those at the red-hot center of all the frenzy -- the film actors and actresses in the hunt for ultimate validation at the Oscars -- acceptance speeches inevitably are mini-performances that can serve a number of purposes.
The acceptance speech can introduce a performer from abroad, like Christoph Waltz from "Inglourious Basterds," to both the industry and the wider moviegoing public; it can highlight a different aspect of a performer's personality, as is the case this year with Mo'Nique, the sitcom star and stand-up comedian who roughs up her image in "Precious" only to glamorously re-emerge on the awards circuit; or it can serve to confirm audiences' predisposition toward such well-liked players as Sandra Bullock or Jeff Bridges.
The biggest challenge for the front-runners is keeping it all seemingly fresh and in-the-moment. During the annual Academy Awards nominees luncheon, Oscar show producers inevitably urge the eventual winners to keep it spontaneous: Brief and emotional thank-yous work best. Avoid those written list of agents, managers, publicists, designers, child-care providers and soothsayers.
But keeping it spontaneous at the Oscars is a lot easier for the rare dark-horse candidate, who truly never expected to win. Most infamous example: Marisa Tomei's upset in 1992 for "My Cousin Vinny," when she beat out Judy Davis, Joan Plowright, Vanessa Redgrave and Miranda Richardson.
For the anointed -- who've already been invited to the winner's circle at the Critics Choice Awards, the Golden Globes and the SAG Awards -- keeping it real can be a challenge. So how are this seasons favored four doing?
The Austria-born Waltz was pushed onto the international film stage when his seductive turn as Col. Hans Landa in "Basterds" won him acting honors at Cannes. The kudos have been coming ever since.
By now, the actor can't be expected to feign surprise when his name is called. But he tends to err in the opposite direction, overthinking and overpreparing his remarks.
At the Critics Choice, he came ready with a riff on the word "choice"; at the Globes, he indulged in global metaphors; Saturday night at SAG, he began his speech by intoning, "A stage actor acts on a stage, but a screen actor is an actor on the screen."
Enough already. Before he starts thumbing through his thesaurus for synonyms for "academy" and "Oscar" (good luck on the latter), Waltz needs to throw away the script and go off book should -- or, more likely, when -- he wins his Oscar.
Mo'Nique, on the other hand, already has scored points as she makes the rounds. Early in the season, some columnists were tossing darts at her for skipping promotional duties at the Toronto and New York film festivals, accusing her of insisting on pay-for-play.
Well, Mo'Nique might be a diva, but in her podium appearances, she plays more of a beneficent grande dame. Her words might be a little bit studied and overenunciated, but she's been striking all the right emotional notes. Speaking to victims of abuse at the Globes, she said: "I celebrate this award with every person that's ever been touched. It's now time to tell. And it's OK." At SAG, she offered a variation on that thought but also tailored her speech to mention several of the other supporting actors in the film.
And, throughout, she has heaped lavish praise on her director Lee Daniels, even showing up at Sunday night's Producers Guild Awards -- where she wasn't even nominated -- to present Daniels and his fellow producers with the Stanley Kramer Award.
Three months ago, Bullock's name hadn't even surfaced on any of the early Oscar tout sheets. But then "The Blind Side" broke through at the box office, and suddenly her heartfelt performance as a Christian do-gooder was being mentioned in the same breath as Meryl Streep's Julia Child.
The fact that the Critics Choice Awards resulted in a best actress tie between the two -- Streep's name was read first -- provided the perfect opportunity for Bullock to react with self-deprecating surprise. Sure, she has much in common with the multi-nominated Streep, Bullock insisted, saying to the critics, "You guys just didn't notice it until now." At the Globes and SAG, Bullock continued to play off her image as a regular gal who just can't believe the good fortune that's come her way. And because an Oscar win isn't a guarantee for her, should she be called up to the stage of the Kodak Theater on the big night, expect to see a genuine outpouring of emotion.
If Bullock is comfortable in the spotlight, her male counterpart, Bridges, is downright easygoing. Part of an acting family, he has grown up in the business. Surveying the International Ballroom at the Beverly Hilton when he won the dramatic actor Globe for his performance in "Crazy Heart," he recalled how he and his mom had won a cha-cha contest in that very room many years ago.
When Bridges takes to the stage, there's no evidence he's reading from any kind of prepared script. At SAG, waving away the command to wrap it up, he clearly relished the moment. "I love being an actor, pretending to be other people, getting into the shoes of other folks," he enthused. The words could be dismissed as cliches, but Bridges invests them with such a direct sincerity, he makes them real. In his case, the performance aspects of accepting an award virtually disappear.