In the Guide’s weekly Solved! column, we look into a crucial pop-culture question you’ve been burning to know the answer to – and settle it, once and for all
Winning an Oscar is the highlight of a career. It’s peer validation on the largest possible stage. As your name is called and you approach the podium, your heart bursts and your head spins. You look out and see every famous person on Earth, all staring straight at you. Beyond them, cameras are beaming your face into hundreds of millions of homes. Time to gather your thoughts and articulate exactly what this means to you.
And then you see it. A huge screen in front of the stage. “30,” it says. Then: “29 … 28 … 27 …” This is the time allotted for your speech, and it is quickly vanishing.
Technically you had 45 seconds, but the countdown started the moment your name was announced. You fumble for words, trying to remember the name of everyone who needs to be thanked. But the screen now reads: “PLEASE WRAP UP,” and you aren’t finished. You start speeding through names, and then you hear it. An orchestral swell. You overran and now you’re being played off-stage. Your big moment has ended in ignominy, with the world watching. You know whose fault this is? Greer Garson.
When Greer Garson won her best actress Oscar in 1943, it was already 1am. The ceremony had been long and the audience was flagging. Nevertheless, Garson approached the stage and proceeded to deliver the longest speech in Oscars history. Some say it lasted five and a half minutes. Others claim it was closer to seven. Either way, Garson rambled on for so long that Joan Fontaine, the presenter, wandered off and sat down before it had finished. Not long after this, the Academy started to impose time limits on speeches.
You can understand why play-off music is necessary. The Oscars is a bloated, overblown ceremony that can very easily spiral out of control. There needs to be a monologue, musical numbers, an In Memoriam section, a ton of commercial breaks and 24 separate awards to be received. If you gave every winner an extra 15 seconds, the ceremony would be six minutes longer. Let everyone be Garson, and you’d have to tack on almost three hours. Given that a typical ceremony already lasts between three and four hours, this would require superhuman levels of endurance.
Nevertheless, the Oscars play-off music can be beaten. The easiest way to blast through your allotted time is to win one of the flashier awards. Win best actor, as Adrien Brody did in 2003, and you’ll be allowed to ramble for nearly four minutes. Win best actress, as Halle Berry did in 2002, and you’ll get four and a half.
But there are other options. When Parasite won best picture last year, the producers shut the lights off after just two and a half minutes. The cast and crew were only allowed to continue when Tom Hanks initiated a protest chant.
And then there’s Paweł Pawlikowski, my favourite ever Oscar winner, who won best foreign language film for Ida in 2015. He spoke until the play-off music began. He continued speaking, and the music grew louder in response. And then he dedicated the award to his dead wife, and the play-off music screeched to an embarrassed halt. If you’re going to beat the system, this is exactly how to do it.