How Many Oscar-Winning Actors And Directors Are Smarter Than An 8th Grader?

Feb 20, 2015 at 5:21 PM ET

The most remarkable Oscar acceptance speeches are not the emotional ones or the funny ones. They’re not the nutso ones or the energetic ones, either. The tears, the jokes, the jumping up and down—it’s all been done. That’s why, for our money, the outliers that truly impress are the literate ones—those rare bald eagle speeches that actually employ complete sentences and adult vocabulary.

Using the roughly 1,400-speech database on the Academy’s online archive, we found the most complex acceptance speeches ever delivered by applying the Flesch-Kincaid grade-level formula, which evaluates word and sentence length and assigns a reading score. Complete back through 1966 and including speeches delivered as far back as 1939, the Academy’s archive has speeches as long as 2,618 words (D.A. Pennebaker after receiving an honorary Oscar in 2012) and as short as zero words (many people, many times).

We focused on the speeches delivered by winners in the four major acting categories and best director, because those were full of names we all recognize. The average grade level for those speeches? A paltry 5.2. Only eight winners have ever achieved a reading score above eighth grade, and we’ve got the stats on those below, along with one who came close, because no best actor winner has ever creeped above an 8.9. (Even more embarrassing for them: The second highest-scoring best actor speech of all time, at 8.8, was actually delivered by an Apache woman named Sacheen Littlefeather, accepting for Marlon Brando’s The Godfather win in 1972.)

Highest-Scoring Best Supporting Actor Speech

Jack Palance, City Slickers (1991)

Grade level: 9.6
Word count: 214
Sentence count: 8

Sample sentence: “You know, there are times when you reach a certain age plateau where the producers say, they talk about you and they say, ‘Well, what do you think? Can we risk it? Can we do it? Can we use him?’”

Highest-Scoring Best Actor Speech

Jon Voight, Coming Home (1978)

Grade level: 8.9
Word count: 317
Sentence count: 15

Sample sentence: “And finally, I’m carrying with me all the men who gave me so much of their experience to deal with, who have contributed so much: the people in chairs, and the veterans, and the civilians, and the walkers, who are so strongly represented in what I’d call my work.”

Highest-Scoring Best Supporting Actress Speech

Angela Lansbury accepting for Peggy Ashcroft, A Passage to India (1984)

Grade level: 9.8
Word count: 137
Sentence count: 6

Sample sentence: “I personally would just like to say that I think it is so marvelous that after an illustrious career in the theater for so many years, Peggy should at last be visible to all those millions of moviegoers who are, have and will continue to enjoy her consummate artistry, her delicacy and beauty.”

Highest-Scoring Best Actress Speech

Kate Winslet, The Reader (2008)

Grade level: 10.4
Word count: 327
Sentence count: 12

Sample sentence: “So, to have been surrounded by a remarkable group of people who provided an unbroken chain of support, from David Kross to Ralph Fiennes, Bruno Ganz, Lena Olin, from hair and makeup to cinematography, from the art department to the ADs, and from New York to Berlin.”

Highest-Scoring Best Director Speech

Jonathan Demme, The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Grade level: 10.9
Word count: 436
Sentence count: 19

Sample sentence: “I also—this won’t take forever, sorry—I also had the extraordinary good fortune to have been embraced by Orion Pictures at a time which, unlike this amazing peak moment of my life, I was at a kind of low-valley moment when Mike Medavoy and Bill Bernstein and Arthur Krim and Eric Pleskow kind of reached out to me and encouraged me and helped create a home for my collaborators and myself.”

Honorable Mentions

Cary Grant accepting for Ingrid Bergman, best actress, Anastasia (1956)

Grade level: 10
Word count: 132
Sentence count: 5

Sample sentence: “So, dear Ingrid, if you can hear me now or if you see this televised film, I want you to know that each of the other nominees and all of the people with whom you worked on Anastasia, and dear Hitch, and Leo McCarey, and every one of us here tonight and in New York send you our congratulations, our love, our admiration, and every affectionate thought.”

Vanessa Redgrave, best supporting actress, Julia (1977)

Grade level: 9.4
Word count: 229
Sentence count: 9

Sample sentence: “And I salute you and I pay tribute to you and I think you should be very proud that in the last few weeks you’ve stood firm and you have refused to be intimidated by the threats of a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums whose behavior is an insult to the stature of Jews all over the world and to their great and heroic record of struggle against fascism and oppression.”