On 4 March 1943, Greer Garson stepped behind a lectern at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub inside the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Garson, 38, was accepting the Academy Award for Best Actress for her work inMrs Miniver, a romantic war drama directed by William Wyle. She was only the 15th actor in the history of Hollywood to take home the trophy. That was an achievement in itself, but Garson made history in another, more unexpected way that night.
Her acceptance speech remains, to this day, the longest in the history of the Academy Awards. While today’s winners are asked to keep to 45 seconds (although they frequently go beyond, at which point a music cue lets them know it’s time to wrap up), Garson spoke for a comparatively generous seven minutes.
The speech, sadly, wasn’t preserved in full. Even the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, which organises the Oscars each year, says it has newsreel footage of “only portions” of Garson’s address – for a total of three minutes and 56 seconds.
Garson, an English native, devoted part of her speech to her experience as an immigrant. “I came to this country as a stranger five years ago. I’ve been very happy and very proud to be a member of this community and of this industry all that time,” she told the crowd. “And from everybody I met or worked with truly I have received such ready kindness that for quite a long while I couldn’t believe that it was true, but tonight you have made me feel that you have really set the door of your friendship wide open and that welcome is officially on the mat, and that is why I’m so happy.”
The topic was relevant: inMrs Miniver, Garson portrays an English housewife whose life gets deeply affected by the Second World War – not the least when her husband Clem (Walter Pidgeon) volunteers to assist in the Dunkirk evacuation with his own motorboat. The role, The Associated Press noted in its obituary of Garson in 1996, “rallied Americans to support Britain during World War II”.
Garson’s speech also included her reflections on the subjective nature of awards ceremonies. “I’ve always felt that to be nominated simply means that you’ve had the great good luck to be entrusted with one of the best assignments of the current year, and that’s a cause for rejoicing in itself,” she said. “And there isn’t a single good craftsman in this industry who if given such an opportunity can’t be counted on to measure up to it.”
She also wondered why performers “all long to win the award” and posited: “It’s no question of superiority because we’re comparing different excellences and they’re varied in their nature and they can’t be fairly compared. There’s no rivalry in this room tonight. There’s no competition. As the Dodo said to Alice in Wonderland: ‘Everybody has won and everybody shall have a prize.’”
Garson never won another Academy Award, although she was nominated for seven, all in the Best Actress category, over the course of her career. Her first two nominations came beforeMrs Miniver, for Sam Woods’s 1939 romantic drama Goodbye, Mr Chips, and for her turn as children’s rights campaigner Edna Gladney in Mervyn LeRoy’s 1941 biopic Blossoms in the Dust. Four more followed after Mrs Miniver: one for her portrayal of Marie Curie in the 1943 biopic Madame Curie, one for Tay Garnett’s 1944 drama Mrs Parkington, one for Garnett’s 1945 drama The Valley of Decision, and one for her role as Eleanor Roosevelt in Vincent J Donehue’s 1960 biopic Sunrise at Campobello.
Her Best Actress Oscar was destroyed, along with many other belongings, during a fire at her Los Angeles home in the late 1980s. The Academy provided her with a replacement trophy. Her speech has remained unequalled for 78 years, although there’s always the possibility of a new record at this year’s Oscars on 25 April.