Friday, July 7, 2017

Famous Speech Friday: Bette Midler at the 2017 Tony Awards

Bette Midler, currently starring in the revival of the musical play "Hello, Dolly!" on Broadway, is what they call a triple threat: She can sing, dance, and act. And on the heels of her moment of triumph at the 2017 Tony Awards, having won the award for best leading actress in a musical, host Kevin Spacey reached for joke material from one of the oldest myths in the book about women in public speaking: That they talk too much.

Midler, like many a top-winning actor whose prize comes at the height of the Tony Awards show, didn't feel compelled to stick to the 90-second limit imposed this year on acceptance speeches. She did a fulsome three paragraphs of thanks, working without notes to name-check many people involved in the enormous cast of her sold-out show. And just before she got to the windup of her speech, the band tried to drown her out, cleverly using Irving Berlin's "There's No Business Like Show Business," in the part of the song where the lyrics say "Let's go on with the show!"

Midler was having none of it. She surfed the music, continuing her delivery. Finally, realizing the music wasn't going to stop, she interrupted herself, getting cheers from the audience in the hall:
And I just want to say, I want to say, revival...shut that crap off!
Then she continued past the thanks to make the core point of her speech, sans music. It's a good one, worth hearing:
I just want to say that revival is an interesting word. It means that something is near death, and it was brought back to life. Hello, Dolly! never really went away. It has been here all along. It is in our DNA, it is in our national songs that will live forever. It is optimism, it is democracy, it's color, it's love of life, it's hilarity. This is a classic. Come and see it. It's not just me! The whole thing is utterly... this thing has the ability to lift your spirits in these terrible, terrible times. Come and see it.  
And lastly, I want to dedicate this, I want to salute the people who actually came before me. The brilliant, brilliant inimitable Carol Channing, who made my life, who was a gift to me. The extraordinary Pearl Bailey, and all of the hundreds of women who came after me and who lit the way, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Thank you all.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, along with her thanks paragraphs, took up just 4 minutes and 10 seconds. Not a crisis in television, nor in public speaking.

In one of his next turns as host, actor Kevin Spacey came onstage with actor Robin Wright, dressed as their characters from the Netflix series House of Cards: President Frank Underwood and First Lady Claire Underwood. In the very short bit, he tells his wife they should leave, and then adds, "I want to get out of here before Bette Midler thanks anyone else." And tellingly, Wright said nothing while onstage, a silent wife witness. See it in the video below:

What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Sometimes, you need to hold your ground as a speaker: Midler's show is sold out for months to come, and, as such, it's a major money-maker for the industry. She won one of the top prizes of the evening. Her cast and crew are enormous, among the largest on Broadway. No apology need be made for wishing to thank them amply and make a larger point, as the best speeches do. And I doubt a man would be shamed in such a way for speaking too long.
  • Make that larger point: Midler took a musical that's set as the 19th century gives way to the 20th, and brought it all the way forward to today with her closing remarks, reminding the audience why Broadway works: "Hello, Dolly! never really went away. It has been here all along. It is in our DNA, it is in our national songs that will live forever. It is optimism, it is democracy, it's color, it's love of life, it's hilarity."
  • Her thanks were a tour de force: Many actors thank a few people well, and many more thank many people poorly. But listen to Midler work her way with relative ease through her long list of thanks. *That* is a bravura performance, and one her work partners surely appreciate.
I love you, Kevin Spacey, and I figure you had that joke set up with a blank where you put Bette Midler up for shame. Next time, think harder. I expect better from you, especially on a night when the rest of your hosting was outstanding.

Watch the video of Midler's speech here or below.

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