Friday, May 19, 2017

Famous Speech Friday: Patty Duke's 1970 Emmy Awards Acceptance Speech

When Patty Duke won an Oscar in 1962 for her portrayal of Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker, the 16-year old gave one of the shortest acceptance speeches ever: "Thank you." Seven years later, she won an Emmy for her work in the television movie My Sweet Charlie. Her acceptance speech for that award was also memorable--for all the wrong reasons. 

Watch the video--only a few minutes long--and you'll see why the audience and presenters were taken aback. The speech is really just one long pause, punctuated by some spacey half-sentences, as she surveys the theater with wary eyes as if she is afraid of someone pulling her offstage. It's uncomfortable and embarrassing to watch. News stories speculated that she was drunk or on drugs when she took the stage that night.

"The truth of the matter is that my condition had nothing to do with drugs or alcohol," Duke said in an interview 20 years later. "I was having a serious emotional breakdown. Unlike most people in trouble who fall apart in the privacy of their bedrooms, I fell apart on network television."

Duke had been ill for years at that point, but her disease went unnamed. She recalled weeks where she couldn't stop crying and never left her bed, followed by weeks where she went on outrageous spending sprees and acted like "queen of the world." She had not slept for three weeks before the Emmy broadcast. Finally, in 1982 she saw a psychiatrist who diagnosed her with bipolar disorder (then called manic depression) and began the lithium treatments that probably saved her life.

The 1970 Emmy speech was a disaster, so why feature it here? There's not much in the speech itself for a speaker to learn from or emulate, that's for sure. But it does remind us of a few things:
  • A famous speech isn't always a good speech. We've featured speeches in this space that aren't well-written or delivered, or positively received. But like those speeches, Duke's few words certainly meet our standards for a speech that garnered a wide audience and made a strong public impact.
  • A bad speech isn't the end of the world. Duke said that the 1970 Emmys were the first time that the public might have noticed "a chink in the armor," and she was frightened that she would lose work as a result of the bizarre performance. But she continued to act, receiving two more Emmy awards and two Golden Globe awards later in her career. After she was finally treated for her disease, she went on to become a vocal advocate for mental health and was even elected president of the Screen Actors Guild.
  • Some speeches serve as the opening salvo of a longer conversation. I think it's possible to view Duke's halting, stumbling, painful words at the Emmys as the first lines of a much longer speech she gave for the rest of her life, after her diagnosis. She was one of the first celebrities to go public with her own struggles with mental illness. She was candid in discussing how the disease made her behave, how she attempted to cope with it, and what the fallout had been for her personal and professional life. In the second half of her career, she spoke out often about efforts to diagnose mental illness and to remove the stigma from mental illness so that people would seek treatment. She spoke on behalf of the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Alliance on Mental Illness, discussed bipolar disorder in countless interviews and even testified before Congress on the topic. Her Emmy acceptance might have been a disastrous start, but it led to a lifetime of speaking that has made a difference in the lives of many.
Duke died in 2016 at age 69. Watch the short video of this famous speech here or below:

Patty Duke Wins Oustanding Single Performance Emmy for MY SWEET CHARLIE | Emmys Archive (1970)

(Freelance writer Becky Ham contributed this Famous Speech Friday.)

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