When James Franco won a Golden Globe award on Sunday for his performance in The Disaster Artist, he brought several crucial props with him to the stage. Flanking him were his younger brother and co-star, Dave Franco, and Tommy Wiseau, the filmmaker he played in the movie and playfully—or not so playfully?—blocked from addressing the room. Due to the surprisingly controversial Wiseau maneuver, you may have missed Franco’s third accessory (and second faux pas): He read off his phone.
Reading remarks off a phone, the cultural script goes, is tacky. I’ve been personally admonished for reading a wedding toast off of one. Everyone knows the ideal acceptance speech tableau is a shiny statue in one hand, with the other free to gesticulate wildly. When you think of the great award speeches of yore, none of them involve phones. When Sally Field did not actually say, “You like me, you really like me,” did she need a phone in her hand? Nope. What about when Halle Berry wept and said, “This moment is so much bigger than me,” did she? Not a chance. Matthew “All Right, All Right, All Right” McConaughey? No way, no way, no way.
OK, so Field and Berry, accepting their statues in 1985 and 2002, didn’t have the option of toting an iPhone onstage. But even in the last five years, as smartphones have become inescapable, they’ve rarely graced the podium. Perhaps in a nod to tradition and the perceived seriousness of the lavish awards ceremony occasion, the vast majority of award winners opt to forego audio/visual aids. This is a shame, because when done right, using a phone as a prop can be totally charming, a technological intrusion that paradoxically offers a humanizing touch. Even if you found Franco obnoxious, the smartphone acceptance speech need not be.
Not fully preparing for a speech is only careless when you know with 100 percent certainty you’re going to be giving one. When there’s a good chance you might not win and you’re afraid of jinxing yourself, there’s a case to be made for half-assed preparation. And jotting down some notes on your phone is the ultimate kind of half-assed prep. Meanwhile, most of our other biases against the smartphone-as-speech lectern are preconceived and half-baked. It’s true that reading a speech word for word off a smartphone has the potential be totally boring, a parade of agents’, managers’, and lawyers’ names. But the thing about entertainers is that they have a knack for entertaining—they have much more riding on not being boring than we do. Plus, a lot of our circumspection toward the ubiquity of smartphone use is actually just a bias against the millennial entitlement and shallowness it’s often associated with—that is to say, the most socially acceptable form of knee-jerk Ludditism. When it comes to the potential of a smartphone speech, that thinking is off the mark.
The awards show acceptance speech is a genre unto itself, and adding a phone as a prop only makes it more fascinating. Holding a smartphone complicates the already complex negotiation stars are trying to pull off with their speeches, one where they’re trying to balance graciousness and surprise with ambition and their own egos. Should they prepare something, or should they not? Should they try to be emotional, funny, businesslike? Their attempts to use their phones to accept awards become one more window into the weird, anxious award-show psyches of stars. In a time when all of our psyches, famous or not, have digital spillover, it becomes one more consideration: Should they act like we don’t all carry around tiny computers with us everywhere when we totally do?
Quvenzhané Wallis was an early adopter of the speech-via-phone in 2013, when she accepted a Critics’ Choice Award for Best Young Performer. “Thanks. Hello. First, I would like to thank God for all of my blessings,” she announced, haltingly and preciously, sounding exactly like a precocious 9-year-old who is attempting to sound like a grown-up. It probably would have been just as cute if she read off a sheet of paper, but the Barbie-pink smartphone cover enhanced the spectacle and lent it a modern flavor, reminding us that here was the kind of actual human girl, who, well, owns a Barbie-pink smartphone cover.
You could say similar things about Tatiana Maslany’s 2016 Emmys speech: That the Orphan Black star was holding a cellphone throughout only made her seem more adorably flustered. Unlike a James Franco, who can stash his phone is his jacket, Maslany was wearing a couture gown that probably didn’t allow for normal undergarments, much less pockets, so it’s a wonder she had the wherewithal, while visibly surprised, to crouch down and grab her phone before dashing to the stage. As she walks up the steps you can see her quickly unlocking it, and if that isn’t a “Stars! They’re just like us” moment, I don’t know what is. “I should have had this written down” she sings by way of opening, swiping to the screen she needs as the audience nods along, having totally been there. If you’re looking for a candid, humanity-exposing celebrity moment, the phone doesn’t so much interfere as magnify. It helps that instead of staring down at it and reading off it, Maslany mostly speaks off the top of her head, realizing in the moment that a tiny screen is not much help when she has mere seconds and millions of people are watching. And happily, it turns out a hand holding a phone is just as free to gesture wildly as an empty one. At one point, Maslany holds the phone to her heart, and it’s a pretty perfect metaphor for how technology can fit into our lives, mediating our communications and feelings without fundamentally changing them.
When Ruthie Ann Miles won a Tony in 2015, she acknowledged the novelty of reading off her phone by turning it toward the camera and noting, deadpan, “Please recycle.” Did she ever think, when dreaming as a child of winning the biggest prize in theater, that those would be her first words at the podium? Her speech is no less heartfelt than any of the ones that aired that night for the apparent litany of people to thank hiding inside her cellphone. Watching her, you almost forget the phone is there; it seems like a neutral object, just an extension of herself. She ends the speech holding her phone to her heart, too.
Actors aren’t the only ones who read off their phones. Lorde began a 2014 speech at the Billboard Music Awards, “Actually, this is kind of embarrassing, but I’ve written what I wanted to say on my phone because I really don’t want to screw it up.” (That year, instead of opening envelopes, the award presenters opened cellphone cases to reveal screens set to the winners’ names, a gesture that seemed more aimed toward promoting cutting-edge-in-2014 phones than anything else.) Back when Fifth Harmony still had five members, the group won collaboration of the year at the 2016 American Music Awards, and Dinah Jane Hansen brought her phone onstage to read from it, forever distinguishing her in my mind as “the member of Fifth Harmony who brought her phone onstage with her.”
People who like awards shows live for the way they reveal the cracks of vulnerability and humanity that shine through the façades of their favorite stars. Watching a phone-abetted speech, surprisingly, only does this moreso. I can’t help but wonder what programs these stars are reading from. The Notes app? Texts they sent themselves?? A picture of a hand-written note??? I hope they remembered to turn on airplane mode! So while it’s hard to imagine a star accepting an Oscar while thumbing on a touchscreen, if it ever happens, I have faith the winner in question will be able to make the speech his or her own. Imagine it: I’d like to thank—hold on, one sec, gotta scroll down … ah, there it is—the Academy.
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