Cutting Off Long Oscar Speeches: In Defense Of The Conductor

Feb 26, 2012
Originally published on February 29, 2012 9:20 am

That song they play when a winner goes on too long at the Oscars? It has a name.

It's called "Too Long." Okay, not a creative name, but a name. Every conductor has a name for the get-off-the-stage music, and "Too Long" belongs to Bill Ross, who conducted the orchestra at last year's ceremony. And Bill wants you to know, it's not his call to interrupt speakers in what is possibly the best moment of their lives.

"It's the director of the show," Ross says. "The producer of the show. When I did the show the first time, that's one of the things my kids asked me about. 'Don't play 'em off, dad. Let 'em stay up there longer!' And I'm thinking, 'oh my.' That's the confusion. People think it's the guy with the baton who's making that call. And I assure you it's not."

And really, music is a pretty polite way to end a speech. Consider how they did it in 1956, when Dorothy Malone won Best Supporting Actress. Says historian Jim Piazza, "She went on for five minutes. And nothing they could do could stop her. And finally Jerry Lewis rushed out and took out his pocket watch and swung it in front of her face. And that was her cutoff."

So Sunday night, when the piano starts noodling and forcing some poor actress or director or sound mixer off the stage, don't blame the conductor. He's just doing his part to help keep the Oscars the short, fast-moving, seven-to-eight-hour ceremony it's meant to be.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

No matter who wins an Oscar tonight, undoubtedly at least one acceptance speech will go on too long, and the orchestra will get its cue - as Cuba Gooding Jr. found out the hard way back in 1997, after winning Best Supporting Actor for his role in the film "Jerry Maguire."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

CUBA GOODING JR.: And God, I love you. Hallelujah. Thank you, Father God, for putting me through what you put me through. But I'm here and I'm happy.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GOODING: I just want to...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GOODING: ...oh, here we go. OK. Studio, I love you. And Cameron Crowe and...

MARTIN: Getting played off the stage is by now an Oscar tradition. Ian Chillag and Mike Danforth, of NPR's "How to Do Everything" podcast, explain just how it works.

MIKE DANFORTH, BYLINE: Just so you can keep us straight, I'm Mike.

IAN CHILLAG, BYLINE: And I'm Ian. Now, everybody always wants to blame the conductor for playing the winners off.

DANFORTH: You may remember Julia Roberts even got mad at it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

JULIA ROBERTS: And sir, you're doing a great job, but you're so quick with that stick. So why don't you sit 'cause I may never be here again.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CHILLAG: Here's the thing: It's not the conductor's fault.

BILL ROSS: It's not the music director that's making that call.

DANFORTH: That's Bill Ross. He was the music director at last year's Oscars.

ROSS: It's the director of the show, the producer of the show. People think that it's the music director or the guy with the baton that's making this call, and I can assure you it's not.

CHILLAG: Every conductor has their own special song they use for this purpose. In Bill Ross' case...

ROSS: It's literally called "Too Long," and it's always sitting there on the stand. And it's very simple.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHILLAG: The song "Too Long" is specifically orchestrated to make it harder and harder to talk over.

DANFORTH: So Bill, let's try this: We'll play a speech, and you kind of tell us what's going on in your headset, and in the pit, as the speaker's talking.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation conceived in liberty.

ROSS: All right, let's get ready to play this guy off. OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSS: Piano plays; it's playing. It's slowly getting a little bit louder. And then on cue, I'll bring in the strings. So, they start to build. We're getting more and more volume. Hopefully, they're getting the message. And then at a certain point, the brass come in. And it's orchestrated big and rich, and hard to talk through. Hopefully, by then, they've wrapped up their speech, and they're gone.

CHILLAG: If they fail to get the speaker off the stage, they dim the lights...

DANFORTH: ...they'll cut your mic...

CHILLAG: ...and go to commercial.

DANFORTH: They won't, however, tase you.

CHILLAG: Yeah, we asked.

DANFORTH: But before the orchestra became the established way of getting people off stage, they had other ways of doing it.

CHILLAG: Here's historian Jim Piazza talking about the 1956 Oscars, when Dorothy Malone won Best Supporting Actress.

JIM PIAZZA: She went on for five minutes and something, and nothing they could do could stop her. And finally, Jerry Lewis rushed out and took out his pocket watch and just swung it in front of her face. And that was her cutoff.

DANFORTH: Even though music is probably more polite than Jerry Lewis, the conductors still feel terrible about it.

CHILLAG: Bill, last year you played off Colleen Atwood, who won Best Costume Design for her work on "Alice in Wonderland." We can forward on a message. Anything you want to say to her?

ROSS: Colleen, I'm so sorry. As far as I'm concerned, you can stand out there and talk as long as you want.

DANFORTH: Hey, Colleen, does that help?

COLLEEN ATWOOD: Oh, that is very kind of him. I should thank Bill for that apology and - with all of the understanding of a fellow person behind the scenes.

CHILLAG: Remember, when you're watching tonight, it's not the conductor's fault.

DANFORTH: No, it's the director.

CHILLAG: Yeah, blame him.

DANFORTH: For NPR, I'm Mike Danforth.

CHILLAG: And I'm Ian Chillag.

MARTIN: Ian and Mike will be live-blogging the Oscars' red carpet with some of the other good folks from WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME! It's billed as style commentary from people who have none. Tonight, at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.