Muse through the Years: 2003 Honoree Emma Thompson

By Katie Chambers

NYWIFT’s annual Muse Awards – now entering its 36th year – has honored an incredible group of women of vision and achievement and is a highlight of the New York entertainment industry’s holiday calendar. From our very first, film critic Pauline Kael in 1980, to last year’s group including Gabourey Sidibe, Patricia Clarkson and Marvel’s Victoria Alonso, the Muse honorees’ speeches always light up the room with warmth, inspiration…and often some laughs.

The 2003 Muse Awards in particular stand out in NYWIFT lore. That was the year we honored the great Emma Thompson who, sadly, got sick and was unable to travel from England. But thank goodness for pinch hitter Meryl Streep, who happily stepped in to accept the award on Emma’s behalf! (A past Muse honoree herself, Meryl later went on to fund our Writers Lab. Needless to say, we’re pretty big fans!) When Meryl’s car got stuck in traffic on the way to the midtown Hilton she did what any native New Yorker would do, glamorous Oscar winner or not: she hopped out of her limo and got on the subway to make it to Muse right on time. Meryl brought down the house with her speech and Emma herself made a surprise appearance – clad in her PJs – via video as well.

Emma Thompson’s 2003 Muse Awards acceptance speech is one of our very favorites. Here it is in full:

I asked my friend Lindsay Doran, who produced Sense and Sensibility, about Women in Film and she said she was at the early meets, when it was 15 bucks a plate and she remembered Jane Fonda turning up in a Volkswagon Rabbit and saying, “Well, a few years ago you’d be on a set and there was literally no one that you could ask for a tampon and that has certainly changed.” All I can say is that when I made a trip to New York and LA earlier this year, I was scheduled to meet powerful agents, studio executives, studio heads and so forth and almost every single person I met was female. So that’s changed too and will go on changing, undoubtedly.

So, in the face of a great deal of success for women in this industry, I thought I’d talk about failure, because I don’t think it has a very good name for itself and it needs some rehabilitation. My father, who was my writing muse, watched me failing to produce a decent hemline on the seam of a very nasty brown corduroy skirt, which I was being forced to make in a Domestic Science lesson. I gave up and in the end he said, “Em, if you can’t fail, you can’t do anything.” I still believe he’s right and so here are three examples of failure that I think taught me very good things.

The first is a failure that was disguised, at the time, as a success and it was my entrance interview at Oxford University during which I succeeded brilliantly in convincing the odd man in the lemon suit who was interrogating me that I was very interested in the theatre and would of course throw myself body and soul into the Oxford University Dramatic Societynot realizing that the one thing the man in the lemon suit wanted less in his nice college than a woman, was an actress. To thine own self be true is, of course, important, but make sure thou also knowest thine audience.

My next example is what I call “power-cut” failure, and this is when you begin something, realize that you’re failing and in consequence, lose the will to proceed. Whoopi [Goldberg, fellow Muse honoree] will identify with this: I was doing ten minute stand-up comedy on Nelson’s Column during the 1984 campaign for nuclear disarmament rally when the “power-cut” failure happened. My first joke about herpes and Margaret Thatcher, who were both big at the time, died a terrible nuclear winter of a death but I was standing on Nelson’s Column and couldn’t get off—so I carried on to stony silence and then had to walk through the crowd of 64,000 people, all of whom hated me deeply. It was a terrible journey and I can give you a single piece of categorical advice from it, which is never ever try to do stand up comedy at a political rally.

My last example of failure is a truly huge, crushing and abject one.

I wrote a comedy series for the BBC, which when aired, got the worst reviews for anything I have seen or heard of since. Remarks like, “sick-making rubbishwhoever it was at the BBC who decided to pay her for this should be fired immediately.” One reviewer even went so far as to suggest that questions about BBC’s sanity be asked in the House of Commons.

This dreadful failure has aired at 3 AM for a few nights in Los Angeles and luckily my friend Lindsay Doran was a great failure at sleeping and she happened to be up one night, caught an episode of it and thought, “mmm…that sketch was quite funny. I wonder if she likes Jane Austen?”

You get my point.

Failure can be the start of it all, the end of your problems, the very stuff that dreams are made of.

So don’t knock it.

My love to you all and my gratitude forever and a day.

The 2016 Muse Awards are sure to bring even more inspiring speeches – don’t miss out! Join us on December 8th at the New York Midtown Hilton as we honor actors Mary-Louise Parker, Martha Plimpton and Debi Mazar; Bloomberg Media COO Jacki Kelley; Firelight Media President Marcia Smith; and Democrarcy Now! Host and Producer Amy Goodman. Buy tickets while you can!

Can’t be there? We’ll live tweet it. Stay tuned to #nywiftmuse for a play-by-play on December 8th.

Advertisements