"The English Patient," a passionate story of doomed love played out against the tragedy of World War II, dominated the 69th Annual Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences last night, winning nine awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.
But it was shut out of the two major acting awards, when both its stars, Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas, finished out of the money.
Instead, Geoffrey Rush, the Australian actor who brought dignity and pain to his portrayal of a concert pianist haunted from childhood by mental difficulties, won the Academy Award for "Shine." Rush played David Helfgott, a child prodigy who was so pressured by an overbearing, abusive father he spent many years institutionalized. Upon release, however, he slowly picked up the pieces of his life and rebuilt his career.
And Frances McDormand won for best performance by an actress for her role as Marge Gunderson, chief of police of Brainerd, Minn., who gets to the bottom of a violent crime in the eccentric and violent "Fargo." McDormand used her award acceptance to plea for "more complex roles" for women, based on skill, not marketing. Her remarks received the most hypocritical applause of the night from the audience.
In a stunning early upset, Juliette Binoche received the Oscar for best supporting actress for her role as a nurse who cares for a burned man in "The English Patient." Widespread early predictions had the award going to Lauren Bacall for "The Mirror Has Two Faces."
"I'm so surprised," said Binoche. "I thought Lauren would win. I haven't prepared anything."
Bumbling along, she concluded, "This must be a French dream," as she accepted the award, trumping old pro Bacall. Over a long career stretching back to her co-starring with soon-to-be husband Humphrey Bogart in 1944's "To Have and Have Not," Bacall had never before been nominated.
The cameras carefully studied Bacall as Binoche acknowledged her from the podium, but if they hoped for spite or bitterness, they didn't get it. Bacall, professional through her disappointment, nodded regally when Binoche admitted she thought the older actress deserved the award.
The award was an early indication of the power of "The English Patient," styled by many an "independent film," although it was released by Miramax, a division of Disney, and benefited from an extremely aggressive campaign in the trade magazines.
But it was Cuba Gooding Jr. who showed some moves last night as he won the best supporting actor award for his role as an exuberant pro football player who sticks with his agent in "Jerry Maguire." Gooding, who thanked his wife, God, Tom Cruise and nearly everybody else in the human race, gave Oscar joy a new image when he memorably carried on as speech-ending music urged him off stage.
Billy Bob Thornton won the best screenplay award for material based on another source. His character-driven Arkansas drama "Sling Blade" represented one of the few losses that "The English Patient" suffered. Joel and Ethan Coen won for best original script for the dark yet comic "Fargo."
After the usual soporific piffle from Academy president Arthur Hiller (a smug sentimentalist with enough hair to reforest Mount St. Helens), the Oscar broadcast got off to a brilliant start as Billy Crystal, through advanced technical magic, was inserted ironically into scenes from the five films nominated for best picture.
Playing against the seriousness of the moment, he demanded of Tom Cruise that he explain the plot of "Mission Impossible," and complained to the dying Kristin Scott Thomas, "You, you, you! Everything is about you!" Then David Letterman, in a good-natured cameo teasing his own less-than-stellar success as an Oscar host, dropped out of the sky in "The English Patient's" biplane and crashed right at Crystal's feet.
Then the wondrous Crystal exploded out of the screen in the flesh and delivered a spiffy monologue, comparing the world now to the world the last time he was the host of the Oscar show a few years back. "There was war in Bosnia and peace in rap music," he said to nervous laughter. Then, not pausing an expertly gauged second, he said, "It was so long ago I thought Bruno Magli starred in 'Il Postino.' "
The show was not entirely up to this level, however; it never is. Lesser notes were sounded by less than dazzling production numbers and visual pyrotechnics, including a long, apparently purposeless montage of movies about "going to the movies."
A dreary rendition of one of the nominated songs, from "That Thing That You Do!" was so amateurish it reminded some viewers of the old "Hullaballoo" show from the late '60s. And what was with that endless tribute to Shakespeare, which merely proved that John Wayne had more screen presence than Kenneth Branagh?
On the other hand, failed movie stars Chris Farley and David Spade brought some badly needed energy to the presentation of live action and animated shorts. Representing themselves as misfits, they wondered if Jeremy Irons were doing comedy at the Improv while Daniel Day-Lewis was at a fat farm.
Stuart Craig won the first award for "The English Patient" for art direction, which was rapidly followed by another Oscar for costume design for that film, making -- with Binoche -- a total of three before 10 p.m.
In the feature documentary category, "When We Were Kings," Leon Gast's account of the famous "Rumble in the Jungle" in Zaire in 1974, won the award, but the big news wasn't Gast or producer Steven Sonenberg's congenial thanks, but a long, ceremonial walk to the podium by the film's antagonists, Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, who received the most heartfelt applause of the night.
A hug between them might have been the sentimentally appropriate gesture, but the two old warriors stayed out of each other's space and never exchanged even a remote intimacy. Ali, tragically, seemed not quite to know where he was; Foreman, to his credit, did not intrude on the moment and stayed in the background.
Another "When We Were Kings" style moment took place when David Helfgott, subject of "Shine" and now world famous for his mental difficulties, came out to play a snatch of "Flight of the Bumblebee." Muttering to himself, he nevertheless attacked the piece with gusto to the glee of the billion people watching around the world.
Technical difficulties made Crystal's introduction of Jim Carrey unintelligible. But Carrey had a few moments of vivid bad taste as he gently prodded the technology of posthumous montage of old stars into TV ads; then he wondered what would happen to him after he died, and the results set new highs and new lows in a couple of categories. That award, for special effects, went to "Independence Day," the alien-invasion summer hit that was otherwise unrepresented in the award ceremony.
Chris O'Donnell (boring), most famous as Robin in the Batman films (boring), awarded the sound award to "The English Patient" (boring). That award, however, provided the one Maryland touch, after Columbian Ed Norton and Cumberlandian William Macy were passed over in best supporting actor: sound editor Walter Murch, of the "English Patient" team, is a Johns Hopkins grad from the mid-'60s.
A minute later, after a rousing dance number performed by Lord of the Dance allegedly representing "film editing" (much more interesting than the images on screen), Murch received his second Oscar of the night, for editing "The English Patient."
John Seale won the cinematography award for "The English Patient" which continued to roll along.
The Czech Republic film "Kolya" won the best foreign language film while the much ballyhooed but ultimately failed "Evita" picked up its first Oscar for best song. Andrew Lloyd Webber -- who cracked "Thank God 'The English Patient' didn't have a song" -- and Tim Rice were the recipients.
The show was something of a setback compared to recent editions. This one was still plugging along past the half-hour over mark, as Saul Zaentz, "The English Patient's" producer, mumbled through an uninspired speech.
After that, the great Crystal cracked, "And stay tuned for 'Good Morning America.' "
He wasn't far wrong.
Here are the winners of the 69th annual Academy Awards given last night:
Best picture: "The English Patient"
Actor: Geoffrey Rush, "Shine"
Actress: Frances McDormand, "Fargo"
Supporting actor: Cuba Gooding Jr., "Jerry Maguire"
Supporting actress: Juliette Binoche, "The English Patient"
Director: Anthony Minghella, "The English Patient"
Foreign film: "Kolya," Czech Republic
Screenplay (written directly for the screen): Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, "Fargo"
Screenplay (based on material previously produced or published): Billy Bob Thornton, "Sling Blade"
Art direction: Stuart Craig and Stephenie McMillan, "The English Patient"
Cinematography: John Seale, "The English Patient"
Sound: "The English Patient"
Sound effects editing: Bruce Stambler, "The Ghost and the Darkness"
Original musical or comedy score: Rachel Portman, "Emma"
Original dramatic score: Gabriel Yared, "The English Patient"
Original song: "You Must Love Me" from "Evita," Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice
Costume: Ann Roth, "The English Patient"
Documentary feature: "When We Were Kings"
Documentary (short subject): "Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien"
Film editing: Walter Murch, "The English Patient"
Makeup: David Leroy Anderson and Rick Baker, "The Nutty Professor"
Animated short films: "Quest"
Live action short film: "Dear Diary"
Visual effects: "Independence Day"
Scientific and technical Oscar: Imax Corp. for its large-format movies
Honorary award: Choreographer Michael Kidd
Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award: Producer Saul Zaentz
Pub Date: 3/25/97