In the year of the little movies that could, one of the littlest, "Shakespeare in Love," outfoxed and outcharmed "Saving Private Ryan" at the 71st Academy Awards last night.
"Shakespeare in Love," a high-spirited romantic comedy about the playwright and the woman who may have inspired "Romeo and Juliet," won a total of seven awards, including best picture.
Gwyneth Paltrow tearfully received the Oscar for best actress, thanking everyone from her agent to her parents to her late cousin. Dame Judi Dench won the award for best supporting actress for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth in "Shakespeare in Love." Marc Norman and playwright Tom Stoppard won the Oscar for best original screenplay for their script. The film also received honors in art direction, original musical or comedy score and costumes.
In an excruciatingly long four hours, the 71st Academy Awards offered little by way of excitement during the ceremony at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. What little controversy that was promised failed to materialize, and the program was dominated by a surfeit of gratuitous film-clip programs, most of them maudlin in the extreme.
Even the film industry's most famous Scarlet Pimpernel, the legendary director Terrence Malick, failed to show up. Malick's film, "The Thin Red Line," which marked his return to work after a 20-year absence, was nominated for seven awards but failed to win any.
The controversy over director Elia Kazan's lifetime achievement award was the most hot-button element of a ceremony that didn't deviate from Academy Awards past, from the glittering gowns to bad dance numbers. Kazan, 89, is still under fire for his appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952.
In addition to "Shakespeare in Love," an even littler movie made its considerable mark on the proceedings. "Life Is Beautiful," a bittersweet fable set in a German death camp, received three awards. Roberto Benigni, who wrote, directed and starred in the film, won the Oscar for best actor, upsetting such strong contenders as Nick Nolte and Ian McKellen. "Life Is Beautiful" also won for best foreign film and dramatic score.
"My body is in a tumult," the ebullient Benigni said in his signature broken English upon accepting the acting award. "I would like to lie down in the firmament and make love to everybody." Earlier, the irrepressible Benigni had climbed over the backs of seats to receive the award for best foreign film.
Steven Spielberg won for best director for his searing World War II drama, "Saving Private Ryan." Spielberg won the award in 1993 for "Schindler's List." "Am I allowed to say I really wanted this?" Spielberg said upon receiving the statuette.
After recognizing the Sullivan family, which inspired the story of "Saving Private Ryan," Spielberg addressed his father. "Dad, you're the greatest. Thank you for showing me there is honor in looking back and showing the past. This is for you."
"Saving Private Ryan," which was considered a shoo-in for an Oscar sweep when it opened in theaters last summer, won four more awards, in sound, sound effects editing, film editing and cinematography.
If this year had any suspense at all, it was whether "Shakespeare in Love," a wildly inventive yarn in which the playwright falls in love and as a result writes "Romeo and Juliet," would unseat the bigger-budgeted star vehicle "Saving Private Ryan."
In recent weeks, Miramax Films, the distributor of "Shakespeare in Love" and "Life Is Beautiful," was the target of some grumbling about promotional efforts that some industry observers considered heavy-handed. Miramax was estimated to have spent several million dollars to bring its films to the attention of the 5,557 Academy voters. Most big studios spend a fraction of that sum to promote their movies at Oscar time.
But Miramax wasn't the only boutique company to make its mark. Independents like Gramercy, New Line, Lions Gate and Sony Pictures Classics accounted for 43 of this year's nominations. By contrast, 37 nominees came from big-studio movies.
Indeed, Lions Gate was the company behind "Affliction," for which James Coburn won the Oscar for best leading actor. This was the first time that the 70-year-old Coburn had been nominated for an Academy Award in a career that has spanned more than 50 films.
"I've been doing this work for like over half my life, and I finally got one right, I guess," said the veteran actor, whose films include "Our Man Flint" and "The Magnificent Seven."
"Some of them you do for money, some of them you do for love. This is a love child," Coburn said.
Other winners included "Elizabeth" for best make-up, "What Dreams May Come" for best visual effects, "Bunny" for best animated short film and "Election Night" for best live action short film. "The Last Days," by James Moll and Ken Lipper, won for best documentary feature. "The Personals: Improvisations on Romance in the Golden Years" by Keiko Ibi, won for best documentary short subject.
Bill Condon won the Oscar for best adapted screenplay, for his script for "Gods and Monsters," which he also directed. Stephen Schwartz's "When You Believe," from "The Prince of Egypt," won the Oscar for best original song.
There were few upsets this year, simply because there were no sure things. Most of the nominees were culled from relatively small films, and most of the acting categories were dominated by European actors instead of major American stars.
Whoopi Goldberg was the evening's host and entertained the spirited crowd by dressing up in nominated costumes, even donning a huge gown and whiteface to depict "Elizabeth." She peppered her introductions with ribald jokes and references to last year's political scandal and kept the proceedings casual.
The evening's most controversial element failed to ignite the predicted fireworks. Some Academy members had asked the audience to refrain from clapping when Elia Kazan received a lifetime achievement award.
Kazan, the director of such classic movies as "On the Waterfront," "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "East of Eden," has been vilified for 40 years for his participation in the hearings conducted by the House Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy era. In 1952 he named eight members of the Group Theater who along with him had belonged to the Communist Party in the 1930s.
Only a handful of audience members -- including Ed Harris, Amy Madigan and Nick Nolte -- sat on their hands when Kazan was honored. Nearly everyone else treated the 89-year-old director to a standing ovation. Kazan, who needed a little help making his way to the microphone, was introduced by director Martin Scorsese and actor Robert De Niro, who presented a formidable team, seeming to defy any outburst or protest.
Goldberg had her own take on the Kazan controversy. "I thought the blacklist was Hattie McDaniel and me," she quipped.
In addition to several series of film clips -- honoring movies in general, biographical movies, Frank Sinatra, the Western and the late director Stanley Kubrick respectively -- there was a dance routine that defined a new low in Oscar taste, as scantily-clad dancers performed ill-advised tap-dance interpretations of music from "Elizabeth," "Life Is Beautiful," "Pleasantville," "Saving Private Ryan" and "The Thin Red Line."
The Academy Awards show is Hollywood's biggest and most efficient infomercial, a three-hour spectacle of self-congratulation during which presenters, nominees and winners alike can thump the tub for their new movies -- and all of them are watched breathlessly by one billion viewers around the world.
For winners, the Oscar holds its value as a brand identity. A best picture Oscar can have a significant impact on a movie's box office after the awards: When "The English Patient" won in 1996, box office increased 74 percent.
Even nominations themselves can help. "Saving Private Ryan" had disappeared from most screens by the time its 11 nominations were announced in February. When Dreamworks re-released the film after the nominations were announced, it managed to rake in an additional 26 percent in business. "Shakespeare in Love" experienced a 117 percent increase, or a $10 million boost in business, the week after the nominations were announced.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
Best picture: "Shakespeare in Love"
Actor: Roberto Benigni, "Life Is Beautiful"
Actress: Gwyneth Paltrow, "Shakespeare in Love"
Supporting actor: James Coburn, "Affliction"
Supporting actress: Judi Dench, "Shakespeare in Love"
Director: Steven Spielberg, "Saving Private Ryan"
Foreign film: "Life Is Beautiful," Italy
Screenplay (written directly for the screen): Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, "Shakespeare in Love"
Screenplay (based on material previously produced or published): Bill Condon, "Gods and Monsters"
Art direction: "Shakespeare in Love"
Cinematography: Janusz Kaminski, "Saving Private Ryan"
Sound: "Saving Private Ryan"
Sound effects editing: "Saving Private Ryan"
Original musical or comedy score: "Shakespeare in Love," Stephen Warbeck
Original dramatic score: "Life Is Beautiful," Nicola Piovani
Original song: "When You Believe" from "The Prince of Egypt," Stephen Schwartz
Costume: Sandy Powell, "Shakespeare in Love"
Documentary feature: "The Last Days"
Documentary (short subject): "The Personals: Improvisations on Romance in the Golden Years"
Film editing: "Saving Private Ryan"
Animated short film: "Bunny"
Live action short film: "Election Night (Valgaften)"
Visual effects: "What Dreams May Come"
Oscar winners previously announced this year:
Scientific and technical award (Oscar statuette): Avid Technology Inc.
Thalberg Award: Producer-director Norman F. Jewison
Honorary Award: Director Elia Kazan
Pub Date: 3/22/99