A 'Beauty' of an Evening; Awards: But, as usual, the Oscar telecast dragged on endlessly while 'American Beauty' was picking up its five awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Kevin Spacey and Best Director.


The Oscar race had no clear favorites, but in the end it belonged to "American Beauty."

A darkly satiric look at suburbia, sex and self-discovery, "American Beauty" won five Oscars at last night's 72nd annual Academy Awards telecast, including best picture, best director and cinematography. Kevin Spacey, who played a man going through a mid-life catharsis in the film, won the Oscar for best actor. It was the second Academy Award for Spacey, who won in 1996 for his supporting role in "The Usual Suspects."

Although the Oscar telecast's producers had promised a leaner, meaner show, this year's program dragged, drooped and droned on. As usual, Billy Crystal proved to be a witty and nimble telecast host, but the show was dragged down by a plethora of montage sequences, one of which represented filmmakers' depiction of history through the past 2 million years -- and which itself seemed to last that long.

Even with the much-maligned dance numbers cut, this year's Oscars show moved at a glacial pace, with presenters and winners behaving with such dignity they were almost starchy. Even with such class acts as Burt Bacharach, Don Was and Peter Coyote making contributions to the show, the evening never caught fire.

The only moment that could qualify as an upset came nearly four hours into the show, when Hilary Swank won the Oscar for best actress. Swank beat out such veterans as Annette Bening and Meryl Streep. Swank won for her portrayal of a young woman trying to pass as a man in "Boys Don't Cry," based on the true story of Brandon Teena, who was raped and murdered in 1993.

After thanking the usual flotilla of producers, agents, acting coaches and publicists, Swank thanked Teena, adding, "I pray for the day when we not only accept our differences but celebrate our diversity."

None of the acting categories were sure things, although no one was surprised when Michael Caine, who played a forward-thinking doctor in "The Cider House Rules," won the Oscar for best supporting actor. It was the second time for Caine, who won a supporting actor Oscar in 1986 for his role in Woody Allen's "Hannah and Her Sisters."

"I'm basically up here, guys, to represent you as what I hope you will all be -- a survivor," Caine told his fellow nominees: Tom Cruise, Michael Clarke Duncan, Jude Law and Haley Joel Osment.

Baltimore filmmakers Susan Hannah Hadary and William A. Whiteford won the Academy Award for best documentary short subject for "King Gimp," their film about Dan Keplinger, an artist who has cerebral palsy. "We have followed Dan Keplinger for 13 years," Hadary said upon receiving the award. "And he's an amazing spirit in a body that society may not have included. But tonight he is included." Hadary also thanked the University of Maryland, where she and Whiteford make training films for the medical school.

The novelist John Irving won the Oscar for best adapted screenplay, for his script for "The Cider House Rules," based on his own novel. The award was a vindication for Irving, whose book went through three directors before finding a home with Lasse Hallstrom.

As expected, much sport was made of some recent travails suffered by the Oscars, starting earlier this month, when 4,000 ballots turned up missing and ending last week, when 52 stolen statuettes were discovered by a salvage man looking for scrap metal in a Los Angeles alley. The man who found the missing Oscars, Willie Fulgear, received a $50,000 reward and was invited to last night's ceremony, where he was introduced by Crystal.

"Willie got $50,000 for finding the 52 Oscars. That's not a lot of money when you realize that Miramax and DreamWorks are spending millions of dollars just to get one," Crystal quipped.

The evening's high point came when Robin Williams performed a slightly Bowdlerized version of "Blame Canada," a song from the satirical animated feature "South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut." Williams delivered a characteristically antic rendition of the ditty, ending arm-in-arm with what can only be described as the Royal Canadian Mounted Rockettes.

Despite his best efforts, though, "Blame Canada" failed to win an Oscar for best original song: That honor went to Phil Collins for "You'll Be in My Heart," from "Tarzan."

"Topsy-Turvy," Mike Leigh's delirious homage to Gilbert and Sullivan and their light operettas, had won two Oscars, for best costumes and makeup. "The Matrix," a futuristic cyber-thriller that combined computer-game imagery and Eastern martial arts, took home four major technical awards: best sound, sound effect editing, film editing and visual effects.

Pedro Almodovar won the Oscar for best foreign language film for "All About My Mother," his popular and critically acclaimed feature about a group of women sorting out their roles in contemporary Spain.

Composer John Corigliano won for his haunting score for "The Red Violin," a multi-layered mystery story involving a violin's journey through the hands of different musicians and musical eras.

Jane Fonda presented an honorary Oscar to Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda ("Land of Promise," "Man of Iron") in recognition of a career that began in 1954 and flourished through decades of political repression, government censorship and cultural upheaval. Wajda, who spoke in Polish, thanked "the American friends of Poland and my compatriots for helping my country to ... rejoin Western civilization."

Warren Beatty received the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, in honor of a 45-year career during which he has been nominated for 14 Oscars, for acting, writing, directing and producing. Beatty's longtime confrere Jack Nicholson presented Beatty with the award, quipping that "because of the dignity of the occasion, Miss Bening's delicate condition and the age of the recipient, there will be no sex jokes." (Beatty's wife, the actress Annette Bening, was nine months pregnant at this year's ceremony.)

First-time Oscars producers Richard and Lili Fini Zanuck proudly announced that they would make this year's show a leaner, meaner production. They promised to cut out those moments when they -- and, presumably, the rest of us -- have always chosen to take a bathroom break, bringing the show in at three hours and 15 minutes, tops.

Better luck next year: the program clocked in at just over four hours.

Cutting those tortured dance numbers was a good start, but they chose undo their good work by inserting a numbing number of montage sequences, from the usual obituary reel to a tribute to child actors and a yawn-inspiring medley of songs from the movies.

"Kill the dance numbers" was a perfectly good idea, but perhaps next year's mantra should be, "And your montage, too."

Oscar winners

Oscar winners at last night's 72nd annual Academy Awards were:

Best Picture: "American Beauty"

Director: Sam Mendes, "American Beauty"

Actor: Kevin Spacey, "American Beauty"

Actress: Hilary Swank, "Boys Don't Cry"

Screenplay (written from material previously produced or published): John Irving, "The Cider House Rules"

Screenplay (written directly for the screen): Alan Ball, "American Beauty"

Supporting Actor: Michael Caine, "The Cider House Rules"

Supporting Actress: Angelina Jolie, "Girl, Interrupted"

Foreign Film: "All About My Mother,"

Spain Cinematography: "American Beauty"

Art Direction: "Sleepy Hollow"

Sound: "The Matrix"

Sound Effects Editing: "The Matrix"

Original Score: "The Red Violin"

John Corigliano Original Song: "You'll Be in My Heart" from "Tarzan," Phil Collins

Film Editing: "The Matrix"

Costume: "Topsy-Turvy"

Documentary (Feature): "One Day in September"

Documentary (Short subject): "King Gimp"

Makeup: "Topsy-Turvy"

Animated Short Film: "The Old Man and the Sea"

Live Action Short Film: "My Mother Dreams the Satan's Disciples In New York"

Visual Effects: "The Matrix"

Oscar winners previously announced this year -- Gordon E. Sawyer Award: Dr. Roderick T. Ryan; Irving Thalberg Memorial Award: Warren Beatty; Honorary Award: Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda

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