Spielberg, Shakespeare and La Bella Vita
- By Arthur Spiegelman
- Mar. 23 1999 00:00
LOS ANGELES -- "Private Ryan" won a battle but Shakespeare won the war at Sunday's Oscars. In a night of upsets, the biggest came when "Shakespeare in Love" beat Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" for best picture just minutes after Spielberg was named the year's best director.
It was only the 17th time in the Oscar's 71 years that the two prizes did not go to the same film. But there were other shocks in the four-hour and two-minute telecast that seemed longer than usual on memories of things past - from tributes to actors who played World War II warriors to bringing a horse on stage so that Hollywood could tip its cap to cowboy stars.
The biggest shock after the best picture triumph of "Shakespeare in Love" was Italian Roberto Benigni's victory as the year's best actor. Benigni, the director, co-author and star of "Life is Beautiful," also won for best foreign film.
Benigni became the first performer in a foreign language film to win the best actor award and he did it 38 years after actress Sophia Loren made history by winning best actress for her role in the Italian film "Two Women."
The comedian could not be contained. He stood on chairs, dived into the crowd, kissed and hugged every one in sight, declared that his body was doing strange things, embraced Loren, who gave him one of his awards, and uttered a nonstop stream of fractured English that needed subtitles. By the time he came to the podium to accept his second award, he complained, "This is a terrible mistake because I used up all my English ... Grazie all'Italia. Grazie all'America."
Gwyneth Paltrow, the love interest in "Shakespeare in Love" was named best actress, becoming overnight a major Hollywood star at the tender age of 25.
"Ryan" was the favorite for best picture, its chances boosted earlier this month when it won the top motion picture award from the Producers Guild of America.
But Miramax, which made "Shakespeare in Love," helped its chances and created controversy by spending more than $2 million in advertisements targeted at Academy Awards voters.
Harvey Weinstein, the head of Miramax, told reporters afterward that he had heard that "Ryan's" makers had spent more, but he did not regret spending money to support his films. "All's well that ends well," he said, quoting Shakespeare. Asked if the Academy should place a limit on the amount of money companies spend, he said, "I'm for it."
"Life Is Beautiful", portraying a Jewish father trying to shield his son from the horrors of a Nazi death camp, has won many international awards and also provoked controversy since the film's theme was that the human spirit could triumph in a place like Auschwitz.
Another Holocaust film, "The Last Days," was named best documentary. It is about five people who survived the Holocaust in Hungary.
Two veteran actors, James Coburn and Britain's Dame Judi Dench, won first-time Oscars for their supporting roles in two critically acclaimed films.
Coburn, 70, won the Oscar for best supporting actor for his role as the abusive, unforgiving father in "Affliction."
The 64-year-old Dench, one of Britain's premier actresses, won for her role as the elderly Queen Elizabeth in "Shakespeare in Love," a part so brief that many critics complained that if you blinked you might have missed it.
Dench, herself, took note of the brevity of her role. "I feel for eight minutes on screen, I should only get a little bit of him [her Oscar]. My heart goes out to the other four who didn't win," she said. "Shakespeare in Love" won seven awards: best picture, best actress, best supporting actress, best original musical comedy score, best costumes, best original screenplay and best art direction.
"Ryan" won five Oscars: best direction, cinematography, film editing, sound effects, and sound.
It was Spielberg's second Oscar for best director, and he acknowledged his father, Arnold, a radio operator on a B-25 airplane during World War II, as the inspiration for making "Ryan."
"Dad, you're the greatest," Spielberg said on winning the Oscar. "Thank you for showing me there is honor in looking back and respecting the past. I love you very much. This is for you."
"Life Is Beautiful" was third with three awards: best actor, best foreign film and best dramatic score.
The most difficult moment of the night came when 89-year-old director Elia Kazan was called to the stage to accept a lifetime achievement Oscar.
Army Archerd, the columnist for Daily Variety, estimated that only 20 percent of the audience stood for the man who made "On the Waterfront," in protest at his having named communists before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
But television shots of the hall made it seem like about half the audience stood and applauded in what was supposed to be the moment when Hollywood came to terms with its darkest hour.
Kazan appeared to acknowledge the controversy when he accepted the award, saying: "I want to thank the Academy for its courage and generosity. I want to thank you all very much." Then he said: "I think I can just slip away now."