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'Lord' of the Oscars

'Rings' Sweeps the Field With 11 Wins; Best Acting Prizes Go to Theron, Penn

By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 1, 2004; Page C01

HOLLYWOOD, Feb. 29 -- The biggest surprise of the Academy Awards was how few surprises there were. The international blockbuster and last installment of the Hobbit trilogy, "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," swept the Oscars Sunday night -- winning 11 statues, including Best Director and Best Picture.

The Peter Jackson film, which has made $1 billion at the worldwide box office, won every award it was nominated for, tying with "Titanic" (1997) and "Ben-Hur" (1959) for the most Oscars ever. "You're giving us just an incredible night," Jackson said during one of his many trips to the podium.

Renee Zellweger accepts the Supporting Actress award for "Cold Mountain." (Gary Hershorn -- Reuters)

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The only chances other films had were in the acting categories, where "Lord of the Rings" wasn't nominated. As predicted by many critics, Charlize Theron won Best Actress for her portrayal of a serial killer and truck stop prostitute in "Monster."

Looking glorious, blond and bedecked in jewels, Theron thanked her makeup artist who transformed her into a toothy, skin-damaged wreck. She also praised her native South Africa and her mom "for making my dreams come true."

Sean Penn had been favored to win Best Actor for his turn as a former Boston tough whose daughter was murdered in Clint Eastwood's dark drama "Mystic River." Win he did.

Penn has skipped previous Oscar ceremonies, and backstage he admitted that the whole night makes him uncomfortable -- the attention, the "fashion show outside" and the odd feeling of "too many people you know a little bit in one room."

From the podium he spoke graciously of the other nominees in his category. "If there is one thing actors know -- besides that there were no WMDs -- there is no such thing as 'best' in acting," said Penn, his voice shaky with emotion. "It was proven by the great actors I was nominated with."

Penn's reference to the missing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was one of the few spontaneous moments in a long evening that saw actors and artists generally steer clear of controversy.

In his remarks from the stage, for example, Best Supporting Actor Tim Robbins made no reference to politics, as he sometimes has, but excitedly read from a list of people he wanted to thank.

Robbins concluded by noting that in "Mystic River" he played a man who was abused as a child, and added: "It isn't a sign of weakness to seek help, but one of the things that can help break the cycle of violence."

Renee Zellweger, yet another short-odds favorite, took the Best Supporting Actress award for her portrayal of a tough farm girl in the Civil War epic "Cold Mountain."

Zellweger gave a breathless recitation of family, friends and colleagues. In the press room later, she still seemed slightly stunned. Fingering her vintage Cartier diamond necklace, she agreed that she had to make herself appear less glamorous in her role as Ruby in "Cold Mountain," and said she hoped that there would be more multifaceted roles for actresses.

Remember last year, when Adrien Brody unexpectedly won Best Actor -- and then compounded the shock by rushing to the podium and planting a big smooch on the presenter, Halle Berry?

Well, nothing like that happened this time. Throughout the 76th Academy Awards at the Kodak Theatre, the final installment of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy swept the technical and artistic awards, winning Oscars for Original Score, Art Direction, Film Editing, Costume Design, Sound Mixing, Makeup and Visual Effects.

"Lord" also took top honors for Best Original Song: "Into the West," performed by Annie Lennox.

Jackson and his live-in partner, Fran Walsh, won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for their handling of J.R.R. Tolkien's books about Hobbits and Middle-Earth.

Jackson thanked his young children for their patience, remarking that their parents had been working on the trilogy for the children's entire lives.

In groups of two, three and four, the men behind the Hobbits, including more than a few New Zealanders (the movies were made there), came to the stage and congratulated New Line Cinema for its investment, as well as director Jackson and Tolkien.

"It's now official," host Billy Crystal told viewers about two hours into the ceremony. "There's nobody left in New Zealand to thank."

Sofia Coppola won for Best Original Screenplay for "Lost in Translation," the story of a washed-up actor (played by Bill Murray) facing a midlife crisis in a Tokyo hotel.

"Every writer needs a muse, and mine was Bill Murray," Coppola said. Her win is slightly controversial, however, as her screenplay reportedly was only 80 pages and many of the film's best scenes were improvised by Murray during the 28-day shoot.

"Finding Nemo" won Best Animated Film for, as director Andrew Stanton called it, "my little fish story." The Pixar Studios film is one of the most financially successful animated pictures ever made.

"It renews my faith in the audience," Stanton said backstage. He feared "Nemo" would not attract a big crowd because "it was more sincere, more heartfelt" than traditional cartoon fare.

The Canadian film "The Barbarian Invasions," which was performed in French, won the Best Foreign Language award.

Russell Boyd took home the Cinematography Oscar for "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World."

After two years during which the Academy Awards carried on under the sober shadow of Sept. 11 and the war in Iraq, Hollywood on Sunday night turned on the glam-power again -- necklines plunged all the way to Chile and there was a Fort Knox worth of diamonds and bling-bling on the red carpet.

Out: angst, dread, protest. In: pink, orange, red.

Crystal performed as master of ceremonies for the eighth time, and began the show with his signature spoof of the nominated films. In a film montage, he appeared as characters from the year's films, playing Gollum, an elf, a jockey and a Civil War soldier -- and, spliced into a clip from "Something's Gotta Give," showing up naked with Diane Keaton (also naked) and Jack Nicholson.

Then Crystal sang a medley of parody songs, sat on Clint Eastwood's lap and suggested that if "Seabiscuit" failed to win Best Picture, the horse might be made into glue.

Security remained tight around the ceremonies for the third year in a row. Police blocked traffic for blocks around the Kodak Theatre at the corner of Hollywood and Highland. Even the stars went through the metal detectors and got a sniff from the LAPD bomb squad dogs.

ABC's broadcast of the ceremony employed a five-second tape delay so its censors could edit out the objectionable, a move taken after Justin Timberlake exposed Janet Jackson's breast during the halftime show at the Super Bowl on Feb. 1. ABC honchos promised the delay would not be used to censor political speech, but only dirty words or the accidental parting of a starlet's gown on national TV.

When Crystal introduced presenter Robin Williams, he joked, "This is the reason for the delay." Williams twisted his own nipple, and then hugged Crystal and said: "Look at us -- a San Francisco wedding cake."

There were little for the censors to worry about. Crystal took a few political swipes, at one point reminiscing how he first hosted the Oscars 13 years ago. "Everything was so different," he said. "Bush was president, the economy was tanking and we'd just finished a war with Iraq."

"The Fog of War," directed by Errol Morris, won Best Documentary. In the film, former defense secretary Robert McNamara, from the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, discusses the Vietnam War and the mistakes that were made.

Morris, who has had a long history in documentary film, rushed to the podium and said, "I would like to thank the academy for finally recognizing my films. Thought it would never happen! Thank you."

Then he got more serious: "Forty years ago, this country went down a rabbit hole, and millions died. And I fear we're going down a rabbit hole once again, and if people can stop and reflect on the ideas and issues in this movie, then maybe I've done some damn good here."

Crystal came back to the stage and cracked, "I can't wait for his tax audit." Then he paused and said, "Scary times."

Backstage, Morris said that his interviews with McNamara took place before Sept. 11, 2001. "History caught up with what Robert McNamara was talking about," he said. "We live in a very dangerous time, and its important for people to think and talk about these things."

Blake Edwards, the veteran director of "Breakfast at Tiffany's," "Days of Wine and Roses" and the "Pink Panther" franchise, was given a lifetime achievement award. Edwards thanked "the little guys" in his life, such as the worker he recalled whose job it was to shovel up elephant dung, which he did while singing, "There's no business like show business."

Edwards also tipped his hat to his enemies. "Yes, I couldn't have done it without the foes. I'm steamed, and I'm going to prove you wrong."

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