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  Oscars coverage

  For Oscar, Sweet 'Life' and Gray Areas

By William Booth
and Sharon Waxman

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 21, 1999

LOS ANGELES – Roberto Benigni became the exuberant class clown of the Academy Awards ceremony tonight, leaping on chairs, double-cheek-kissing his fellow actors and telling them he felt so good he wanted to make love to everybody.

After several rather dry acceptance speeches by the likes of James Coburn and Judi Dench, the audience responded with gusto when the Italian's "Life Is Beautiful" won Best Foreign-Language Film.

Earlier, Harvey Weinstein, head of Miramax, promised the throng along the red carpet that if Benigni won anything, "it would be the funniest three minutes" of the Oscars.

He was about right.

When it was announced that "Life" had won, Benigni leapt to his feet and climbed over the chairs of his seat mates. When he took to the stage he thanked the Motion Picture Academy for "this ocean of generosity" and this "hailstorm of kindness." He also thanked his mother and father, who "gave me the biggest gift . . . poverty."

Backstage one of the film's producers, speaking in Italian, said he and his countrymen were surprised by the enthusiastic reception the film got in the United States. The movie is about how a father protects his young son from the horrors of the Holocaust by pretending that it is all a big game.

After Benigni's movie won Best Foreign-Language Film, he stayed in the audience instead of making the traditional sprint backstage to meet the press. Perhaps he was hoping he might also win for Best Actor. And he did.

Against tough competitors like Nick Nolte in "Affliction" and Tom Hanks in "Saving Private Ryan," the bouncy little funny man with the elastic face and thick accent won for his performance in "Life Is Beautiful," which he also directed and co-wrote. When he went up to take his second statue, he said, "This is a terrible mistake, because I've used up all my English!"

But he burbled on: "I don't know how to express all my gratitude because my body is in tumult because it's a colossal moment of joy. So everything is really a word that I cannot express. I would like to be Jupiter and get up everybody and lie down making love to everybody because I don't know how to express this expression of love."

The sweet silliness of Benigni played against some more serious business. At an Oscar ceremony that was charged with political controversy and a cinematic horse race ("Shakespeare," with seven Oscars, including Best Picture, edged out "Ryan," which got five), the limousines pulled up and unloaded movie stars more accustomed to questions about who made their clothes than what they thought about turning in Communists during the Cold War.

But here outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion were several hundred people either protesting or applauding tonight's Lifetime Achievement Award for director Elia Kazan, who appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952, where he named eight members of New York's Group Theater as former members of the Communist Party.

The award to Kazan succeeded in injecting politics into an annual event better known for silly speeches and entertainment journalists shouting, "How do you feel?"

Those entering the awards spoke freely about the Kazan award. Val Kilmer, passing on the red carpet, said he admired Kazan's work and that he deserved the Oscar for films such as "On the Waterfront" and "A Streetcar Named Desire."

Kevin Costner said the issue had been blown out of proportion, putting ridiculous pressure on Kazan, who was also a victim of the McCarthy era. "It's a wrong that can't be righted," he said. "To think he hasn't paid some emotional price is wrong. You'd think he doesn't have feelings, but I'm sure he does."

But enough about politics!

What about the stars?

The big black and white stretch limos pulled up before the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and unloaded their precious, pampered cargo.

Surrounded by "star wranglers" wearing headsets with voice mikes, the big names arrived. First down the red carpet strolled Gwyneth Paltrow, who would go on to win Best Actress for her role as the Bard's gal pal in "Shakespeare in Love." With her blond hair lacquered into a chignon, she was pretty in pink, a classic, dressed in a pastel gown by Ralph Lauren.

On her high heels came James Coburn, who won Best Supporting Actor for his role as the vicious, boozy dad in "Affliction," looking very pleased with himself, at least until Benigni arrived and started kissing everyone he could get hold of, from Red Buttons to Coburn.

Later backstage, Coburn said he was really glad to be working again, after a long dry patch when his career was stalled and he was crippled by arthritis. He said finding good stories was the hardest thing in Hollywood, with so many scripts filled with "big guns that everybody carries around."

And on and on they came, like spawning salmon. Tom Hanks, up for Best Actor for "Saving Private Ryan," sported a scruffy new beard. Liv Tyler mugged for the cameras with her rocker pop Steve Tyler of Aerosmith.

Lynn Redgrave, in pale blue satin, said "it would be an outrage" if she won for Best Supporting Actress (she lost), considering she couldn't get hired in Hollywood for 12 years for any part. Cate Blanchett, looking ethereal in a knit John Galliano with a hummingbird stitched delicately onto the mesh fabric along her back, said of her role as Queen Elizabeth in the film "Elizabeth": "I felt that I took a lot of risks. Shekhar Kapur took a lot of risks in the shots, so it's always wonderful when people respond to your work."

Matt Damon and Ben Affleck seemed inseparable, and so, too, did Ellen DeGeneres and Anne Heche, clutching hands and giving pumped fists to the crowd of fans. When Ian McKellen, nominated for Best Actor for his role as a gay director in "Gods and Monsters," joined them, DeGeneres joked that all of gay Hollywood was assembled. McKellen said he was thrilled that his tiny film had been recognized. The movie was shot in four weeks on a shoestring budget.

Inside the pavilion, the Oscars got off to an early start at 8:30 p.m. (Eastern time), and aired on what the academy now calls "Oscar Sunday," moved from its usual Monday evening. Academy executives want to turn the annual awards show into an all-day event like the Super Bowl.

Comedian Chris Rock, looking out at the audience of Hollywood royalty, commented that it looked like "the Million White Man March out there."

Whoopi Goldberg began the evening dressed as an Elizabethan royal, in keeping with the nominees from period pieces like "Shakespeare in Love" and "Elizabeth." She joked that the show was "coming to you from Hollywood, the town that invented lying about sex."

(According to Variety, Monica Lewinsky was in town and turned every head in the room when she arrived at Morton's a half-hour late for Vanity Fair's Oscar party.

(Wearing a low-cut, floor-length black gown with a glittery wrap, Lewinsky was greeted by Vanity Fair Editor Graydon Carter, and then swept through the room to a table where she was seated with Neve Campbell, Ellen Barkin and Bryan Lourd.)

Backstage, Dench, who won Best Supporting Actress for her role as Queen Elizabeth in "Shakespeare in Love," said she had kept the reconstructed set of the Rose Theatre, used for the shoot of "Shakespeare," and was helping to get it set up in London along with a trust fund for drama students.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post

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