"Kramer vs. Kramer," the successful tearjerker about a divorced couple's battle for custody of their little boy, itself took custody of five Oscars last night -- including Best Picture of the Year -- and emerged the big winner at the 52nd annual Academy Awards.
Oscars went to Robert Benton for directing the film and writing the best screenplay adapted from another medium (a book by Avery Corman). Dustin Hoffman was named best actor for playing the husband, and Meryl Streep was named best supporting actress for playing the wife who walks out in the first reel but returns later to reclaim her son.
Sally Field was chosen best actress for her performance as the proud and feisty union organizer of "Norma Rae." And Steve Tesich won the best original screenplay Oscar for writing "Breaking Away," an exhilarating comedy about coming of age in a small midwestern town.
Runners-up in the Oscar sweepstakes included "All That Jazz," a morbid musical biography, which, like "Kramer," was nominated for nine Oscars, but which won only four minor ones -- for art direction, musical score, costume design and editing.
Francis Ford Coppola's monumentally costly "Apocalypse Now," a tragic fantasia set during the Vietnam war, won two Oscars, for best sound and best cinematography.
Hoffman, 42, took the honors for longest-winded acceptance speech of the evening when he explained to Academy members why he'd been a Peck's Bad Boy in the past when it came to awards competitions, at one point dubbing them "silly."
Hoffman, a nominee but not a winner three times previously, said he accepted the award with "mixed feelings" because he's been "critical of the Academy -- and for reason" in the past. "I refuse to believe I beat Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, Peter Sellers," Hoffman said, referring to some of the actors he did beat in winning.
He also beat Roy Scheider, but didn't mention him.
Then Hoffman dedicated the award to all those hard-working actors out there doing heavy duty in taxicabs when there are no acting jobs available. "None of you have ever lost and I am proud to share this with you," he said to a prolonged ovation.
Hoffman also said of the Oscar statuette, "He has no genitalia and he's holding a sword," and added, "I'd like to thank my parents for not practicing birth control."
Field, 34, rushed to the podium in tears and announced, "I'm gonna be the one to cry tonight, I'll tell you that right now." She was most extravagant in her praise of director Martin Ritt, who said she made movies about things he believed in even when they had "a box office potential of 75 cents -- sometimes less."
When Benton came up the second time, for his best directing Oscar, he said, "This really is one of the five best days of my whole life."
Johnny Carson was host of the ceremonies for the second straight year and occasionally took time to remark upon the arduous length and general dearth of excitement that marked this year's awards. Almost all the awards went to precisely those predicted to win them.
"This is Day 164 of the Oscar telecast," Carson declared at one point, as the show went into its 45-minute overtime.
When introducing playwright Neil Simon, Carson noted that "while waiting backstage to go on tonight, he wrote a new play."
There were no political spats evident on the broadcast as there had been in past years -- although every mention of the nominated but unawarded film "The China Syndrome" seemed to include reference to its ostensibly prophetic message on nuclear energy. And there were several minor, but no major, embarrassments by accepters and presenters.
as a TV show, however, the Oscar-cast didn't show a sign of life until 90 minutes in, when veteran Donald O'Connor led a huge troupe in a rousing salute to dance numbers from Hollywood musicals. For this he got one of the evening's few standing ovations.
Writer Tesich, who was born in Yugoslavia, recalled that he got his first impressions of America from Hollywood movies he was as a boy. "It seemed like a wonderful endless frontier of a country, where these good and evil, characters fought it out for the soul of America," he said, adding that "the good still tend to win in the end."
Veteran actor Melvyn Douglas was also a winner for his supporting role in the satirical fable "Being There," about an idiot who rises to national prominence. It was the second Oscar for Douglas, who last won in 1963 for playing Paul Newman's father in "Hud."
Douglas, 79, won for his portrayal of a decrepit industrialist in "Being There" but he didn't manage being there at the Oscar ceremony, so his award was accepted for him.
The audience was not to be cheated out of a sentimental acceptance speech from a beloved old-timer, however, for Alec Guinnes, given an honorary award for his career in movies, responded with effusive gratitude.
"I'm grabbing this while the going's good," said Guinness as he gripped the Oscar presented him by Hoffman as the program dragged past the appointed hour of its conclusion.
Among those who lost to Douglas was 8-year-old Justin Henry, the tot all the fuss is about in "Kramer." Henry was the youngest person ever nominated for a regular acting Oscar.
Streep, who plays the wandering wife of Dustin Hoffman in "Kramer," exclaimed "Holy mackerel!" upon making it to the podium to accept her trophy. Streep was also nominated for best supporting actress last year for her role in "The Deer Hunter," but did not win.
This year she also appeared on movie screens as a Washington lobbyist in "The Seduction of Joe Tynan" and was seen last year on TV in NBC's "Holocaust." She thanked, among others, her co-stars Hoffman, Jane Alexander (also nominated for best supporting actress) and Justin Henry.
The turtle's pace of the program was aggravated by the large number of honorary awards given by the Academy. Producer Walter Mirisch presented one of them to longtime Academy executie Hal Elias, and Kirk Douglas presented another to his former agent, producer Ray Stark, whom Douglas acclaimed as the "Wizard" of that merry old land of Oz called Hollywood.
The already forgotten ballad "It Goes Like It Goes," from "Norma Rae," won the Oscar as best song over competitions that included "The Rainbow Connection," sung at the Oscars by the star who made it famous, Kermit the Frog, of "The Muppet Movie." He was introduced by a livid Miss Piggy, incensed about being passed over for a Oscar nomination.
She asked host Carson if she weren't Oscar material. "Yes," he said. "Oscar Mayer."
"Alien," the science fiction thriller about a hideous monster that pops out of the most unexpected places, won the award for best visual effects, beating out, among others, the $45-million jaunt "Star Trek -- The Motion Picture."
The award was co-presented by Harold Russell, the double amputee who won an Oscar for "The Best Years of Our Lives" in 1946, and Farrah Fawcett, who had threatened not to appear because of a snide remark about her quoted in a Los Angeles newspaper, but did anyway.
The award for best original score was one of the evening's few surprises, since French composer Georges Delerue beat out such established Hollywood names as Henry Mancini and Jerry Goldsmith with his score for the light comedy "A Little Romance."
"Apocalypse Now" was cited for the best sound. Selected best foreign language film was a German Production the quality of highlights. The bloopers began almost immediately when an announcer introduced Fay Kanin, the second woman president in the history of the Academy, as "Mister Fay Kanin." "text omitted from source" of "The Tin Drum," from the novel by Gunter Grass. The film is only now getting a major release in this country.
When an Oscar program is dull and boring, mistakes and gaffes take on "text admitted from source"
In a moving speech of acceptance for the best documentary feature award for the film "Best Boy," filmmaker Ira Wohl, who made the film about his 52-year-old mentally retarded cousin Philly, thanked him and other relatives, living and dead, who had participated in the project. But the audience grew noisily restless as he listed the names, and actor William Shatner, a presenter, said sarcastically after Wohl left the stage, "I'm glad he didn't have a larger family."
Host Carson got ample laughter after presenters Ben Vereen and Dolly Parton -- the bosomy country singer who wore a strapless dress that held on for dear life -- walked off and Carson cracked, "They make a lovely pair, don't they?"
Douglas Fairbanks Jr. presented the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award -- voted only occasionally by the Academy's Board of Governors -- to the late United Artists executive Robert S. Benjamin, the first time the award has been given posthumously.
Benjamin, who died in October at the age of 70 after 55 years in the movie business, was best known for helping rescue United Artists from bankruptcy in the 1950s and setting it on the path to success. Benjamin became chairman of the board in 1978 but left with other UA executives to form Orion Pictures after a major corporate tiff with TransAmerica, the conglomerate that owns the company.
The award for best documentary short subject went to producer Saul J. Turell for "Paul Robeson, Tribute to an Artist," about the famous singer and civil rights crusader. Turell thanked Robeson's son Paul Jr. for his help in making the film.
Awards for short subjects went to "Every Child," an animated short from the National Film Board of Canada -- the third year in a row that the government-funded organization has won the Oscar in that category -- and to the live-action "Board and Care," about children who suffer from a chromosomal disorder called Down's Syndrome.
Co-producer Ron Ellis thanked his sister, who is seen in the film, and presented her with the Oscar at the podium.
As usual, the Oscars were broadcast live from the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion in Los Angeles, but to comply with ABC network appeals, the program began an hour earlier than usual, at 6 p.m. West Coast time. Some 3,600 members of the Academy vote on the awards, and according to host Carson, last night's show was seen in 49 countries, "including the Arab states of Syria, Lebanon and Beverly Hills."
Not much of a joke, but on a night like this, it got a roar.