In the tradition of such Oscar-winning epics as "Dances with Wolves," "The Last Emperor" and "Lawrence of Arabia," the medieval battlefield movie "Braveheart" won best picture at Monday night's 68th annual Academy Awards.
The film won five Oscars, including one for director Mel Gibson. The others were for makeup, sound effects editing and cinematography.
Four films won two Oscars each: "Pocahontas," "Apollo 13," "The Usual Suspects" and "Restoration." The sentimental favorites "Babe" and "The Postman (Il Postino)" each won one Oscar.
"Braveheart," the sweeping historical adventure set in 13th-century Scotland, chronicled legendary freedom fighter William Wallace as he marshaled a motley army of his people to battle the English king.
The three-hour, R-rated film focuses on a period of history that is little known to the average American filmgoer. But it embraces the age-old themes of courage, loyalty, honor and the brutality of war that have been the staples of many Oscar-winning movies.
Susan Sarandon won best actress for her role as a nun who becomes the spiritual advisor of a death row inmate in "Dead Man Walking," a film written and directed by her boyfriend, Tim Robbins. This was her fifth nomination.
Nicolas Cage, who previously had swept all of the major awards for his disturbing portrayal of an alcoholic spiraling toward suicide in "Leaving Las Vegas," was named best actor.
Mira Sorvino, who played a hooker with a heart of gold in the Woody Allen film "Mighty Aphrodite," walked away with the supporting actress Oscar, and Kevin Spacey won the supporting actor award for his role as a deceptive criminal in "The Usual Suspects."
Gibson, 40, became the third major screen star this decade to win the award for best director, following Kevin Costner at the 1991 ceremony and Clint Eastwood at the 1993 awards.
Gibson thanked the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, producer Alan Ladd Jr. and screenwriter Randall Wallace for his directing award. "They had no problems giving the reins to a fiscal imbecile," Gibson said. "Every director I've ever worked with, they were my film school. Now that I'm a bona fide director with a golden boy [Oscar statue], well, like most directors, what I really want to do is act."
In what was considered a wide-open year for best picture contenders, "Braveheart" beat out an eclectic slate of films, including the astronaut-in-peril thriller "Apollo 13," the talking-pig fable "Babe," the Jane Austen romantic drama "Sense and Sensibility" and the Italian-language love story "The Postman (Il Postino)."
The awards came amid a political protest by African American activists led by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, seeking greater minority representation in Hollywood.
Sarandon, 49, used her acceptance speech to thank Sister Helen Prejean, the nun who inspired the movie "Dead Man Walking," for "trusting us with your life and bringing your light and your love into all of our lives."
She also singled out co-star Sean Penn, a best actor nominee who appeared for the Oscar ceremonies. "A big thanks to Sean Penn," she said, "for your intelligence and your courage and your humor and your hairdo. It was a great dance."
To Robbins, the actress said: "This is yours as much as mine. Thank God we live together."
An excited Cage, clutching an Oscar statuette, exclaimed: "Oh boy--$3.5-million budget, some 16-millimeter stock footage thrown in, and I'm holding one of these!"
It was the first Academy Award for the 32-year-old actor, whose family is no stranger to Oscar gold. His grandfather Carmine won with Nino Rota for the best original dramatic score for "The Godfather Part II" in 1974, and his uncle Francis Ford Coppola won best director for the same film.
Emma Thompson made Academy history by winning for adapted screenplay--the first actress to accomplish that feat.
It was the British actress' first attempt at screenwriting and, coming into the Oscars, she had won virtually all of the major writing awards for the screenplay, including the Golden Globe. Thompson had previously won an Oscar for best actress in 1992 for "Howards End."
Thompson, 36, said she visited Austen's grave "to pay my respects and to tell her about the [movie's box office] grosses. I do hope she knows how big she is in Uruguay," Thompson quipped.
In a poignant moment, actor Christopher Reeve, who was paralyzed from the neck down in a riding accident last May, introduced clips from films that, over the years, had put social issues ahead of box office concerns--such as "The Grapes of Wrath," "In the Heat of the Night" and "Philadelphia."
Speaking from his wheelchair, Reeve quipped: "I left New York last September, and I just arrived here this morning." Then he added: "I'm glad I did, because I wouldn't have missed this kind of welcome for the world."