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Oscar Race Goes to the Wire


On Saturday night at the Miramax party, Harvey Weinstein worried that maybe he pushed too hard for "Shakespeare in Love," a film he co-produced in his spare time when he wasn't running the company. It turns out he worried for nothing.

An Oscar night with more genuine drama than most of the movies that Hollywood produces came to an appropriately surprising ending when "Shakespeare in Love" won seven Academy Awards, including best picture, to runner-up "Saving Private Ryan's" five.

This had been the tightest Oscar race in memory, with pundits undecided as to which film the academy liked better. In the end, voters finally couldn't decide themselves and almost wound up splitting the 12 Oscars both movies won right down the middle.

Like competing basketball teams, the two films had traded awards all through the extra-long Oscar evening, so much so that the final award was in doubt right up to the opening of the envelope.

"Shakespeare" struck first, taking the show's second award (for art direction) and moving out to a quick 2-0 lead."Ryan" didn't win anything until the ABC telecast was an hour long, but it took the first head-to-head battles with "Shakespeare," winning both the sound and editing Oscars to tie the two films at 3-3.

They tied once again at 4-4 when "Saving Private Ryan's" Janusz Kaminski took the cinematography Oscar. But clutch player Gwyneth Paltrow put the "Shakespeares" up 5-4 in the best actress category. And though Steven Spielberg's best director win brought "Ryan" to only a 6-5 deficit, the best picture loss at the buzzer cost them the game.

If it hadn't been for this unprecedented close race, this Oscar night would have otherwise belonged to Italian star Roberto Benigni. In fact, it pretty much did anyway.

A practiced awards-show cat burglar who also stole the Cannes award evening by kissing everyone in sight, Benigni was clearly the crowd's favorite as he won two Oscars and his film, "Life Is Beautiful," won three--tying Ingmar Bergman's 1983 "Fanny and Alexander" record for a foreign language film.

His first Oscar, for best foreign language film, came in an especially appropriate setting. It was presented by compatriot Sophia Loren and was preceded, as the actress fiddled with the envelope, by screams of "Roberto, Roberto" from the audience at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Benigni, for his part, responded to the torrent of applause by standing on his seat and then rushing to the podium, where he expressed a wish to "dive in this ocean of generosity."

Benigni's best actor award--the first time this prize has been won by a non-English-speaking performer--was more unexpected and was greeted with even more tumultuous applause. Benigni, as always, was up to the occasion. "This is a terrible mistake," he said, "because I used up all my English."

Benigni's animation became the leit motif of the evening, much as Jack Palance's one-armed pushups had been several years ago. Hostess Whoopi Goldberg, not exactly a restrained presence herself, had to keep the actor in his seat with a stern "don't do it, baby, don't get up." And best screenplay co-winner, "Shakespeare in Love's" Tom Stoppard, delighted the crowd by saying in a polished voice, "I'm behaving like Roberto Benigni underneath."

Along with Benigni's antics, there were several moments that showed why the Oscars remain one of the great live shows. Where else would you see Val Kilmer seriously upstaged by a glamorous horse named Triggerson? Or hear Goldie Hawn exclaim that she once lived in the house that formed the setting for the Oscar-winning "Gods and Monsters"? Or see filmmaker Norman Jewison accept his Irving Thalberg Award with a nimble Tevye dance from "Fiddler on the Roof" and a contented "not bad for a goy."

As always, the night's acceptance speeches provided both high and low points. Several winners, including best actress Paltrow, broke into tears, but no one was more touching than documentary short subject winner Keiko Ibi, who was honored for "The Personals." "Who would have thought," she said, "that a girl from Japan could make a movie about Jewish senior citizens and actually win an award?"

Less enthralling were the winners who rattled off immense laundry lists of people who simply had to be thanked. As "Shakespeare in Love's" costume design winner, Sandy Powell, nicely put it, "That's too many names. It'll be too boring."

Also a highlight of the evening were the numerous--and, for the most part, artfully done--compilations of clips for both honorees and departed icons. The Frank Sinatra tribute put together by Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker was especially effective, as was Richard Schickel's work for Elia Kazan's special Oscar.

When Kazan hugged Scorsese, who was one of the presenters of his honorary award, one could almost feel the torch being passed to another generation.

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