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THE OSCARS | ANALYSIS

Finally, a True Hollywood Thriller

By the home stretch, three films were neck and neck, leaving viewers to guess which would pull ahead.

March 26, 2001|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

Finally, eerily, it was a cliffhanger not unlike the one that decided that other election back in November, with the winner in doubt until the final envelope was opened and even a Chad (Hilary Swank's husband) left hanging from last year.

All night long "Gladiator" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" had traded victories and putative knockout punches, with "Dragon" winning three out of four head-to-head contests. The two films were tied at four wins apiece with but two categories left to go when suddenly it seemed that a third picture might sneak in and take it all.

"Traffic" and "Erin Brockovich's" Steven Soderbergh, defying the conventional wisdom about the destructive effects of a man running against himself (though a similar vote-splitting situation might have cost Kate Hudson a supporting actress honor for "Almost Famous"), grabbed the best director prize for "Traffic," leaving three films with four victories each going into the best picture category. At which point, form reasserted itself and the favorite "Gladiator" was declared the winner.

With a crew that came, someone said, from 22 countries, "Gladiator's" win was only one of the victories that emphasized how international the movie business has become. With the Taiwanese "Crouching Tiger" winning four Oscars, the Irving Thalberg award going to Italian Dino De Laurentiis, Australian Russell Crowe getting best actor, a special Oscar handed out to British cinematographer Jack Cardiff and the best live action short going to a German director working in Mexico, it's clear that it's not only box-office receipts that are coming from overseas; considerable talent is as well.

Aside from Soderbergh's directing victory (unexpected after Ang Lee's win at the Directors Guild), there were two other quasi-surprises in the major categories. Marcia Gay Harden's superlative performance in "Pollock" overcame a late start and a limited release to triumph in the supporting actress category, with Harden gracefully and sensibly thanking the academy voters for "taking the time to even view the tape."

And though the best original screenplay Oscar did go to an independent-type film and a splendid and deserving original script, it was the (relative) industry veteran Cameron Crowe's for "Almost Famous" and not newcomer Kenneth Lonergan's work for "You Can Count on Me."

As far as the acceptance speeches went, the longest and one of the most wonderfully and nakedly emotional in memory was Julia Roberts' for best actress for "Erin Brockovich." With many asides about stopping the time-keeping clock, that it was making her nervous, she still found time to thank Steven Soderbergh for "making me the actor I never knew I could be" and Richard LaGravenese, whose uncredited rewrite made him the unsung hero of the "Erin Brockovich" screenplay.

Sunday night's acceptances also proved once again the virtues of forgetting the laundry lists of names--couldn't the academy limit the number of names allowable on camera?--and having the grace to speak from the heart.

Roberts, feeling "I may never be here again," did. Soderbergh did when he thanked "anyone who spends part of their day creating, this world would be unlivable without art." Even Russell Crowe, the brunt of much of host Steve Martin's humor, did it when he told those "living on the downside of advantage, relying purely on courage: It's possible."

Speaking of Martin, he made a refreshingly urbane, occasionally biting host, one of the only people in Hollywood capable of making a joke linking Icelandic singer Bjork with rejected Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork. He even walked out into the audience to give some dip to Danny DeVito, caught on camera munching some vegetables.

It is always those unscripted moments, more even than the unscripted acceptance speeches, that live on in Oscar memories. Kevin Spacey thanking Judi Dench, who brought the tuxedo he'd forgotten from Nova Scotia, for being "the classiest delivery service I've ever had." Swank thanked her dad as well as her husband, Chad Lowe. And Goldie Hawn stumbling over her cue cards and lamenting, "You think when you grow up you'd learn to at least read."

Perhaps most impressive, a kind of improv done before hundreds of millions of people began with Martin saying it's been revealed that the man behind the Russell Crowe kidnap plot was none other than Tom Hanks. The camera went to Hanks for a reaction shot, and the actor not only sorrowfully hung his head like Opie caught in a misdeed, but had the presence of mind to mumble "Sorry" as well. It was a classic moment, worth an entire night full of obligatory thank-yous, and more.

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