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It's Joy and Triumph in This Arena

Roman epic 'Gladiator' wins five, including best picture and best actor for Crowe. Soderbergh pulls off surprising victory as best director for 'Traffic.'


The effects-driven Roman spectacle "Gladiator" slew the crouching tiger and a trio of other celluloid adversaries Sunday evening, winning five Oscars, including best picture, at the 73rd Academy Awards.

Its star, Russell Crowe, and Julia Roberts of "Erin Brockovich" were chosen best actor and actress.

In an evening of stunning surprises, none was bigger than double nominee Steven Soderbergh's win for best director for "Traffic." It marked only the fifth time that a director who was not honored by his peers in the Directors Guild of America grabbed the Academy Award.

Going into the event, Taiwan-born director Ang Lee was considered the favorite in the category, having won the DGA's award earlier this month for his Chinese martial arts fantasy, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." Many felt that bespectacled Soderbergh, 38, who also was nominated for directing the best picture nominee "Erin Brockovich," would cancel himself out by splitting the academy's vote.

Marcia Gay Harden won best supporting actress for "Pollock" and Benicio Del Toro was named best supporting actor for "Traffic."

No one film dominated the evening's proceedings, which took place at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles in a 3 1/2-hour ceremony telecast live by ABC and seen by an estimated worldwide audience of 800 million. After the five awards won by "Gladiator," "Traffic" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" tied with four.

Besides director, "Traffic" picked up Oscars for adapted screenplay, Del Toro's acting and editing.

"Crouching Tiger" was named best foreign-language film and won for cinematography, art direction and original score.

Because of the wide-open nature of this year's Oscar race, Hollywood studios had waged multimillion-dollar political-style campaigns on behalf of their nominees, all in an attempt to grab the attention of academy voters. Some put the figure for advertising and publicity as high as $60 million.

With its artful use of computer wizardry and special effects, "Gladiator" resurrected a genre that saw its heyday more than 40 years ago with such films as "Ben-Hur" and "Spartacus." In addition to best picture and actor, the film collected Oscars for costume design, visual effects and sound.

No one appeared more flabbergasted than Crowe, who seemed dazed when he heard his name announced by Hilary Swank, last year's best actress winner.

As he stood on stage, occasionally rubbing his forehead nervously, Crowe, who played the heroic general-turned-slave Maximus in the box office hit, gave thanks to his grandfather, an uncle and his parents, whom he said, "I don't thank enough."

Then the 36-year-old New Zealand-born actor made reference to youngsters who, like himself, might think winning an Oscar seems "vaguely ludicrous and completely unattainable."

Holding the golden statuette as he did his heavy sword in the movie, Crowe remarked: "This moment is directly connected to those childhood imaginings, and anybody who's on the downside of advantage and relying purely on courage, it's possible."

While most observers predicted Roberts, 33, would take home her first Oscar for "Erin Brockovich," the actress was visibly moved and almost gleeful as she held her Oscar and waved to fans in the balcony.

Flashing her megawatt smile, Roberts exclaimed: "I love the world! I'm so happy! Thank you!"

But though she seemed to thank everyone she ever worked with, Roberts did forget to thank the person who inspired the movie--the real-life legal researcher Erin Brockovich. Backstage, the actress apologized for "shamefully" omitting her alter-ego.

Roberts, in many ways, is finally enjoying the critical acclaim that has eluded her, despite her unrivaled dominance of worldwide box office among all other actresses.

Under the steady guidance of director Soderbergh, Roberts was able to stretch her talents beyond the romantic comedy genre that has dominated her career for the last decade, since she became a star in "Pretty Woman."

Roberts, in her winning role, seemed to embody the real Brockovich, decked out in spiked heels, form-fitting miniskirts and displaying ample cleavage.

In one of the evening's early upsets, dark horse Harden beat out such pre-Oscar favorites as Kate Hudson and Dame Judi Dench for her performance as the painter Lee Krasner, the strong-willed wife and fierce protector of tormented abstract Expressionist painter Jackson Pollock in "Pollock."

With a jubilant Ed Harris--her director and nominated co-star raising his arms in victory in the audience--the gracious 41-year-old Harden said: "What a thrill. Ed Harris, thank you for inviting me to share your passion. You are a brave director and even a braver actor and I love you."

Del Toro's win as the conflicted Mexican police detective fighting a drug cartel in the gritty thriller "Traffic" was not as surprising, but many saw British actor Albert Finney of "Erin Brockovich" as the favorite going into the evening.

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