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THE OSCARS

'Beautiful' Historic Night

Academy Awards: The color barrier is broken as two African Americans win top acting honors. 'Mind' snares best picture and director.

March 25, 2002|ROBERT W. WELKOS and SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

It was a beautiful night for "A Beautiful Mind," but a groundbreaking night for African American performers. Denzel Washington and Halle Berry made Oscar history Sunday by winning best actor and best actress at the 74th Academy Awards at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood--the event's new home.

The acting victories virtually eclipsed the winner for best picture, the haunting but factually selective biographical drama "A Beautiful Mind." The drama about schizophrenic mathematical genius and Nobel laureate John Forbes Nash Jr. also collected awards for supporting actress Jennifer Connelly, adapted screenplay and director, Ron Howard.

But it was Washington and Berry, beaming and, in Berry's case, sobbing, who gave the record length four-hour-23-minute telecast on ABC its most dramatic moments.

It is the first time in 74 years that two African Americans won Hollywood's highest award for acting, and Berry became the first African American to win for best actress.Three years ago, she won an Emmy for her portrayal of Dorothy Dandridge, the first African American actress to receive an Oscar nomination in the actress category, nearly a half-century ago.

The 33-year-old actress, a former beauty queen, deglamorized herself for her role in "Monster's Ball" as a dispirited waitress and mother who falls in love with a white prison guard who she doesn't know has helped put her husband to death in the electric chair.

"Oh, my God," Berry said, her mouth agape, almost unable to comprehend the moment as tears streamed down her cheeks.

"I'm sorry," she said in halting gasps, as she clasped the gold statuette. "This moment is so much bigger than me. This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll. It's for the women who stand beside me, Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett, Vivica Fox, and the nameless, faceless women of color who now stand a chance tonight because the door has been opened. I thank the academy for choosing me to be the vessel ...."

In "Training Day," Washington turned away from the personable, often-heroic characters he has portrayed. His menacing and thoroughly corrupt undercover narcotics cop cruises the mean streets of L.A. in the course of one day with his new charge, played by supporting actor nominee Ethan Hawke.

In a passing of the torch, Sidney Poitier, the first black performer to win best actor for his role in 1963's "Lilies of the Field," applauded from the audience as Washington became the first minority actor to win the category in 38 years. Earlier in the evening, Poitier received an honorary Oscar for his five-decade career.

"God is good," the 47-year-old Washington said. "God is great from the bottom of my heart." Then acknowledging Poitier, Washington added: "For 40 years, I've been chasing Sidney and what do they do? They give it to him the same night." After the laughter died, the actor said, "I'll always be following him. There's nothing I'd rather do." Washington was named best supporting actor in 1989 for "Glory."

Poitier brought tears to many eyes and drew a prolonged standing ovation. The 75-year-old star of such films as "In the Heat of the Night" from 1967 and "The Defiant Ones" from 1958 was the first actor of color to become a major film star.

"I accept this award in memory of all the African American actors who went before me in the difficult years and on whose shoulders I was privileged to stand to see where I might go," Poitier said in a poignant acceptance speech, in which he thanked a litany of writers and directors, living and dead, who gave him screen roles and whose art made the world "better for their effort."

The epic fantasy "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring," tied "A Beautiful Mind" with four wins, including makeup, cinematography, visual effects and score.

Director Howard, who audiences remember growing up on television as Opie on "The Andy Griffith Show" and teenager Richie Cunningham in "Happy Days," won his first Oscar, for best director for "A Beautiful Mind." In the waning days of the Oscar campaign, the film was the subject of a not-so-subtle whisper campaign attacking the filmmakers for omitting suggestions that Nash was homosexual and had made anti-Semitic statements. Although Howard had won a Directors Guild of America award for his 1995 space thriller "Apollo 13," he was shut out of the nominations at the Academy Awards that year.

Former child star Connelly won for her role as Alicia Nash, John Nash's strong-willed wife and the emotional glue that kept their marriage together during the darkest hours of his mental illness.

"I believe in love, that there is nothing more important," Connelly said, reading from a prepared statement. With the real Nash and his wife looking on from the audience, she added: "Alicia Nash is a true champion of love, so thank you for your example."

British character actor Jim Broadbent received best supporting actor for his role in "Iris" as the loving, caring husband of the late Alzheimer's-stricken writer Iris Murdoch.

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