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A Few Hours Of Respite At The Oscars

Emotions -- and security -- are high as Hollywood gives the nation a heartfelt pause from the unrelenting news of war.

March 24, 2003|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

There were times it appeared that this year's Oscars would be upstaged by war, street protests or a glamour deficiency, but in the end, Sunday night's 75th Academy Awards were a thoroughly Hollywood production, full of light humor, high emotion and a certain shock value, including a best director win for Roman Polanski.

The ceremony, held under heavy security at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, began without its paparazzi-studded red carpet amid a muted war wariness, made even more somber by a string of unsettling battlefield dispatches earlier in the day.

By the night's end, though, it had turned into an only-in-Hollywood counterpoint to four days of war.

Polanski, who fled the country a quarter-century ago rather than face sentencing for statutory rape, was warmly applauded as his film, "The Pianist," garnered not only honors for him but also for its screenplay and leading man, Adrien Brody, who won the award for best actor. Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore was greeted with a standing ovation that quickly turned to boos when he delivered the night's lone political diatribe. Host Steve Martin was working with his writers to fine-tune the monologue right up to show time, dropping a Saddam Hussein joke but keeping a wry reference to current events when he said he had universal support to host the show, with the exception of France and Germany. But even the war could not derail "Chicago," the musical tale of Jazz Age murder, celebrity and justice that, as expected, won best picture. Adapted from the Bob Fosse stage hit, "Chicago" picked up five other Oscars, as well, including a best supporting actress trophy for Catherine Zeta-Jones. It was the first best picture win for a musical in 34 years.

The tenor of the evening was reflected not merely in the way Oscar winners talked about the war in Iraq, but also the way they talked about their art. There were far fewer scripted remarks and obligatory thank-you lists and noticeably more heartfelt pauses.

"Why do you come to the Academy Awards when the world is in such turmoil?" asked Nicole Kidman -- who had told friends she was considering not coming -- as she accepted the best actress Oscar for her role in "The Hours." "Because art is important and because you believe in what you do, and you want to honor that and it is a tradition that needs to be upheld."

Sunday's awards were noticeably lacking much of the celebrity self-indulgence that has long delighted some fans and infuriated others. The flamboyance of war allusions, not evening gowns, became Topic A.

Most of these moments were graceful. There was Chris Cooper, accepting the best supporting actor Oscar for his work in "Adaptation" by concluding, "In light of all the troubles in this world, I wish us all peace." Or Brody, his voice cracking with emotion as he mentioned a friend on military duty in Kuwait. Or Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal, introducing the best song nomination for "Frida" by saying, "If Frida [Kahlo] were alive, she'd be on our side, against war."

And then there was documentary filmmaker Moore, a devout leftist and cultural provocateur, whose pro-gun-control "Bowling for Columbine" won for best documentary.

Moore called his fellow documentary nominees to join him onstage, announced that they supported nonfiction and then assailed "fictitious elections that elect a fictitious president. We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons.... We are against this war, Mister Bush! Shame on you, Mr Bush! Shame on you!" The boos drowned out most of the cheers as Moore went on.

The mood of the evening reflected four days of nonstop war bulletins, including reports on the fate of the U.S. soldiers killed or held as prisoners of war by the Iraqi military. ABC twice broke in with brief scheduled summaries of the day's events.

Yet many times Sunday night, the Oscars also appeared to provide a tonic for a nation eager to laugh or root communally -- most often at host Martin's jokes about everything from Jennifer Lopez's love life to Nicole Kidman's prosthetic nose in "The Hours" to his introduction of one of America's "finest black actors -- Mickey Mouse." After Moore left the stage, Martin broke the tension by joking, "The Teamsters are helping Michael Moore into the trunk of his limo."

The show also delivered a series of surprises. Polanski's win was one of a number of upsets, including the first-ever award for a Spanish-language screenplay, Pedro Almodovar's "Talk to Her," and a win for best song for rapper Eminem, who was a no-show.

The arrival of the celebrities at the Kodak Theatre, which usually brims with the anticipation and chatter of a high school prom, felt more like the minutes before a polite Sunday morning church service.

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