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CALENDAR GOES TO THE OSCARS : A Few Good Words Behind the Scenes : Backstage

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

It was slow-going backstage at the 65th Academy Awards Monday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Winners took a while to get from the stage to the press room. But it didn’t take them anywhere near as long as it took for two big winners--Clint Eastwood and Al Pacino--to claim their first Oscars.

Eastwood appeared gracious and calm as he held an Oscar in each hand. The film that won Oscars for best picture and best director may have been written 17 years ago, he said, but it’s in no way outdated.

“The movie says that it’s not glamorous to take up a gun and kill people,” he said. “I think that violence is very much on people’s minds today. (Writer) David Peoples was ahead of his time.”

Asked how it feels to get his first Oscar after four decades in the business, he said it has even more impact at this point. “If you win it early in your career you wonder, ‘Where do I go from here?’ It may be that at that time of life, a person may not be mature enough. You wear a monocle and leggings and walk around thinking you’re a great genius.”

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Of his past films, he said perhaps “The Outlaw Josey Wales” may have deserved an Oscar, but at that time in history “the academy wasn’t ready to embrace an art form like a Western. This is vindication for not winning before. It’s easy to look down on my earlier work . . . and some of it deserved to be looked down on.”

Al Pacino, whose brash, acerbic lieutenant colonel galvanized “Scent of a Woman,” finally landed the best actor award on his fifth time out. Backstage, he had difficulty formulating his thoughts. “I’m on a roll,” he said, as he hemmed and hawed, chalking it up to jet lag.

“I’ve gotten used to not receiving awards,” he acknowledged. “When I got a Golden Globe I was surprised, I felt something is changing. I must have felt that because I’ve written a speech and I’ve never done that before.”

Gene Hackman, winner of the best supporting actor award for his portrayal of the sheriff in “Unforgiven,” says he first read the script years ago when it was to be directed by Francis Ford Coppola. “I didn’t see what Clint saw in it at the time,” he acknowledges. “I thought it was too violent. My agent was very strong and convinced me to do it. He had a better eye than I. It was an ideal film for me because I only worked on it for three weeks. At my age, your attention span tends to go.”

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The veteran actor, who won a best actor Oscar for “The French Connection” more than two decades ago, had indicated earlier in the evening that he might retire if this year’s statuette came his way. When pressed for a confirmation, he retreated a bit. “I’m not going to retire,” he maintained, “but I really am going to back off. I’ve just finished a picture with Tom Cruise (“The Firm”) and I’m not going to do as much as I have in the past.”

Though the understated Hackman bet against himself when TV commentator David Sheehan told him he’d walk off with the same award during January’s Golden Globe awards, the actor claims he decided against such a move this time around. “David Sheehan wanted me to,” he claims. “He had more confidence in me than I did. And I didn’t want to take any easy money.”

And Orin Hackman, to whom he dedicated his second Oscar? “My 88-year-old uncle,” the actor explained, seemingly glad to draw attention to the Rochester, N.Y., newspaperman with whom he was very close. “He passed away last night. I just found out about it a few hours ago.”

It was a bubbly and, at times, seemingly adolescent Marisa Tomei who beat out a handful of veteran actresses for her role as an automotive expert in the comedy “My Cousin Vinny.” Still, the best supporting actress refused to divulge her age.

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“Young enough,” she said coyly, acknowledging that she was as surprised as the audience when she walked off with the prize. “I think I almost tripped on my way up there. It was absolutely surreal. I’m still not quite present. Not totally here in one piece. Just floating.”

Tomei admitted to rubbing co-star Joe Pesci’s Oscar for good luck and jokingly suggested that the two statuettes might be kept together like “Ken and Barbie” dolls. Not surprisingly, during this “Year of the Woman” Oscar ceremony, the actress was asked to address the paucity of good female roles in Hollywood. “There’s got to be better stories,” she said. “It’s always the girlfriend and the wife. Hopefully, different, more complex stories can be told.”

As for the professional consequences of the award, Tomei said, “I haven’t begun to ponder those things, but I’ll hopefully get to choose the best of (the roles) and get paid for it.”

Director Neil Jordan, winner of the best original screenplay Oscar, explained why he neglected to acknowledge best supporting actor nominee Jaye Davidson and U.S. distributor Miramax Pictures during his acceptance speech. “I totally forgot,” he said, explaining his lack of focus at the time. “I was down in the bathroom and they pulled the program forward.”

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Though he said he has no plans to make a sequel to “The Crying Game,” he intends to work with Davidson again in the future. In what capacity? “I’ll think of something.”

Emma Thompson, who walked off with the best actress award for her role in “Howards End,” injected a considerable dose of wry humor into the backstage proceedings. “Being nominated for an Oscar,” she said, “is a cross between having a very severe virus and getting married. People in England, wearing this ghastly expression, are constantly asking you how you feel, to the point where you truly start to feel ill. Then you come over here to what feels like a big wedding. It’s very nerve-racking. I brought a lot of herbal tranquilizers with me . . . and my mother. She’s down there palpitating.”

Seven of the eight films in which the actress has appeared, she pointed out, have been independent productions and she found last weekend’s Independent Spirit Awards very uplifting. “If that event occurred in England, unfortunately, it would have been five of us in a greasy spoon, depressed, smoking. It saddens me that, in Britain, the industry doesn’t have the clout it once had. We’re a miserable bunch, aren’t we?”

Though four of her eight films were directed by husband Kenneth Branagh, the actress declined to give him too much credit. “Without him, I may not have had much of a film career,” she acknowledges, “but as a husband and wife team, I don’t want to dwell on him too much. I feel badly but it’s not too good for women.”

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Elizabeth Taylor, winner of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award and a well-known AIDS activist, said she can understand the paucity of AIDS-related films. “I can see where producers have a hard time making an entertaining film about something so serious and such a disaster. I don’t see how you can capitalize it and make money on it--despite the fact that it’s laden with drama.”

Composer Alan Menken and lyricist Tim Rice won the Original Song Oscar for “A Whole New World” from Disney’s animated film “Aladdin.” Rice said he was “overly moved” by the award, particularly since he was standing in the shoes of “the great Howard Ashman,” who collaborated with Menken on “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast” before succumbing to AIDS.

Rice also praised Menken, who he said “is writing today’s best theater musicals . . . though he happens to be doing it in the cinema. We’re going back to the theater together, however. Alan has done a score for ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ I contributed four brand new songs and it’s due to open on Broadway next year. I guess I’m easing back to the theater now. It’s just possible I’ll go back full time.”

Menken was asked how it felt, in the span of a few days, to have landed both the Oscar and the Razzie--given to the worst movies of the year. “I’m very proud of ‘Newsies,’ ” he responded, referring to the Disney live-action flop, “though it’s far from a perfect film. There’s actually a bit of flattery in getting a Razzie. It’s OK.”

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When the Vietnam drama “Indochine” walked off with the best foreign film award, it marked the ninth victory for France, placing the country in a tie with Italy in the history of Oscar balloting. Director Regis Wargnier, conceded that the subject of Indochina is still an emotionally loaded one, both here and in France. “We didn’t expect the movie to be so controversial,” he said. “We’ve been attacked in France by both the right and the left.”


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