After two decades of creating some of Hollywood's biggest commercial successes, director Steven Spielberg finally had his artistic triumph Monday night at the 66th annual Academy Awards.
Spielberg's risky labor of love, "Schindler's List," the gripping black-and-white epic about the Holocaust that industry cynics wrongly predicted would never draw audiences, won the best picture award for 1993 and delivered the 46-year-old filmmaker his first Oscar for directing.
The acclaimed film, based on Thomas Keneally's bestselling 1982 fact-based novel about Nazi war profiteer Oskar Schindler who secretly saved more than 1,100 Jews from extermination, took seven awards, including best adapted screenplay, cinematography, editing, original score and art direction.
The evening's top acting awards went to Holly Hunter, who won best actress for her role as the mute mail-order bride in colonial New Zealand in "The Piano," and Tom Hanks, named best actor for his performance as the AIDS-stricken lawyer Andrew Beckett in "Philadelphia" who fights for his human rights when he is fired from his job.
Tommy Lee Jones won the best supporting actor award--his first Oscar--for his role as the relentless Federal Marshal Sam Gerard in "The Fugitive," based on the popular 1960s TV series.
Eleven-year-old Anna Paquin won the best supporting actress Oscar for her performance as Holly Hunter's jealous daughter Flora in "The Piano." She is the second-youngest Oscar winner ever, after Tatum O'Neal, who received the supporting actress honor at age 10 for 1973's "Paper Moon."
Monday's awards ceremony was clearly a night of personal triumph and vindication for Spielberg, who had been snubbed by fellow members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and underestimated by critics as a serious artist.
"This is the best drink of water after the longest drought in my life," said Spielberg after accepting the award for best picture from Harrison Ford, his star in the popular "Indiana Jones" pictures.
"I actually have friends who have won this before, and I swear I have never held one before," said Spielberg. He credited Holocaust survivor Poldek Pfefferberg for persuading Keneally to write the book and for "carrying Oskar Schindler to us."
Spielberg also thanked MCA President Sidney Sheinberg for "giving me the book" and screenwriter Steven Zaillian for his "inordinate restraint." And he spoke of the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust, "who can't be watching this among the 1 billion watching this telecast tonight."
Spielberg implored educators watching the show to not allow the Holocaust to "remain a footnote in history."
In accepting her award, Hunter, who was nominated for best actress for 1987's "Broadcast News," thanked her first piano teacher and her parents for letting her have piano lessons. She also thanked director Jane Campion for "giving me a character and experience that was so difficult to say goodby to."
The Oscar was a first for Hanks, whose role in "Philadelphia"--the first studio movie about AIDS--was a rare and bold departure for an actor best known for his comedic skills in such films as "Big" (for which he was nominated for an Oscar in 1988), "Sleepless in Seattle" and "A League of Their Own."
Hanks' award seemed to indicate a more accepting attitude toward mainstream actors choosing to play unconventional roles. Historically, Hollywood's top stars have steered away from portraying gay characters for fear it could harm their careers.
With a standing ovation and a kiss from fellow Oscar nominee Liam Neesom, an emotional Hanks thanked the filmmakers of "Philadelphia" and his co-stars, calling Antonio Banderas "the only person I would trade my lover for" and Denzel Washington an actor "who really put his film image at risk."
"Philadelphia," which drew mixed reviews, was not nominated in the best picture category. Nor was its director, Jonathan Demme, nominated. He had been harshly criticized by some gay activists for the film's lack of explicit sexuality in the relationship between Hanks and his lover.
"Philadelphia" picked up the award for best original song, "Streets of Philadelphia," written and performed by Bruce Springsteen.
Jones, a Texas-born actor who also won the Golden Globe, was nominated in 1991 for his portrayal of Clay Shaw in Oliver Stone's "JFK."
Jones thanked the Academy for "the greatest award" an actor could receive.
The first upset of the evening was Paquin's win. The young actress was practically speechless when she picked up her award. She beat out the favored Winona Ryder, the Golden Globe winner for "The Age of Innocence." That period romance, directed by Martin Scorsese, did win one Oscar, for best costume design.
It was clearly Spielberg's night. He is the most successful filmmaker in history, with such mainstream family adventure hits as "Jurassic Park," "E.T." and "Jaws," but he has always yearned for validation as a serious artist. Even though "Schindler's List" took most of the major pre-Oscar awards, including the Golden Globes, two major critics groups bypassed the filmmaker as best director.
Although he received the Irving G. Thalberg Award in 1987, Spielberg was overlooked as best director for his three previous nominated films, 1977's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," 1981's "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and 1982's "E.T."
"Schindler's List" has not only been almost universally acclaimed by the critics, but also has done phenomenally well for a film of its kind at the box office, having just passed the $100-million mark worldwide.
Universal Pictures was at first concerned that the $23-million film's commercial viability would be hurt by its black-and-white format, 185-minute length and tough subject matter. But Spielberg fought the odds and delivered a work he has often said "I had to make."
Polish-born director of photography Janusz Kaminski won the cinematography award for his stark black-and-white work on "Schindler's List." He said shooting the movie was "the most important event of my professional life."
Best original screenplay went to New Zealand's Campion for "The Piano," for which she also won the Writers Guild award.
Campion missed out on the distinction of being the first woman to win an Oscar for directing.
She was the first woman director to be nominated since Lina Wertmuller received the nod for "Seven Beauties" in 1976.
Whoopi Goldberg, in her debut run as Billy Crystal's replacement and as the show's first female and first African American host, Oscar winner Whoopi Goldberg wasted no time in spicing up the show with some irreverent remarks and made good on her promise not to shy away from politics.
"There haven't been this many show biz executives so nervous sweating over one woman since Heidi Fleiss, honey," said Goldberg.
To make sure viewers did not feel "shortchanged in the political soapbox department," Goldberg plugged save the whales, the spotted owl, gay rights, human rights, gun control, peace in Bosnia, health care reform, more AIDS research, and letting "Frank Sinatra finish."
The first award of the evening went to "Schindler's List" for art direction. Spielberg's other 1993 release, "Jurassic Park"--the highest grossing movie of all time at nearly $900 million--picked up the three technical Oscars for which it was nominated.
Three-time Oscar winner John Williams won the statuette for his evocative original music score for "Schindler's List." A longtime Spielberg collaborator, Williams previously won for 1982's "E.T," 1975's "Jaws" and 1977's "Star Wars."
Spain's "Belle Epoque," Fernando Trueba's comedy about a young, idealistic soldier's pursuit of four sisters, upset the expected winner, Hong Kong's Chen Kaige's "Farewell My Concubine."
The two honorary awards of the evening went to Deborah Kerr and Paul Newman. Glenn Close presented British actress Kerr, 72, with the academy's honorary Oscar.
Receiving a standing ovation, a tearful Kerr said, "There should be some more words for thank you. I've never been so frightened in my life. I'm better now--I know I'm among friends."
Box office star Tom Cruise presented his "Color of Money" co-star Newman, 69, with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. With profits from his food company, Newman has donated more than $80 million to various charities. Newman won a best actor Oscar for "The Color of Money" and a 1985 honorary award.
Times staff writer Susan King contributed to this story.
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Oscar's Grand Prizes
BEST PICTURE: "Schindler's List"
BEST DIRECTOR: Steven Spielberg "Schindler's List"
BEST ACTOR: Tom Hanks "Philadelphia"
BEST ACTRESS: Holly Hunter "The Piano"
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Tommy Lee Jones "The Fugitive"
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Anna Paquin "The Piano"