An 'English Patient' Epic

TIMES STAFF WRITER

"The English Patient," a sweeping World War II romance whose struggle to get made came to symbolize the hurdles independent filmmakers endure in Hollywood, swept through Monday night's Academy Awards in a celebration of films made outside the historic studio system.

The film won nine of the 12 categories it was nominated for in the 69th annual Academy Awards at the Shrine Auditorium, including best picture and an Oscar for director Anthony Minghella.

It had been heavily favored from the start both because of the number of nominations and because it features the kind of epic qualities traditionally favored by voters with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. Set partly in the North African vistas of Tunisia, the film had a look reminiscent of such classic films as "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Out of Africa."

Chronicling the recuperation in an abandoned Tuscan monastery of a mysterious explorer, played by Ralph Fiennes, the film through flashbacks tells of his heartbreaking affair in North Africa with a married Englishwoman, played by Kristin Scott Thomas. Severely burned in a plane crash, he pieces his memories together as he is cared for by a nurse, played by French actress Juliette Binoche. She pulled off the night's biggest upset when she won the Oscar for best supporting actress.

Hollywood legend Lauren Bacall, 72, was presumed to have a lock on that award for "The Mirror Has Two Faces." Few thought the academy could resist honoring Bacall for sentimental reasons in what was the first nomination of her 53-year film career. Binoche herself seemed in shock, saying in her acceptance speech that she thought Bacall deserved to win and that her winning "must be a dream."

Winning as best actress was favorite Frances McDormand for her role in "Fargo" as Marge, the pregnant Minnesota sheriff out to solve a kidnapping that goes awry. Her husband, director Joel Coen, and his brother, Ethan Coen, won the Oscar for best original screenplay.

Also winning was another favorite, Australian stage actor Geoffrey Rush, for his role in "Shine" about the mental breakdown of concert pianist David Helfgott. Helfgott, who is in the middle of a U.S. concert tour that has been poorly received by critics, made a surprise appearance to play a brief piece. In picking up his Oscar, Rush thanked "the unstoppable David Helfgott. You truly are an inspiration."

Cuba Gooding Jr., the only African American actor nominated, won as expected for best supporting actor for his role as the frustrated football star Rod Tidwell looking for his big payday in "Jerry Maguire." Exhilarated by his win, Gooding joyously pranced around the stage thanking actor Tom Cruise and others with the same hyperkinetic energy he displayed in the film when he was shouting "Show me the money!"

Last year, the lack of African American nominees was criticized by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Gooding is the third African American actor to win in the supporting category, the others being Lou Gossett Jr. for 1982's "An Officer and a Gentleman" and Denzel Washington for 1989's "Glory."

From the start, however, the night clearly belonged to "The English Patient," which became the first film since 1987's "The Last Emperor" to win nine Oscars. It swept through the technical awards, winning in the first seven categories in which it was nominated, until Billy Bob Thornton broke the string by winning for best adapted screenplay for "Sling Blade."

Only one film nurtured through the traditional studio system, TriStar Pictures' "Jerry Maguire," was nominated for best picture.

The independent tone of the evening was acknowledged by host Billy Crystal in his opening monologue, when he referred to it as "Sundance by the Sea." Crystal's monologue was marked by sharp digs at poor showings by studio projects in the nominations.

Returning to hosting the program after a three-year absence, Crystal noted that one of the differences between now and then was that "major studios were nominated for Oscars" then. In another comedy bit, he parodied the major studio mentality for predictable fare by suggesting that the studios planned to make a detective film teaming Billy Bob Thornton's grunting character in "Sling Blade" with Geoffrey Rush's babbling concert pianist from "Shine."

The nominations were packed with actors and actresses virtually unknown to the moviegoing public, with the notable exception of "Jerry Maguire" star Tom Cruise. Referring to the many relatively unknown actors and actresses from independent films, Crystal said: "Some of them had to show photo ID to get in here tonight."

"The English Patient's" victories were a tribute to the determination and sacrifices of producer Saul Zaentz and director Minghella, both in bringing Canadian novelist Michael Ondaatje's complex novel to the screen and in scraping up the $33 million eventually needed to make the film. Zaentz, Minghella and members of the cast went so far as to defer payments they were owed.

In a story told by Zaentz and others--widely cited as symbolic of the shortsightedness many independent filmmakers attribute to major studios--20th Century Fox balked at the project, purportedly because it wanted bigger box-office names such as Demi Moore in the film. Fox executives vehemently deny that version of events and the allegation that they pushed for Moore, saying the project unraveled instead because of Zaentz's struggle to secure financing.

Eventually, Walt Disney Co.'s Miramax independent film unit stepped up to back the film. In his acceptance speech, Zaentz recounted how financial difficulties forced the film to shut down with no money, stranding the crew in Italy.

Zaentz's win gave him one best-picture Oscar in each of the last three decades, the others being "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" in the 1970s and "Amadeus" in the 1980s. In addition to getting the best picture Oscar for "The English Patent," Zaentz received the prestigious Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award for his producing.

"The English Patient's" victory also was a personal triumph for brothers Harvey and Bob Weinstein, Miramax's co-chairmen, two of the film industry's shrewdest and most colorful executives. Since 1993, the year they sold Miramax--named for parents Miriam and Max--to Walt Disney Co., Miramax has had a major presence in the Oscars awards with such films as "The Crying Game," "The Piano," "Pulp Fiction" and "Il Postino (The Postman)." Until this year, however, a Miramax film had never won a best picture Oscar.

Monday also marked the first Oscar for DreamWorks SKG, the fledging studio founded by director Steven Spielberg, studio executive Jeffrey Katzenberg and music mogul David Geffen. The studio's "Dear Diary" won for best live action short film. The film was a TV pilot that ABC failed to buy.

The 3 1/2-hour ceremony's tone was generally light, kicked off by a segment in which Crystal was spliced into films, including a scene showing him discussing his return to the Oscars with Yoda from "The Empire Strikes Back." He also was spliced into scenes from the nominated films, ending with an airplane crash scene in "The English Patient" showing David Letterman, whose stint as Oscar host two years ago was widely panned, piloting the plane.

Two people assumed to be Oscar no-shows, albeit for different reasons, actually attended. Barbra Streisand, who was expected to spurn the event after being snubbed for a nomination for directing "The Mirror Has Two Faces," showed up, but didn't sing her Oscar-nominated song. It was sung by Celine Dion, filling in for an ill Natalie Cole.

Also appearing was Hustler magazine founder Larry Flynt, subject of the Columbia film "The People vs. Larry Flynt," who couldn't get a ticket from the studio. Flynt supporters blamed the backlash against the film on feminist groups, while executives with studio parent Sony Pictures Entertainment said they didn't have enough tickets. Flynt found a ticket, and sat near Woody Harrelson, nominated for best actor, who played him in the film.

Winning for best feature documentary was "When We Were Kings," which chronicled the 1974 heavyweight championship fight in Zaire between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. One of the moving moments came when Ali, who has Parkinson's disease, slowly walked to the stage with Foreman to a standing ovation.

"You Must Love Me," written for the musical "Evita" by composers Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, won as the best original song. The film's star, Madonna, performed the song, which was the first Oscar won by Lloyd Webber, who joked that he was lucky no song from "The English Patient" was nominated.

Another first came when Rachel Portman became the first woman to win for best original musical or comedy score for "Emma."

The Czech film "Kolya" about the relationship of a young child and a perrennial bachelor, won for best foreign film.

Times staff writer Susan King contributed to this story.

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