Benigni Rising Has Hollywood Gushing

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The awards season in Hollywood hasn't been the same ever since a comic whirlwind from Italy hit town in the form of Roberto Benigni.

With a receding hairline and nerdy, black-rimmed glasses, the candle-thin 46-year-old star and director of "Life Is Beautiful" bounces, jumps, laughs, cries and claps through press interviews and speeches--a man so full of life that he often leaves those around him speechless.

At the recent Directors Guild of America Awards dinner, Steven Spielberg described Benigni as "an Italian Furby" and joked that he wished he could take him home with him. But earlier in the day, at a symposium for DGA best director nominees, Benigni was such a tough act to follow that Spielberg appealed--only half in jest--to the moderator: "I don't want to have to follow Robert every time. If we can take turns. . . ."

If there is to be a magic moment at this year's Oscars, it's likely to come from the hyperkinetic Italian comedian, actor, writer, director and producer. His film, a tragi-comic fable about a father trying to protect his son from the horrors of the Holocaust, has received seven Academy Award nominations, including three for Benigni himself as actor, co-writer and director. Only Orson Welles, Woody Allen and Warren Beatty have been nominated in all three categories for a single film.

If the Elia Kazan controversy is the brooding cloud over this year's ceremony, Benigni is its ray of light--to the point that some in Hollywood are saying that academy members could vote for him for best actor simply because they want to see what he'll do on stage.

"People just love that sort of infectious enthusiasm," said Mark Gill, president of Miramax L.A., the West Coast arm of the studio releasing "Life Is Beautiful."

Benigni has become so famous so fast that fellow actors and directors often approach him with a sense of awe.

"I ran into Penny Marshall," Gill recalled, "who said, 'I heard Roberto Benigni is here. Can I meet him?' . . . She just made a bee-line for him. That happens over and over and over again. People are desperate to meet him because he has come out of nowhere and all of a sudden he is someone who people want to meet."

While his film remains a longshot for best picture, the odds on Benigni winning best actor are better. For example, Entertainment Weekly lists him as 2-1 to walk off with the Oscar. Daily Variety reported that the London gambling house Ladbrokes is giving 8-1 odds that Benigni wins, but the New York Post said his Oscar chances increased greatly after pulling off a surprise win at the recent SAG awards.

Whether he wins in any category--"Life Is Beautiful" is also nominated for best foreign language film--the Benigni experience is one Hollywood won't soon forget.

"He's the closest thing, as a performer, I've seen to Peter Sellers to ever come down the pike," said producer David Foster, who was once worked as Sellers' press agent.

"He's outrageous, funny as hell and unattractive," Foster said of Benigni. "So, he's not a threat [to Hollywood] in any way. I think what Hollywood respects about this guy are the dimensions of his talent. . . . Everybody wishes they could write, produce, direct and act. This guy actually does it and he has a pretty wife to boot."

If past is prologue, here's what worldwide audiences might expect if Benigni wins an Oscar Sunday:

* At the DGA awards show, Benigni danced onto the stage where he was handed a nomination plaque acknowledging his work behind the camera for "Life Is Beautiful." "I can't believe I won!" he shouted in the best Italian-fractured English since Chico Marx hit Hollywood. "I am full like a watermelon!"

Actually, he had not won--Spielberg would take home the DGA prize for "Saving Private Ryan"--but the Italian comedian and filmmaker nonetheless brought down the house as he expressed joy at being nominated by his peers.

* At the Screen Actors Guild Awards earlier this month, where he was named outstanding leading actor, Benigni raced on the stage, picked up the trophy girl and spun her around. Then yelling, "Mama mia!," he threw his arms around presenter Helen Hunt, lifted the actress off her feet, and twirled around as the crowd erupted in laughter and applause.

Benigni said he was so shocked by his unexpected win that "every organ in my body is moving in a very bad way."

Jeff Margolis, the executive producer of the SAG awards, said that when Benigni won the guild's top acting honor, his acceptance speech was timed at more than four minutes.

"He was like a little kid with a new train set," Margolis said. "In his acceptance speech, he was saying, 'It's so wonderful to sit at the same table as Kathy Bates and Meryl Streep. I don't know what to do.' I think he really believes that. He's such a breath of fresh air."

* At the European Film Awards in November, where he won prizes for best actor and best film, Benigni told the crowd that he wanted to "jump naked in front of E-VERY-BUUH-DY."

Life is truly beautiful these days for Benigni. Yet, it wasn't too long ago that few Americans outside film buffs had ever heard of him.

Although he has directed and starred in numerous Italian films and has acted in a few American movies, including "Son of the Pink Panther" and "Down by Law," it was not until "Life Is Beautiful" ("La Vita E Bella") that he achieved his current level of fame.

He first came to the attention of many in Hollywood last spring when "Life Is Beautiful" won the grand jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year. When the announcement was made he threw himself at the feet of jury president Martin Scorsese, kissing the famed director's shoes.

Benigni surfaced again when "Life Is Beautiful" opened last Oct. 23 in the U.S. The film received generally enthusiastic reviews--though some, like the New Yorker's David Denby, were adamant in their dislike of it--and has gone on to be the highest-grossing foreign language films ever released in the U.S., earning $32.8 million as of last weekend.

Despite its title, "Life Is Beautiful" is essentially a tragic story. It begins as a comedy about an Italian Everyman, Guido (Benigni), who courts the beautiful Dora (Nicoletta Braschi, Benigni's wife and frequent co-star). The humor is vintage slapstick; in one scene, Dora falls out of a hayloft and lands on Guido. But the second half of the movie turns into a poignant drama as the Jewish couple, now married, are taken to a Nazi concentration camp along with their wide-eyed child, Giosue.

As much as his film, it's Benigni's comic style and unique use of language that has made him the talk of the town. At the DGA symposium, Benigni--seated at one end of the row with a brilliant red scarf draped around his neck--made up words like "mysterical" to describe his filmmaking process.

At one point, Benigni said: "The Italian writer Machiavelli said, 'There are people who know everything, but that's all they know!' " Then, as laughter enveloped the auditorium, he added: "That's very good because when I learn everything, I'm missing something!"

Giorgio DiPaolo, president of the Chicago chapter of FIERI, a national organization of young Italian Americans, said Benigni has given movie audiences a different perspective of Italians, who Hollywood often portray as mobsters and buffoons.

"He is probably, hands down, the biggest role model for all of us," DiPaolo explained. " . . . When people see him, there's just an aura around him, an aura of love. There is a poll in Italy where Italian women were asked who they'd love to spend a vacation with and they chose him. Leonardo DiCaprio was No. 2."

* Italians are rejoicing over the film's success. F25

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