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With war and reflection at center stage

Times Staff Writer

The war in Iraq couldn’t stop the Oscars, but it certainly changed them.

With the ceremony taking place while the U.S. wages battle and the entire campaign season conducted under the near certainty that hostilities would occur, both the surprises and sure things of this 75th anniversary edition of the Academy Awards seemed to strongly bear the stamp of our current conflict.

Three of the biggest upsets of the night -- Roman Polanski’s victory for direction, Adrien Brody’s for actor and Ronald Harwood’s for adapted screenplay -- came for “The Pianist,” a film about survival during World War II.

It’s a picture that as Brody said in his emotional acceptance speech, made him aware of “the repercussions and dehumanization of war.” It’s more than possible that in addition to recognizing the film’s undeniable virtues, the Hollywood community wanted to take one of the few concrete opportunities it had to speak out against a contemporary struggle that has caused agony, despair and now bloodshed.

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Similarly, it is also possible that “Chicago’s” pack-leading six Oscars and best picture victory were in some part attributable to the flip side of that emotion, a desire to embrace a beautifully constructed piece of escapist entertainment, the kind of film that made people happy when the world seemed a simpler and less complex place.

Given that “Chicago’s” ultimate victory was predictable as early as a half-hour in, when it bested some very stiff competition to take the art direction Oscar, the most suspense of the evening centered on what Michael Moore would do and say if he won the documentary feature award for the anti-violence “Bowling for Columbine.”

When “Columbine” did win (a triumph also likely the result of the voters’ desire to speak out against the war), Moore did not disappoint. He gathered all the documentary nominees on stage with him and said they were united in what he was about to say.

Basically reprising his speech from Saturday’s Independent Spirit Awards, Moore lashed out against the conflict, saying, to fierce applause and an unprecedented level of booing, “We are against this war, Mr. Bush. Shame on you, Mr. Bush.”

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It was a moment of raw, uncensored emotion on all sides, the kind of unscripted scene that can make the Oscars such a compelling live event. And it made the war more present, made it seem more real than the pro forma news bulletins that ABC inserted twice in the program, scripted interruptions that served only to underline the surreal nature of the proceedings.

Emotion about the war was a theme throughout the night. Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal, at the awards as a presenter for “Frida,” said that that “if Frida [Kahlo] were alive she would be on our side against the war.”

And Elliot Goldenthal, best score winner for that film, paid tribute to Mexico’s “tradition and legacy of personal and political art.”

The fact that “Frida” earned more Oscars (two, makeup being the other one) than the combined total of “The Hours” (one) and “Gangs of New York” (zero), was certainly unexpected, with the shutout of “Gangs” perhaps due in part to a backlash against Miramax’s aggressive campaigning for the film.

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Emotion of all kinds was a keynote of the evening, especially in regard to parents. Brody thanked his parents for encouraging his creativity (his mother, photographer Sylvia Plachy, was his date), best actress Nicole Kidman said, “My whole life I wanted to make my mother proud and now I want to make my daughter proud,” and “Chicago” producer Martin Richards looked up and said almost as a private aside, “Mom and Dad, look where I’m standing.”

The academy also did itself proud in many categories, giving Pedro Almodovar the original screenplay honor for “Talk to Her,” rewarding the brilliance of “Spirited Away” with the animated feature Oscar, and even getting the animated and live-action shorts right by selecting “The ChubbChubbs!” in the former and “This Charming Man” in the latter.

But watching the many clips from great movies past that illuminated this diamond jubilee Oscar show, it was hard to escape the feeling that the Academy Awards evening was a kind of Potemkin village, constructed to fool everyone watching, the Hollywood community included, into thinking that the industry is still making the kinds of films it always has. As everyone knows, it very definitely isn’t, but it’s pleasant to have that fantasy, even if it lasts but a single night.


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