On a note of surprise

Times Staff Writers

In an evening filled with raw emotion, stunning surprises and even a little ‘60s-style peace protests thrown in for good measure, “Chicago,” the Roaring ‘20s musical morality tale, won the Oscar for best picture Sunday evening at the 75th Academy Awards.

And, though the win for the overwhelmingly popular “Chicago” was expected, the wins for actor Adrien Brody and director Roman Polanski for the Holocaust drama “The Pianist” were shockers that drew gasps and sustained applause from the audience. As he walked on stage to accept his best actor Oscar, the tall, lanky Brody gave a long, passionate kiss to last year’s Oscar winner, Halle Berry, who presented him with the award. But the humor of the moment soon gave way to deeper feeling.

“There comes a time when everything seems to make sense. This is not one of those times,” said Brody, who noted that his experience working on the film made him “very aware of the sadness” caused by war.

The other major surprise was the best director award going to Polanski, a fugitive from American justice since he fled the U.S. in 1978 after pleading guilty to having sex with a 13-year-old girl. Going into the awards, “Chicago’s” Rob Marshall, who won the Directors Guild of America award, was considered the favorite. “The Pianist” also took home the best adapted screenplay award for Ronald Harwood in a category that had been expected to go to David Hare, who adapted “The Hours.” Pedro Almodovar won for original screenplay for “Talk to Her,” marking the first time that a Spanish-language film won in this category.


All the major awards went to first-time winners in their categories.

For sheer numbers, “Chicago,” based on the Bob Fosse Broadway musical, was the big winner during the 3 1/2-hour telecast Sunday night from the Kodak Theatre on ABC. Not since “Oliver!” won the top honor 34 years ago has Oscar had a song in its heart and a spring in its step. The Miramax movie danced off with a total of six golden statuettes to lead all others. “The Pianist” was next with three Oscars, followed by “Frida” and “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,” which each won two.

But for perennial Oscar power Miramax, it was a mixed night. The studio’s “Gangs of New York,” which had been nominated for 10 awards, went home empty-handed.

The 29-year-old Brody won for his role as Wladyslaw Szpilman, the Polish Jew who evaded Nazis during World War II in Focus Features’ “The Pianist.” The audience in the Kodak rose and cheered as Brody clutched his head in disbelief. He had just pulled off the unthinkable: beating Oscar-winning veterans Jack Nicholson, Daniel Day-Lewis, Michael Caine and Nicolas Cage. Brody thus tied Richard Dreyfuss as the youngest actor to ever win the honor.

As his speech lingered far beyond the allotted 45 seconds, Brody demanded more time to speak. “Whomever you believe in, if it’s God or Allah, may he watch over you, and let’s pray for a peaceful and swift resolution,” Brody said. Before leaving the stage, he wished safety for a friend from Queens, N.Y., who he said is currently serving with the U.S. military in Kuwait.

Emotion also overtook Nicole Kidman as she accepted the Oscar for best actress for her role as the suicidal writer Virginia Woolf in “The Hours.” Denzel Washington, who presented her with the award, said that the Australian actress had won “by a nose,” a kidding reference to the fact that Kidman had donned a prosthetic nose to play the character.

Turning serious, Kidman noted that people have asked her: Why come to the Academy Awards when the world is in such turmoil? “Because art is important,” she said, “and because you believe in what you do and you want to honor that and it is a tradition that needs to be upheld.”

Seasoned character actor Chris Cooper, his eyes welling with tears and his voice cracking, accepted the Oscar for best supporting actor for “Adaptation,” where he portrayed an eccentric, nearly toothless orchid poacher.


Without mentioning the words Iraq or war, Cooper’s acceptance speech still provided the evening’s first political reference: “In light of all the trouble in this world, I wish us all peace.”

Catherine Zeta-Jones, who played celebrity-seeking vaudevillian Velma Kelly, who murders her cheating husband and her sister in “Chicago,” took home the Oscar for best supporting actress. The raven-haired Welsh actress, who is only weeks away from delivering her second child by her husband and fellow Oscar winner Michael Douglas, was beaming as she gleefully remarked: “My hormones are way too out of control to even be dealing with this now.”

Because of the sobering events unfolding in the Middle East, speculation had run rampant over how host Steve Martin would handle his opening monologue. Would he be a wild and crazy guy or provide a more somber tone?

To be sure, Martin didn’t cut loose with zany acts like wearing an arrow through his head like he did in his old stand-up days as a comic, nor did he mimic onetime Oscar host Billy Crystal’s antics like riding in on a horse or arriving on stage chained and wearing a leather mask a la Hannibal the Cannibal from “Silence of the Lambs.” Instead, Martin touched only indirectly on the war’s impact on the Oscars, which saw the elimination of the red carpet arrival ceremony.


“Well, I’m glad they cut back on all the glitz,” Martin joked. “You probably notice there was no fancy red carpet tonight. That’ll send ‘em a message.”

One of the evening’s more touching moments occurred when the late Conrad L. Hall won posthumously for best cinematography for the Depression-era drama “Road to Perdition.” His son, cinematographer Conrad W. Hall, stepped to the microphone and, looking upward, said, “Dad, wherever you are, you are gone, but not forgotten.”

“Nowhere in Africa,” a World War II saga about a Jewish family that flees Germany before the war and goes to Kenya, won for best foreign-language film.

In other categories, “Frida” won two Oscars for makeup and for Elliot Goldenthal’s original score. The best song award went to Eminem’s hit song “Lose Yourself” from “8 Mile,” although the song wasn’t performed at the ceremony and the rapper was a no-show. Noted Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away” won for best animated feature. The epic “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” received two awards -- for visual effects and sound editing.


Peter O’Toole, a seven-time nominee for such films as “Lawrence of Arabia” and “The Lion in Winter,” accepted his first Oscar -- an honorary Academy Award from actress Meryl Streep.