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Long Oscar night yields controversy, big surprise

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It was a night a long night of self congratulations, subdued controversy, and one very big surprise.

The 71st Academy Awards ceremony dragged on longer than most in recent memory and even a comedien as gifted as Whoopi Goldberg couldn't make the whole thing flow.

While we all complain about the length and tedium, we still tune in every year, and the annual Oscar presentations continue to be among the most-watched shows on worldwide television.

The Super Bore ... I mean Bowl, is up there as well, so I guess that should tell us something about modern culture.

After Whoopi's obligatory nonsensical opening, the first montage was fairly interesting. It highlighted many a classic movie phrase, including Robert DeNiro's "Are you talking to me ... ?" from "Taxi Driver" and Al Pacino's chant, "Attica!, Attica!" from "Dog Day Afternoon." The tribute to Frank Sinatra was interesting, if only for the fact that it was put together by Martin Scorsese, and the highlight of these retrospectives was the overview of director Stanley Kubrick's career.

"Dr. Strangelove," "Lolita," "2001," "A Clockwork Orange," "The Shining" ... Kubrick never made a bad film, or one that wasn't in some way a milestone in motion pictures. His final effort, "Eyes Wide Shut" is due for a July release.

Director Norman Jewison won the Irving Thalberg award and his oeuvre was given proper treatment. Jewison's efforts are wide-ranged, including "The Russians Are Coming!, The Russians Are Coming!" "Agnes of God" and "Moonstruck." His films have earned at least 41 Oscar nominations and "Moonstruck" alone won in four major categories. He's a diverse artisan. The Academy chose well.

The Lifetime Achievement Award, given to director/informant Elia Kazan, was this year's most controversial prize. Kazan is a truly gifted director and his films, including "On The Waterfront," "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "East of Eden" are considered masterpieces (62 nominations, 22 Oscars).

His big problem stems from the fact that in the era of Commie conspiracy lunatic Sen. Joe McCarthy, Kazan confessed to having once belonged to the Communist Party. He ratted out eight other members of the Hollywood community who then found it hard to get work, even after McCarthy was discredited as a paranoid psychopathic megalomaniac.

Presenting Kazan's Oscar were Scorsese and Robert DeNiro, and there was a smattering of a standing ovation. The camera also revealed a great number of people well-known actors included not standing, or even applauding.

Not since Marlon Brando's Native American stand-in has the Oscar been so overtly political.

As for the awards themselves, things went pretty much as predicted, except for one major upset.

"Saving Private Ryan" was a favorite this year, and Steven Spielberg did take home the director's honor. Two-time award winner Tom Hanks wasn't a strong contender for best actor (two times is enough, already) and Roberto Benigni got well-deserved recognition as best actor in a leading role.

For my money, Benigni should have also gotten the award for best film. Conventional wisdom, however, said that "Saving Private Ryan" was a lock.

Surprise! This year's most nominated piece, "Shakespeare in Love," walked away with the best picture Oscar as well ones for leading actress (Gwyneth Paltrow), supporting actress (Judi Dench), original screenplay, art direction, costume design and music.

Besides his best actor award, Benigni, as director, got a statue for best foreign film. Only one other movie has been nominated for best film and best foreign language film, Costa-Gavras' 1969 political drama "Z." It took the foreign language award, as well as best editing, but the best film Oscar that year went to "Midnight Cowboy."

James Coburn won for best supporting actor. He was great in "Affliction," but the fact that Bill Murray didn't even get a nomination for "Rushmore" had critics wondering just what was up with the Academy. The same goes for the supporting actress category. It was a strong field, but overlooking Lisa Kudrow for her work in "The Opposite of Sex" was this year's most glaring omission.

Some of these films are already out on video, some lesser-known ones ("Gods and Monsters," "Little Voice") will be out soon and "Shakespeare in Love" and "Saving Private Ryan" will enjoy another round of exhibition at first-run houses nationwide.

All in all it was a decent Oscar night, but of everything nominated or awarded this year, I'd have to say "Life is Beautiful" is the one movie that most deserves your attention.

(Jim Wunderle works at Associated Video Producers and is a Springfield free-lance writer and musician.)

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