Last night was one of the most political evenings in the history of the Academy Awards, with presenters and winners making speeches about AIDS, imprisoned Haitians, China's treatment of Tibet, the U.S. treatment of Panama and the reluctance of PBS to show provocative documentaries.
The major awards, which went as expected to Al Pacino, Emma Thompson, Gene Hackman and Clint Eastwood, sometimes played like an afterthought at a benefit for Amnesty International. They included only one upset: the selection of Marisa Tomei as best supporting actress.
The only American in the running for an award that appeared to be locked up by foreigners, Tomei stole the show as Joe Pesci's smart girlfriend in "My Cousin Vinny," a comedy that received no other nominations and is already available on videocassette. Giddy with surprise, Tomei thanked "my very brave family."
"You broke my streak," said Pacino, who had been nominated eight times since "The Godfather" 20 years ago. He finally won for best actor for playing a roguish, self-destructive blind man in "Scent of a Woman" - a loose remake of an Italian movie that won Vittorio Gassman the best-actor prize at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival. Pacino admitted that he originally didn't want to play the role.
Nearly speechless, Hackman thanked Eastwood for giving him his supporting role as the corrupt sheriff in Eastwood's "Unforgiven," then dedicated the award to his uncle. Hackman previously won an
Oscar 21 years ago for his leading-role performance in "The French Connection."
Eastwood's revisionist Western was named best picture, and Eastwood won best director, though "Unforgiven" received only one other prize: for Joel Cox's film editing. Eastwood singled out critics for helping him with a movie that had little advance publicity and effectively ended his losing streak at the box office.
Hackman was in competition with two other actors from best-picture candidates: Jaye Davidson in "The Crying Game" and Jack Nicholson in "A Few Good Men." The latter film was the evening's big loser, with four nominations and no wins, while "The Crying Game" received just one award, for Neil Jordan's original screenplay.
After last year's "Silence of the Lambs" sweep, the Academy voters seemed to be in a mood to spread the honors around. Philippe Rousselot's cinematography for "A River Runs Through It" was singled out, as was the sound recording for "The Last of the Mohicans." The Francis Ford Coppola production, "Bram Stoker's Dracula," won for best makeup, sound-effects editing and costume design.
"Aladdin," just like Alan Menken's previous animated musicals, "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Little Mermaid," won for best original score and song ("A Whole New World"). Since 1990, the composer has won six Academy Awards for his Disney music.
Thompson was handed her Oscar by Sir Anthony Hopkins, who played her husband in "Howards End," a British adaptation of E.M. Forster's novel that also won prizes for best art direction and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's screenplay adaptation. Thompson gave the most eloquent of the actors' acceptance speeches, thanking Forster, director James Ivory, producer Ismael Merchant "for paying me to play" the plum role of Margaret - and calling attention to the lack of good roles for women.
The 3 1/2-hour show was dedicated to women, and special attention was paid to women's past achievements in screenwriting, film editing and costume design. One montage of Edith Head's costumes demonstrated how much impact one woman had on the look of movies, from Mae West's "She Done Him Wrong" to John Huston's "The Man Who Would Be King."
Barbra Streisand, introduced as "the woman who directed `The Prince of Tides,' " said she looked forward to a time when tributes to women in the industry would be unnecessary. The show opened with Lynn Littman's montage, "Oscar's Daughters," a quick survey of movie heroines from Snow White to Margo Channing to Norma Rae to Scarlett O'Hara.
Elizabeth Taylor, who was given the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian award for her pioneering support of the fight against AIDS, was exceptionally poised and articulate as she made her case for compassion. Honored with the same prize was the late Audrey Hepburn, who had worked with UNICEF until just a few months before her death earlier this year.
Another special award was presented by Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni to four-time Oscar winner Federico Fellini, who asked his wife and leading actress, Giulietta Masina, to "please stop crying." The prize for best foreign film went to the French epic, "Indochine."
Discussing the plight of HIV-positive Haitians, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins seemed to address the White House directly. So did Barbara Trent, who received the documentary award for "The Panama Deception" and gave a lengthy speech in which she discussed PBS's rejection of the film and the Panama government's attempts to ban it, while accusing the U.S. media of covering up the fact that hundreds and perhaps thousands of Panamanians were killed in the 1989 invasion.
In spite of the political talk, there was a surprising lack of dissension. This was quite unlike those 1970s Oscar telecasts in which Vanessa Redgrave would denounce Zionism, Marlon Brando would send Sacheen Littlefeather to deliver a speech on Indian rights, while the audience would boo or look stunned, or Paddy Chayefsky would come back with a denunciation of actors using the Oscars as a soap box.
Politics even overshadowed emcee Billy Crystal, who entered with Jack Palance, his "City Slickers" partner, but never quite recaptured their spontaneous nuttiness from last year. Crystal got off to a bad start with warmed-over jokes about Sharon Stone and "The Crying Game," got in deeper with a tasteless crack about a proposed Spike Lee movie called "Howard's Beach," then kept on plugging the recent video release of his box-office flop, "Mr. Saturday Night."
Still, he got off a few good ones, taking careful aim at Disney honcho Michael Eisner's ability to earn more than "Aladdin" has grossed, singing "Hooray for Howards End" to the tune of "Hooray for Hollywood," and kidding the cranky foreign-film committee for disqualifying a South American director.
With few surprises in the major categories, plus the usual supply of undistinguished songs and dance numbers, the show as a whole was a long haul. Yet the final awards generated some suspense. It wasn't clear until the last five minutes exactly which relatively low-budget film was going to be anointed best of the year.
Would it be "The Crying Game," which cost about $5 million? Or "Howards End," which was brought in for $8 million? Or "Unforgiven," which at $14 million cost about half what the average Hollywood movie does these days?
There's a lesson in here somewhere.
Here is a complete list of Oscar winners:
Picture: "Unforgiven," Clint Eastwood.
Actor: Al Pacino, "Scent of a Woman."
Actress: Emma Thompson, "Howards End."
Supporting actor: Gene Hackman, "Unforgiven."
Supporting actress: Marisa Tomei, "My Cousin Vinny."
Director: Clint Eastwood, "Unforgiven."
Foreign-language film: France, "Indochine."
Original screenplay: Neil Jordan, "The Crying Game."
Adapted screenplay: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, "Howards End."
Art direction: Luciana Arrighi and Ian Whittaker, "Howards End."
Cinematography: Philippe Rousselot, "A River Runs Through It."
Costume design: Eiko Ishioka, "Bram Stoker's Dracula."
Documentary feature: Barbara Trent and David Kasper, "The Panama Deception."
Documentary short subject: Thomas C. Goodwin and Gerardine Wurzburg, "Educating Peter."
Film editing: Joel Cox, "Unforgiven."
Makeup: Greg Cannom, Michele Burke and Matthew W. Mungle, "Bram Stoker's Dracula."
Original music score: Alan Menken, "Aladdin."
Original song: Alan Menken and Tim Rice, "A Whole New World" from "Aladdin."
Animated short film: Joan C. Gratz, "Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase."
Live-action short film: Sam Karmann, "Omnibus."
Sound: Chris Jenkins, Doug Hemphill, Mark Smith and Simon Kaye, "The Last of the Mohicans."
Sound-effects editing: Tom C. McCarthy and David E. Stone, "Bram Stoker's Dracula."
Visual effects: Ken Ralston, Doug Chiang, Doug Smythe and Tom Woodruff, "Death Becomes Her."
Previously announced Oscar recipients:
Jean Hersholt award: Audrey Hepburn for her UNICEF work.
Jean hersholt award: Elizabeth Taylor for her support of AIDS research.
Academy (technical) Award of Merit: Chadwell O`Connor for development of the fluid-damped camera-head.
Gordon E. Sawyer (technical) Award: Erich Kaestner for technical contributions to the motion picture industry.
Honorary award: Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini for lifetime achievement.