Serious Business -- Ceremony Is Packed With Politics; `Schindler's List,' Spielberg Are Big Winners

No one made a speech about Haitian refugees, or the plight of Tibet, or why Spike Lee was robbed of a nomination.

No one had to. Politics were inextricably part of the movies last year, and they dominated last night's 66th annual Academy Awards ceremonies in Los Angeles.

Defiance of the Holocaust was the subject of Steven Spielberg's three-hour black-and-white epic, "Schindler's List," which led the way with seven Oscars: best picture, director, screenplay adaptation, cinematography, music, editing and art direction.

In his acceptance speech, Spielberg pleaded with teachers not to allow the Holocaust to become a historical footnote in their classes. One of his co-producers identified himself as a Holocaust survivor, and Spielberg paid tribute to another survivor who had inspired Thomas Keneally to write the book that inspired his film.

Hanks, Springsteen win

Jonathan Demme's "Philadelphia," which took both the best-actor prize for Tom Hanks and a best-song award for Bruce Springsteen, dealt with AIDS discrimination in the work place. In the most emotional speech of the evening, Hanks singled out two gay men - a high-school teacher and a classmate - who had been instrumental in inspiring his career.

New Zealand filmmaker Jane Campion's "The Piano," which received Oscars for best actress (Holly Hunter), supporting actress (11-year-old Anna Paquin) and original screenplay (by Campion), focused on a mail-order bride's defiance of sexist 19th century conventions.

Even the escapist box-office smash, "The Fugitive," which won a supporting-actor Oscar for Tommy Lee Jones, used its action-movie format to address the complexities of injustice.

As the televised clip from Jones' performance demonstrated, the movie is not just about a chase or a train wreck. It's a story in which the audience is asked to sympathize with both an intelligent lawman and the innocent man he is committed to pursue.

Politics seen again

Also weighing in with a political theme was Pepe Danquart's "Black Rider," a 12-minute German film in which a black streetcar rider turns the tables on a racist old lady who noisily shares a seat with him. It won for best live-action short subject.

Margaret Lazarus and Renner Wunderlich's "Defending Our Lives," which took the Oscar for best documentary short subject, is also heavy stuff: an emotionally overwhelming half hour about battered women, their hellish marriages and those who choose homicide as an answer to abuse.

Several of last night's more prominent losers also dealt with politics. "The Remains of the Day" approached the Holocaust from a distanced point of view. "In the Name of the Father" addressed British injustice and IRA terrorism. Both came up empty-handed, as did such political documentaries as "Children of Fate," "The Broadcast Tapes of Dr. Peter" and "The War Room."

In a sense, it was fitting that Spielberg should end up the big winner at the most serious-minded Oscar show in years. Last year marked a recess from a two-decade reign of Hollywood movies that often seemed to have no higher aspirations than the recreation of a childhood Saturday-matinee experience. Spielberg has frequently been accused of starting that trend by making "Jaws" the blockbuster hit of 1975 and creating a situation in which only huge moneymakers appeared to have value.

True, he also directed last year's biggest box-office smash, "Jurassic Park," which won three Oscars in technical categories - visual effects, sound recording, sound-effects editing. But with "Schindler's List" he demonstrated that it is possible for a commercial filmmaker to be successful on more than one level.

The evening was short on surprises. The closest thing to an upset was Paquin's win for "The Piano" - the first time the Oscar has gone to a child since Tatum O'Neal won for "Paper Moon" exactly 20 years ago. Winona Ryder ("The Age of Innocence") had been favored to win, while Rosie Perez ("Fearless") seemed the likeliest runner-up.

Paquin, apparently shocked herself, was initially speechless. Yet few would argue that she didn't deserve the prize. Many critics felt she stole the film.

The only major disappointment in judgment was the prize for best foreign-language film to Spain's "Belle Epoque" - a pretty, empty romantic comedy that has much in common with the pretty, empty foreign-film winners of recent Oscar shows ("Mediterraneo," "Indochine").

It's not that there aren't plenty of challenging foreign films out there. Last night's losers included both China's "Farewell My Concubine," which shared last year's grand prize at Cannes with "The Piano," and Taiwan's "The Wedding Banquet," winner of the top prize at last year's Berlin and Seattle festivals.

It's just that the academy makes it impossibly difficult to get nominated, then perversely presents its final award to an inconsequential entertainment. Both "Farewell My Concubine" and "The Wedding Banquet" were breakthrough movies for their countries, as was another nominee, Vietnam's "Scent of Green Papaya." But "Belle Epoque" is the kind of picaresque fluff that European filmmakers turn out in their sleep.

Also disappointing were the special awards to Paul Newman, who received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, and Deborah Kerr, who won an honorary Oscar for a body of work that, as presenter Glenn Close said, had successfully turned her into "a surrogate mom." Neither tribute really did the job. The measly clips from Kerr's movies didn't begin to do justice to her three-decades-long career.

Still, just seeing the 72-year-old Kerr again after so many years almost made up for it. "I've never been so frightened in all my life," she said, "but I feel better now because I know I'm among friends."

A montage of scenes with movie people who have died during the past year was a nice touch, as was the opening number, "Putting It Together," which mixed Bernadette Peters' rendition of the Sondheim song with behind-the-scenes film clips. Not so fortunate was a sequence in which dancers performed to the music from nominated films.

As first-time host, Whoopi Goldberg was expected to do something outlandish. She teased and hinted ("I'm an equal-opportunity offender"), took potshots at Nancy Reagan and the Los Angeles Times' Calendar section, and of course she couldn't resist a Bobbitt joke. But on the whole it was a pretty tame gig.

At times, she even imposed order on a show that threatened to turn sloppy. She graciously handled the business of naming the cinematographer who had accidentally been left off a list of nominees.

Perhaps the nature of the movies this year demanded a more efficient, dignified approach. The show was less like a party than usual. For all its emotional moments, it probably won't be remembered as long as the movies it honored.

Here are the winners:

Picture: "Schindler's List," Steven Spielberg, Gerald R. Molen and Branko Lustig, producers.

Actor: Tom Hanks, "Philadelphia."

Actress: Holly Hunter, "The Piano."

Supporting actor: Tommy Lee Jones, "The Fugitive."

Supporting actress: Anna Paquin, "The Piano."

Director: Steven Spielberg, "Schindler's List."

Original screenplay: Jane Campion, "The Piano."

Adapted screenplay: Steven Zaillian, "Schindler's List."

Foreign film: "Belle Epoque," Spain.

Art direction: Allan Starski and Ewa Braun, "Schindler's List."

Cinematography: Janusz Kaminski, "Schindler's List."

Costume design: Gabriella Pescucci, "The Age of Innocence."

Documentary feature: "I Am A Promise: The Children...," Susan Raymond and Alan Raymond.

Documentary short subject: "Defending Our Lives," Margaret Lazarus and Renner Wunderlich.

Film editing: Michael Kahn, "Schindler's List."

Makeup: Greg Cannom, Ve Neill and Yolanda Toussieng, "Mrs. Doubtfire."

Music original score: John Williams, "Schindler's List."

Music original song: "Streets of Philadelphia," Bruce Springsteen, "Philadelphia."

Animated short film: "The Wrong Trousers," Nicholas Park.

Live action short film: "Black Rider," Pepe Danquart.

Sound: Gary Summers, Gary Rydstrom, Shawn Murphy and Ron Judkins, "Jurassic Park."

Sound-effects editing: Gary Rydstrom and Richard Hymns, "Jurassic Park."

Visual effects: Dennis Muren, Stan Winston, Phil Tippett and Michael Lantieri, "Jurassic Park."

Jean Hersholt Award: Paul Newman for his humanitarian efforts.

Honorary award: Deborah Kerr for career achievement.

Gordon E. Sawyer Technical Award: Petro Vlahos, for his technical contributions to the motion picture industry.

Technical Award of Merit: Panavision Inc. for lens development.

Technical Award of Merit: Manfred G. Michelson of Technical Film Systems Inc. for film processor development.

(Information from Associated Press is included in this report.)