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BACKSTAGE AT THE OSCARS

“That music came in quick! Did you notice that? I mean, they have four hours for the show!” said Cuba Gooding Jr., who had to scream his love for the industry over the blare of the orchestra (the show, by the way, was scheduled to last three hours). Asked about how he felt being one of the few black actors to be recognized, Gooding said: “Hi, Denzel (Washington). Damn, it feels good, brother. Hi, Sidney (Poitier). Hopefully I’ll be there some day.” And on winning, he said, “I play ice hockey and there’s nothing better than that beer or Gatorade when you come off the ice. It just tastes refreshing. (Winning the supporting actor Oscar) just feels refreshing.”

Stuart Craig and Stephanie McMillan, who were the first “English Patient” winners of the night (art direction), said they visited all the hot spots in the Middle East to scout the pic, including Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco. Pro-ducer Saul Zaentz apparently put the kibosh on Israel though, because of political tensions. But they ultimately picked Tunisia because of the color of the sand. “It was lighter,” Craig said. “It was altogether more glamorous.”

Ann Roth, who won for costume design on “The English Patient,” had a heckuva time convincing reporters back-stage she wasn’t marketing a line of clothing based on her designs, because apparently, some retail stores had taken to labeling clothes as “English Patient” wear. “I’m a costume designer. I don’t do lines of clothes,” she said.

Anthony Minghella, who is good friends with Billy Bob Thornton, said he was only slightly jealous of his pal winning the best adapted screenplay Oscar for “Sling Blade.” Minghella, who nabbed the helmer award for “The English Patient,” had been a strong contender for the writing nod because the adaptation of Michael Ondaatje’s book was so complicated. But he lamented to reporters: “Billy Bob said he wrote his in two weeks. It took me two years to write ‘English Patient.’ ”

“The English Patient” producer Saul Zaentz admitted it was a “leap of faith” to use Anthony Minghella to direct the project because it was such an epic. But he used his love of art to show why he stuck with the director. “One of the arguments I’ve heard is that Vermeer only painted small pictures, so would you let him paint a big picture for you?” Zaentz asked. “Of course, the answer is ridiculous.”

Walter Murch, who won two Oscars, for editing and part of the sound award for “The English Patient,” said the double duty was nothing new for him. “It’s overwhelming, but it’s something I’ve been doing going back to the early 1970s, starting with a film called ‘The Conversation.’ ”

The international flavor of this year’s Oscars continued as “The English Patient” Oscar-winner John Seale, the Aussie who garnered the nod for cinematography, pointed to his non-Hollywood upbringing.Seale, who has been nominated twice before (in 1985 for “Witness” and in 1988 for “Rain Man”) said, “I absolutely never thought I would get into the Oscars, or even Hollywood. When I started, there was a lot of starving going on with Austra-lians, and Hollywood was a joke. Then one day Peter Weir asked me to come over and shoot ‘Witness,’ and you start to work yourself into the Academy system and you see what it all means.”

With his-and-her Oscar bookends for the Coen/McDormand (original screenplay/actress) clan, Frances McDor-mand jumped onto the stage between the Coen brothers, Ethan (who she said made her into an actress) and hus-band Joel (who she said made her into a woman). When questioned about what that meant, McDormand laughed and said, “No. I’m not going there.” Ethan Coen broke out in laughter when he was asked the cliche question about his passion of filmmaking. “We enjoy what we do,” he said as matter-of-factly as one of the characters in “Fargo.”

“You go to work in the morning, some days are good and some days are bad. It’s a little different than what a Saul Zaentz (would say).” Joel Coen noted that they were very surprised that the film got the recognition it did from the Academy. “It’s mysterious to us, as it seems to be for everyone else. I think the popularity for the general public has to do with Fran’s performance.” McDormand added, “There is something exotic about the (Minnesotan) accent. It’s not heard a lot. It’s not something people are used to.” She added that she thought people related to her character “because she is good at her job and has a life as well.”

Best actor Geoffrey Rush, as director Scott Hicks did in the Los Angeles Times on Monday, took issue with music reviewers who have been critical of David Helfgott’s current U.S. tour, saying, “I think some of the comments have been extremely unfair. If they want to hear technical virtuosity, then he’s not going to do something they want to hear. He’s pouring out his life on the keyboard.” He said he hadn’t yet received any reaction from Helfgott, but predicted, “He’d probably say something like brilliantissimo, because he tends to invent words like that.” Rush, who is working on “Les Miserables” in Paris and Prague, said his “Shine” win took him completely by surprise. “To be honest, I was pretty certain that it was going to be Billy Bob Thornton’s name that was going to come up tonight.”

As the little boy held tightly onto the foreign-language film Oscar, balancing it on his shoulder to support its weight, “Kolya” director Jan Sverak said he picked a Russian child to star in the film because “the languages are very similar and the Russian soldiers have been occupying our country (Czech Republic) for a long time. Six years after the tanks left, it was time to talk about it again. The film is about how the understanding between nations is more important than the power.” And his impression of his first time at the Academy Awards? “It is the biggest achievement possible. It’s like the Olympic Games for a sportsman.”

Low-budget filmmaking is nothing new for Jessica Yu, the fifth-generation Chinese-American filmmaker who won the best documentary short Oscar for “Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien.” Yu’s husband is novelist-filmmaker-martial artist Mark Salzman, who wrote, directed and starred in “Iron and Silk,” an autobio-graphical film about his exploits as a martial-arts student and English teacher in China.

When asked how much the “Breathing” cost, Yu said, “I usually say that’s a personal question because it usually involves personal investment. But it was definitely less than the earrings.”

DreamWorks picked up its first Oscar in the live-action short category with “Dear Diary” by filmmakers David Frankel and Barry Jossen. Onstage, the pair dutifully thanked the “three wise men” of DreamWorks — David Geffen, Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg. But backstage, the pair said it was a “strange feeling” to bring home DreamWorks’ first statuette. “I know there are a lot more Oscars coming from the man at the top there,” Frankel said. “And I think next year, with ‘Amistad,’ you’ll see Steven Spielberg right here.”

Bruce Stambler, who won the sound-effects editing Oscar for Paramount Pictures’ “The Ghost and the Darkness,” which mixed the roars of wild lions, said, “Any animal movie is very hard. We recorded sound effects for about two months.” Asked about how he felt receiving his award from MTV bad boys Beavis and Butt-head, Stambler said, “The sound effects were good. My son loves them. He makes me watch an hour of them and I want to commit suicide.”

Rick Baker and David Leroy Anderson, winners for the makeup Oscar for “The Nutty Professor,” admitted the film’s star Eddie Murphy deserved as much credit for the award as they do because with all characters Murphy portrayed, “you have to sell the make-up.”

Baker said he has come a long way since making gorilla suits for John Landis. “To do believable, human charac-ters is the hardest thing to do. I think we did all right.”

It looked like the backstage interviews with Germany-based animators Tyron Montgomery and Thomas Stellmach, who won the Oscar for animated short film for “Quest,” would be conducted entirely in German. Not until the filmmakers were being ushered offstage did Montgomery answer in English whether the duo would consider com-ing to the U.S.

“Basically I want to stay in the field of puppet and model animation,” Montgomery said. “But in the States it seems people are concentrating only on cel animation. I would love to come to this country, but I hardly know of any good companies.”

Among those overheard as they made their way into the Shrine Auditorium were “Breaking the Waves” star Emily Watson with her actor husband Jett Watters, who admitted that she “hopes to do something funny next, not so much crying.”

David Spade said, “It took four hours to blow-dry my hair,” adding, “Chris Farley and I are doing the M&Ms movie soon.”

Billy Bob Thornton, holding a ZZ Top hat, likened his best actor nomination to being “kind of like a tornado. In fact, this blue ribbon right here (pointed to one he was wearing) is for the tornado victims in the South and my hometown.”

He said “Mixed Ballerina,” the “inside joke” he mentioned in his acceptance speech (for adapted screenplay, “Sling Blade”), “is just a little catch-phrase me and my buddies use for when things are going all right.” The stix film-maker added that he thanked Elizabeth Taylor because “she is a legend, and because she supported me; she came out and talked this movie up even though she didn’t know me.”

Michael Kidd, winner of a special Oscar for his lifetime of choreography in Hollywood, said it was about time the Academy offered up an Oscar for best choreography, despite the paucity of potential winners. “I hope that people realize that we’re missing something,” he said. “That musical movies will come back and that choreographers should receive the recognition that this award gives.”

“When We Were Kings” creators Leon Gast and David Sonenberg brought some heft with them backstage when Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, the subjects of their feature docu, lumbered back. The pair of boxing leg-ends stayed mum and beat a hasty retreat, but not before receiving a several-minute standing ovation from the press corps.

Gast meanwhile, took the victorious moment to call on distribution companies to consider documentaries as money-making ventures and finance more of them. “More companies like Miramax and Gramercy that will have faith in documentaries can change the whole (genre),” he said, pointing to other top-grossing docus “Thin Blue Line” and “Hoop Dreams.” His partner Sonenberg concurred, saying docus should be considered as pieces of dra-matic art, not “science projects.”

Rachel Portman, winner of the Oscar for best achievement in music for “Emma,” is the first woman to win for writing the score for a film — and the first woman to have been nominated in that category since 1945.

Because Portman came close to not taking the job on “Emma,” as she had to start work just three months after having a baby, she says she prefers the type of films Miramax makes.

“I worked on a lot of Miramax films. They make a lot of small, interesting films, and I’m not interested in working on big things.”

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