Thornton, McDormand, Rush wins block sweep

Oscar competition was burned to a crisp by “The English Patient,” which grabbed nine wins — the most for a single film since “The Last Emperor” in 1987.

Even more so than in the nominations, the majors were shoved to the sidelines: In the top eight “money” catego-ries, including the acting, writing, directing and pic races, the only winner from a big studio was Cuba Gooding Jr., supporting actor winner for TriStar’s “Jerry Maguire.”

The evening’s big winner was “English” distrib Miramax, taking home 12 Oscars in all; far behind was second place Gramercy with three wins, including two for “Fargo,” the only other picture to nab more than one prize.

It may not have been a sweep for independents — Miramax and Gramercy are owned by Disney and Polygram — but non-majors stole the spotlight. The evening was also notable for its newcomers and foreigners.

Debutants were present in 15 of the 23 competitive categories (excluding foreign-language film). Even more im-pressive, 21 of the 36 individual winners — nearly two-thirds — were first-timers in their races.

International entrants did well: Nine of the races featured foreign-born victors: director, actor, art direction, cine-matography, dramatic score, musical/comedy score, song, visual effects and animated-short.

Anthony Minghella won for his direction of “Patient,” which also earned a surprise supporting actress win for Ju-liette Binoche, Miramax’s fourth consecutive win in that category. Billy Bob Thornton’s adapted-screenplay prize for “Sling Blade” marks the fourth time in the last five years that Miramax took home a screenplay win.

Frances McDormand won as actress for “Fargo” and Geoffrey Rush took home the actor prize for “Shine.” Holly-wood newcomer DreamWorks took its first win, in the live-action short contest, its sole nomination.

Miramax’s parent can bask in the reflected glory of “English’s” top prize: Disney is the only major that’s never won a best-pic Oscar. Miramax is only the third non-major to win the top prize, after two wins for RKO and four for Orion.

This marks Miramax’s fifth consecutive nom in the best pic race and sixth since 1989.

The evening featured several other notable wins.

* McDormand became the first woman to win an Academy Award for a performance directed by her husband (but the second consecutive best actress winner, after Susan Sarandon for Tim Robbins’ “Dead Man Walking,” to be di-rected by her significant other).

It’s the fourth consecutive actress win from a non-major and the second consecutive Gramercy win.

Her husband, Joel Coen, lost the helming race, but he and brother Ethan Coen won for their original screenplay on the pic.

* Rush became the first unknown since F. Murray Abraham (“Amadeus,” 1984) to win the actor prize. He also is the third acting winner in four years from a Down Under film, after the two wins on “The Piano” (and, like Holly Hunter, he portrayed a piano playin’ neurotic).

In the last 10 years, he’s the eighth actor to win by playing someone physically or mentally unhealthy.

* Gooding (“Jerry Maguire”) became the sixth black to win an acting award (and the third in the supporting actor category).

* In the second consecutive year that an actor took home a screenplay trophy, Thornton won for adapting his play into “Sling Blade.” Beating out adaptations from Arthur Miller and William Shakespeare, Thornton’s victory marks the first time since the category was created in 1956 that the winner of the adapted screenplay race did not get a best-pic nomination.

* Rachel Portman (“Emma”) became the first woman to ever win for composing a film score.

The best-pic win for “English Patient” follows Oscar voters’ pattern of choosing sweeping, lengthy films that cover wide geographical and emotional terrain (see chart, page 57).

It seemed clear that this would be an evening of few surprises when the first award went to Gooding, who was widely considered the front-runner. “Patient” then immediately established its dominance when it won the first six awards in which it was nominated: art direction, costumes, supporting actress, sound, editing, cinematography.

Binoche’s win as supporting actress on that pic was one of the few upsets of the evening, since Lauren Bacall (“The Mirror Has Two Faces”) had been considered the favorite even before the announcement of the nominations.

Binoche is the second French-born actress to win an Oscar, after 1934’s Claudette Colbert (Simone Signoret, who worked chiefly in France, was born in Germany). She follows such Miramax supporting actresses as Anna Paquin (“The Piano”), Dianne Wiest (“Bullets Over Broadway”) and Mira Sorvino (“Mighty Aphrodite”).

The distrib also picked up wins for “Sling Blade,” “Emma” and “Kolya.”

That pic, from the father-son team of writer Zdenek Sverak and director Jan Sverak, was the Czech Republic’s first nomination (but prior to its 1993 split, Czechoslovakia had six noms and two wins).

Pointing up the gap this year between B.O. success and Oscar, the top-10 pics of 1996 collectively nabbed only two nods (out of only seven nominations): for the visual effects on “Independence Day” and the makeup on “The Nutty Professor.”

Saul Zaentz is only the second producer in Oscar history to take home three best-pic Oscars. He also becomes the first producer in 44 years to win the Thalberg and best-picture trophies in the same year.

Zaentz won for both of his previous two noms: “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (shared with Michael Douglas) in 1975 and “Amadeus” in 1984. He now ties Sam Spiegel (“On the Waterfront,” 1954; “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” 1957; and “Lawrence of Arabia,” 1962). Before 1951, best picture trophy was awarded to studio, not to in-dividual.

Aside from him and Cecil B. DeMille, six other men won the Thalberg-best pic combo in the same year.

On “Patient,” cinematographer John Seale chalked up his first win on his third try, while editor Walter Murch won for the first time in the editing race on his fifth try. Murch was also a winner for sound, one of the few races where every person on the winning team was an Oscar vet. Aside from Murch (his third sound nom and second win), the winners were Mark Berger (who’s now won on all four of his noms), David Parker (first win, second nom) and Chris Newman (third win, eighth nom).

For his dramatic score, Gabriel Yared won on his first bid; Stuart Craig nabbed his third Oscar (on his sixth nom) for his art direction and set decorator Stephenie McMillan won on her first. Ann Roth won for costume designer on “The English Patient” on her second bid.

Otherwise, films were content to take home one apiece.

For “The Nutty Professor,” makeup artist David Leroy Anderson won on his first bid. His collaborator, Rick Baker, was on his sixth bid, grabbing his fourth Oscar (including the first competitive Oscar in this category for the 1981 “American Werewolf in London”).

The visual effects team for “Independence Day” featured three freshman and one vet (Clay Pinney, on his second nom). This nomination was challenged by an effects worker, who disputed the Academy’s decision to limit the nomination to four people.

The live-action-short race was the only category this year in which everyone was a first-time nominee. The prize went to the only English-language nominee in the division, “Dear Diary,” which DreamWorks produced. Also winning on their first were producers Tyron Montgomery and Thomas Stellmach for the animated short “Quest.”

For sound effects editing, Bruce Stambler (“The Ghost and the Darkness”) took home his first Oscar on his fifth consecutive nom, and his first solo.

The evening, running 3 hours and 34 minutes, featured eight standing ovations. First was for the entrance of host Billy Crystal; 22 minutes after the start of the show, Gooding was saluted for energetically talking through the music that cued he’d gone over his allotted time. Next was for Michael Kidd, winner of a special Oscar for his cho-reography over the years. Muhammad Ali got a standing O when he was brought onstage for the feature-docu win “When We Were Kings.” Others went to Zaentz (when accepting the Irving G. Thalberg Award), Billy Bob Thornton (adapted screenplay), and actors McDormand and Rush.

The 69th annual kudocast was presented Monday night at the Shrine Auditorium in L.A. and was broadcast live on ABC.

A segment on the show highlighted the March 1 presentation of scientific and technical awards. A complete list of those winners appeared in Daily Variety March 3.

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