Oscar’s ‘American’ dream

Best pic's five wins include actor, director & screenplay

DreamWorks achieved its “American” dream.

With five trophies, “American Beauty” became the first best film winner in 23 years — since the 1976 “Rocky” — to be majority-lensed in Hollywood. This also marks the first top win for the company.

In an unconventional year filled with unconventional movies, the evening was dominated by first-time Oscar nominees. Of the 35 individuals who took home Academy Awards, 23 were first-timers. (There were six who were repeat winners, and another six with previous noms but no earlier wins).

Emblematic of the shape of the evening, Warner Bros.’ “The Matrix” was a quadruple winner, with its first-time nominees in four tech races (sound, editing, sound-effects editing and visual effects) triumphing over many previous contenders and/or winners in their categories.

Landing the helming prize for his first film, “American Beauty” helmer Sam Mendes joins a select group of those who won for their directing bow: Delbert Mann (“Marty”), Jerome Robbins (“West Side Story,” shared with Robert Wise), Robert Redford (“Ordinary People”), James L. Brooks (“Terms of Endearment”) and Kevin Costner (“Dances With Wolves”).

Both of the script victors won for their first produced work: John Irving, adapting his novel for “Cider House Rules,” and Alan Ball, winner of original screenplay for DreamWorks’ “American Beauty.”

The four acting races were evenly split: two previous winners and two Oscar newcomers.

Hilary Swank — a virtual bigscreen unknown before 1999 — won for portraying a real-life character Brandon Teena in Fox Searchlight’s “Boys Don’t Cry.” Another Oscar first-timer, Angelina Jolie, won as supporting actress for Columbia’s “Girl, Interrupted.”

Two past winners took home the rest of the thesp wins: best actor Kevin Spacey, for “Beauty,” and supporting actor Michael Caine, for Miramax’s “The Cider House Rules.” Both had previously won in supporting races.

In general, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences spread the wealth. In the 23 competitive races, 13 films were honored, including four that were multiple wins: “Beauty,” “Matrix,” “Cider House” and “Topsy-Turvy,” which each took home two.

In the foreign-language derby, “All About My Mother” marked Spain’s third win, on its 18th nomination, and the second nom for helmer Pedro Almodovar. The film, from El Deseo SA/Renn/France 2 Cinema, is a Sony Pictures Classics release domestically; it was the biggest box office winner in its category, and some pundits predicted it was too popular — and too quirky — to take home the trophy.

Andrzej Wajda made history as the first ever Eastern European director to be given an honorary Academy Award. Handed the Irving Thalberg Award, Warren Beatty made a particularly gracious and eloquent speech.

Mendes’ prize is the second consecutive directing prize for DreamWorks in two full years of distribution, after Steven Spielberg’s win for “Saving Private Ryan” last year. (This year, Spielberg presented the trophy to Mendes.) Aside from pic, director, actor and screenplay, “Beauty” won for Conrad L. Hall’s cinematography; with eight earlier noms, he’d won once before, for the 1969 “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”

The $15 million “American Beauty” is a triumph for DreamWorks, which was disappointed last year when its “Private Ryan” was reduced to also-ran status. But there’s a certain irony in the fact that a company run by three of the highest-profile execs in the business — Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen — saw its first best film win go to a pic made by two producers with only a handful of producer credits (Bruce Cohen and Dan Jinks), a new screenwriter and a first-time director.

Good news for the spec-script market: It’s the fourth time in the last five years that the best pic winner was based on an original screenplay.

It’s only the fifth contemporary film in the last 20 years to win the prize (after “Ordinary People,” “Terms of Endearment,” “Rain Man” and “The Silence of the Lambs”). And in a year with a multitude of lengthy films, “Beauty” was just two hours long.

Aside from his win, Spacey can revel in his status as a good-luck charm for scripters. Ball’s win for “Beauty” marks the third time in five years that a Spacey vehicle won script Oscars (after “Usual Suspects” and “L.A. Confidential”).

Judi Dench handed the trophy to fellow Brit Caine, which may cement the conventional wisdom that British actors always win Oscars. In truth, Caine is only the fifth person from the U.K. to win for thesping since 1990, and the first in the supporting actor race since Sean Connery (“The Untouchables”) in 1987.

In one of the best speeches, Caine paid tribute to each of the males in his category (joking to Cruise that his price would have gone down had he won: “Have you any idea what supporting actors get paid?”)

Jolie and her father Jon Voight join Henry and Jane Fonda as the only father-daughter team to both win acting Oscars (Voight won for 1978’s “Coming Home”).

Irving’s “Cider House” win carries on a Miramax tradition. The company has taken home a screenplay win in six of the past seven years: “The Crying Game” (1992); “The Piano” (1993); “Pulp Fiction” (1994); “Sling Blade” (1996); “Good Will Hunting” (1997); and “Shakespeare in Love” (1998)

The earliest awards helped establish the theme of Oscar virgins’ victories. The first statuette handed out went to first-timer Lindy Hemming, for her “Topsy-Turvy” costumes. Her win was shortly followed by two other Oscar newcomers, Christine Blundell and Trefor Proud, taking home the makeup award for that Mike Leigh-helmed pic from USA Films.

“Matrix” won visual effects honors for John Gaeta, Janek Sirrs, Steve Courtley and Jon Thum, all new kids to the race who beat such competitors as 11-time nominee Dennis Muren.

Similarly competing against Oscar vets such as six-time nominee Richard Hymns and four-time winner Ben Burtt, first-timer Dane A. Davis won for his sound effects editing, also for “Matrix.”

Oscar rookie David Lee was among the four men winning for “Matrix’s” sound, along with John Reitz (his second nom), Gregg Rudloff (who also won on his sole previous nom, for the 1989 “Glory”) and David Campbell (third nom).

And, in one of the three races consisting entirely of Oscar tyros, that film’s Zach Staenberg took home the editing statuette.

Other Academy Award newcomers were Barbara Schock and Tammy Tiehel, in the live-action short-film race — but, of course, no one in that race had ever been nominated before. They won for “My Mother Dreams the Satan’s Disciples in New York,” which presenter Jude Law commented was the most interesting title in this year’s Oscar derby, and their acceptance may mark the first time anyone has ever thanked “the bikers” in an Acad speech.

Another intriguing title was “King Gimp,” which won the documentary short prize for Susan Hannah Hadary and William A. Whiteford, both first-timers here.

However, in the animated short race, Russian animator Alexandre Petrov — the most experienced person in his category, with two previous noms — won for “The Old Man and the Sea.”

And the song medal went to Phil Collins, on his third nomination, for “You’ll Be in My Heart,” from the Disney toon “Tarzan.” It was the sole win for Disney, which had led the field with 17 nominations.

Several of the big nominees came home empty-handed. “The Insider,” “The Sixth Sense,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “The Green Mile” accounted for 23 noms, but no wins. And two triple nominees — M. Night Shyamalan and Michael Mann — were also-rans.

John Corigliano (Lions Gate’s “The Red Violin”) won for music (original score), his first win on his second nom. (This race was the only one without any nominated newcomers.)

And the question of Oscar track records saw several split decisions.

“One Day in September” triumphed as a feature docu; winners were Arthur Cohn, his third Oscar (out of four noms) in this race, while Kevin Macdonald is a newcomer.

In art direction, Paramount/Mandalay’s “Sleepy Hollow” won for art director Rick Heinrichs (no previous noms) and set decorator Peter Young (who also won on his sole previous nom, for set decoration on the 1989 “Batman”).

In his introductory remarks, Acad prexy Robert Rehme referred to this as “the least predictable year in Academy history” — an apt remark, since all Oscar races were wide open, to say the least.

At the end of 1999, there were no sure bets, and the announcement of critics awards shed little light on the races, as the various groups tapped a diverse group of films for the top prizes.

However, the “American Beauty” momentum seemed to build in the past month, as the film took awards from various unions, including the Writers, Directors and Screen Actors guilds. The film even took the marketing prize from the Publicists Guild on March 22.

Still, there was doubt, as many pundits predicted an upset from one of Disney’s two contenders, “The Insider” and “The Sixth Sense” — or, even more likely, from “Cider House Rules.” (Few predicted “Green Mile,” on the basis of the fact that its four noms did not include bids for director Frank Darabont or star Tom Hanks.)

But fans of the film and DreamWorks staffers refused to call the film a shoo-in, lest history repeat itself. Last year, “Private Ryan” was considered the easy front-runner, and the pic ended up losing the prize to “Shakespeare in Love.”

The evening provided few clues until the final stretch. At the three-hour point, only 15 of the 23 competitive awards had been announced, and no prize had been handed out in any of the categories featuring head-to-head competition among “Cider,” “Beauty” and “Insider.”

The Acad consists of 5,607 voting members in 14 branches. Of those, the largest group is actors, with 1,321 voting thesps.

Members in nine branches nominate achievements in 16 categories. Special voting groups within the Academy this year picked the nominees in six other categories, with everyone balloting on best pic.

Kudocast exceeded last year’s running time, which at four hours and two minutes was the record-holder for length.

The 72nd Academy Awards were presented Sunday night at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. Richard and Lili Fini Zanuck produced the kudocast, which was hosted by Billy Crystal.

(Dade Hayes contributed to this story.)

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