'Traffic,' 'Crouching Tiger' each win four trophies

HOLLYWOOD — At age 73, old Oscar is still capable of a few surprises.

At the March 25 ceremonies, “Gladiator” nabbed five Academy Awards, including best picture, but without a win for screenplay or direction — the first time that’s happened since “All the King’s Men” in 1949.

Steven Soderbergh, of “Traffic,” also wrote himself into the Oscar books, by becoming the first person to simultaneously win and lose in the director category.

And “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” won four Oscars, tying the 1983 “Fanny & Alexander” for the most wins ever for a foreign-language film.

Those three films ended up in the tightest possible Oscar race: five for DreamWorks-Universal’s “Gladiator,” four apiece for USA Films’ “Traffic” and Sony Pictures Classics’ “Tiger.” No other film had more than one win.

It was an evening of newcomers: Of the 31 people who took home competitive Oscars, 19 were first-timers. And, especially thanks to the “Tiger” wins, nine of the honorees were not born in the U.S.

Soderbergh’s win was the biggest surprise; since he was also nominated for helming “Erin Brockovich,” many pundits figured he’d cancel himself out. And since the Directors Guild of America honored Ang Lee for “Crouching Tiger,” the Oscar outcome seemed sure: the DGA and Oscar voters have differed only four times in the past, or once a decade.

Other surprises included Cameron Crowe’s original screenplay win for “Almost Famous,” and supporting actress winner Marcia Gay Harden, for “Pollock.”

But there were plenty of winners that were widely predicted: Russell Crowe, best actor for “Gladiator”; Julia Roberts, actress, “Erin Brockovich”; Benicio Del Toro, supporting actor, “Traffic”; Bob Dylan, best song “Things Have Changed,” from “Wonder Boys”; and “Crouching Tiger” as best foreign film.

Del Toro is the fourth actor to win for a foreign-language performance, after Sophia Loren, Robert De Niro and Roberto Benigni.

“Gladiator” marks the second consecutive best-film win for DreamWorks, after “American Beauty,” but it’s also a sign of the times: This marks the fourth time in six years that a studio-shared pic took the top prize.

‘Traffic’s’ take

Aside from director and supporting actor, “Traffic” won for Stephen Gaghan’s adapted screenplay (based on the British Channel 4 miniseries) and editor Stephen Mirrione.

“Crouching Tiger” also nabbed four. That quartet summed up the evening: The winner’s circle was filled with newcomers and international representatives. Tim Yip won for art direction, Peter Pau for cinematography, and Tan Dun for music score, all enjoying their first nominations.

And Lee, as director of the film, takes home the Oscar given to the pic as best foreign-language film. It marks the first win for Taiwan, which has had two other noms in this category, both for Lee-directed films: “The Wedding Banquet” and “Eat Drink Man Woman.”

Of the best-film nominees — which were also the five pics that racked up the most noms — only Miramax’s “Chocolat” went home empty-handed.

Studio tallies are difficult, due to the number of shared films; aside from “Gladiator,” they include “Almost Famous” (DreamWorks-Columbia) and “Erin Brockovich” (Universal-Columbia).

But Universal also had wins with “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and “U-571″; Sony Classics also had “Pollock” and Paramount has “Wonder Boys.”

DreamWorks joins nine other studios that previously have chalked up back-to-back best-pic wins, though United Artists holds the record with a triple run, from 1975-77. (“Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Rocky” and “Annie Hall”).

The “Gladiator” win was not a surprise, but this year featured a tight race, in which nothing seemed a sure bet.

But the thumbs-up for the Roman Empire-set actioner follows the Oscar pattern. With an almost mathematical precision, Academy voters alternate the best-pic winner among three groups: “small” pics (“Driving Miss Daisy,” “American Beauty”), big epics (“Gandhi,” “Braveheart”) and the midrange (“Forrest Gump”).

After the huge “Titanic” in 1997, the midrange “Shakespeare in Love” in 1998 and the “little” “American Beauty” last year, the timing was right for an epic.

The Feb. 13 announcement of Oscar noms indicated “Gladiator” as the front-runner, since it won 12 bids; the pic with the most noms has gone on to win the top prize in 19 of the past 20 years. Still, even its biggest boosters admitted that there was still plenty of room for upset.

But as General Maximus (Russell Crowe) says in the pic, “I will win the crowd. I’ll give them something they’ve never seen before.”

And “Gladiator,” a sort of ancient-Roman “Smackdown,” certainly did win the crowd. It’s the biggest B.O. grosser of the five best-pic nominees ($450 million globally) as well as the best-selling DVD ever (4 million copies sold).

It’s only the third film (after “Silence of the Lambs” and “Braveheart”) to win top prize while already on video, and (in a sign of the times) is the first to do it while on DVD.

Of the five best pic contenders, “Gladiator” was the highest budgeted ($100 million-plus), the longest (154 minutes) and, in an era of outcries from D.C. and the public on film-TV violence, easily the bloodiest.

The film is a Douglas Wick in association with Scott Free production. It’s the second nom for producers Wick and Branko Lustig, the first for David Franzoni (the latter also was a nominee in the original script race.)

In the four acting races, the New Zealand-born Crowe was the only thesp this year who was also cited last year (for “The Insider”).

Roberts scored her first win on her third nom. She’s the second consecutive best actress (after Hilary Swank) to win for playing a real person.

Harden, also a first-timer, won the supporting actress kudos — clearly the dark horse since she wasn’t even a nominee for the SAG award, and was an also-ran at Saturday’s Independent Spirit Awards.

Harden, Del Toro, Dylan, Gaghan, Mirrione and the “Crouching Tiger” quartet were just a few of the Oscar novices. Other first-time contenders who won include Janty Yates, costume design, “Gladiator”: Jon Johnson, sound editing (formerly called sound effects editing), for “U-571″; John Nelson, Neil Corbould, Tim Burke and Rob Harvey, all newcomers, for the visual effects on “Gladiator.”

Oscar virgins also include docu short producer Tracy Seretean for her first film, “Big Mama”; Florian Gallenberger for the 34-minute live action film “Quiero Ser (I Want to Be)”; and Deborah Oppenheimer, a producer of the feature docu “Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport.” That pic is the fourth Holocaust-themed film in the past six years to take home the docu feature prize.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences consists of 5,722 voting members in 14 branches. The largest group is actors, with 1,329, or 23% of the total.

Oscars were handed out at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. Steve Martin hosted the Gil Cates-produced event.

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