Oscar lights a Roman candle

Maximus glorious for DreamWorks-U best pic 'Gladiator'

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Oscar this year took a Roman holiday, as “Gladiator” nabbed five Academy Awards, including best picture.

But the film has the dubious distinction of winning the top prize without a screenplay or directing win — the first time that’s happened since “All the King’s Men” in 1949.

It’s 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 — in this case, Universal and DreamWorks — took the top prize.

The 73rd annual Academy Awards offered some surprises, including director Steven Soderbergh, for USA Films’ “Traffic” — only the fifth time ever that voters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences differed from the DGA. Soderbergh also makes Oscar history as the first director to defeat himself in the helming race.

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 Sony Pictures Classics’ “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” as best foreign film.

Another surprise was supporting actress Marcia Gay Harden, for “Pollock.” Cameron Crowe won the original screenplay for “Almost Famous” — his first win, after two noms, as writer and a producer of “Jerry Maguire.” On his first nom, Stephen Gaghan won the adapted screenplay Oscar for “Traffic,” based on the British Channel 4 miniseries.

Aside from Soderbergh, Del Toro and Gaghan, “Traffic” took home an award for editor Stephen Mirrione. “Crouching Tiger” also nabbed four. No other film scored multiple wins.

A quartet of wins for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” summed up the evening: The winner’s circle was filled with newcomers and international representatives. For “Tiger,” 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.”

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.

Despite real-world worries about strikes, the economy, and attacks from D.C., Academy voters decided not to leave their troubles behind: They continued a recent Oscar tradition of voting for pics with unhappy endings.

Since 1991, none of the best-film winners has had a conventional happy ending (“Silence of the Lambs,” “Unforgiven,” “Schindler’s List,” “Forrest Gump,” “Braveheart,” “The English Patient,” “Titanic,” “Shakespeare in Love,” “American Beauty”). In most of those films, at least one protagonist dies at the end.

Sunday night’s show offered genuine suspense. With questions of whether Soderbergh’s twin noms as director meant he would cancel himself out, whether Tom Hanks past wins would work against him, whether Roberts’ “shoo-in” would actually happen — and, crucially, what would be the best pic winner.

At the end of 2000, Roberts seemed to be the only sure bet to win, with the other Oscar races offering room for surprises. The announcement of critics awards reinforced that notion, as the various groups tapped a diverse group of films for the top prize.

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.

“Gladiator” gained momentum with wins at the Golden Globes, BAFTA awards and Producers Guild. Still, even its biggest boosters admitted that there was still plenty of room for upset.

The fact that Writers Guild Awards went to Kenneth Lonergan’s “You Can Count on Me” and Gaghan’s “Traffic,” and Directors Guild of America honors went to Ang Lee (“Crouching Tiger”) seemed to indicate that the film biz was spreading its admiration wide.

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 in this category ($450 million globally) and 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.

“Gladiator” was not only the highest-grossing of the five contenders; at $100 million-plus, it was the highest budgeted and with the longest-running time (154 minutes). And, in an era of outcries from D.C. and the public on violence from Hollywood, the R-rated pic was easily the bloodiest of this year’s five nominees.

The pic-director-script discrepancy is highly unusual. Winners for best pic and director were the same in nine of the past 10 years, and pic-and-script were identical in six of the past 10 years.

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

Soderbergh, winning for “Traffic,” was a double nominee this year (also for “Erin Brockovich”) and becomes the first person to defeat himself in the directing category. (In the 1928-29 voting, Frank Lloyd was a double nominee, winning for “The Divine Lady.” But there were no official nominations that year.)

Soderbergh was also the first person to compete against himself in this race since Michael Curtiz in 1938. (Frank Capra won that year.) Soderbergh was previously nominated for the script of “sex, lies, and videotape.”

Also, with Lee winning the Directors Guild of America honors on March 11, this marks only the fifth time that the Oscar and DGA have not been in synch. It’s happened once a decade.

The DGA and Oscar winners were, respectively, Anthony Harvey and Carol Reed in ’68; Francis Ford Coppola and Bob Fosse in ’72; Steven Spielberg and Sydney Pollack in ’85; Ron Howard and Mel Gibson in ’95.

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.

The Puerto Rico-born Del Toro becomes only the fourth actor ever to win speaking a foreign-language (after Sophia Loren, “Two Women”; Robert De Niro, “The Godfather, Part II,” and Roberto Benigni, “Life is Beautiful,” all speaking Italian).

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.

Dylan, Gaghan, Harden and Del Toro were just a few of the Oscar novices. Other first-time contenders who won include Mirrione, editing, “Traffic”; 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.”

Docu short producer Tracy Seretean won for her first film, the 40-minute docu “Big Mama,” about a woman’s determination to raise her grandson in South Central L.A. Other new nominees included Florian Gallenberger for the 34-minute live action film “Quiero Ser (I Want to Be).”

But it wasn’t all newcomers, as past winners were plentiful. These include Rick Baker, his sixth triumph, for the makeup on “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” his 10th nom, which was shared with first-timer Gail Ryan. In sound, Scott Millan and Bob Beemer earned their second wins for “Gladiator,” shared with first-time winner Ken Weston.

“Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport” won for feature docu. The pic — a study of the British WWII mission to rescue 10,000 children, mostly Jewish, who were living in German territory — is the fourth Holocaust-themed film in the past six years to take home the docu feature prize.

The Academy 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 Sunday at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. Steve Martin hosted the Gil Cates-produced event.

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