Musical kicks six awards, 'Pianist' surprises

This article was corrected on March 25, 2003.

Oscar voters were dancin’ to the jailhouse rock, as “Chicago” waltzed off with six wins, including best pic and supporting actress (Catherine Zeta-Jones).

Harvey Weinstein and Miramax scored eight solo wins Sunday night at the 75th annual Academy Awards. Aside from the musical about two murderous dames, the studio saw its kudos tally boosted by two for “Frida,” while it shares with Paramount in Nicole Kidman’s best actress win for “The Hours.”

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Arrivals

“Chicago,” from Producer Circle Co. and Zadan/Meron, has been such a popular favorite that its best-film win was not much of a surprise. The evening’s biggest suspense centered on whether the Oscarcast would proceed on Sunday as planned, due to the ongoing Iraqi war. But once that issue was resolved, the mood was upbeat and dignified and the true nail-biting was provided in other races, including screenplay, actor, actress, song and, especially, director.

The biggest surprise of the evening was the directing prize to Roman Polanski for his work on Focus Features’ “The Pianist.” It’s a tribute to Acad voters’ objectivity that they apparently voted for the work, and not the man: Evidently his legal status — a fugitive from U.S. justice, stemming from a 1978 statutory rape charge — was not a factor for many of the voters.

While most people have been awed by the powerful film, Polanski’s win is sure to be one of this year’s most controversial Oscar picks. It marks only the sixth time in 54 years that the winner of the DGA award did not win an Oscar. (On March 1, “Chicago’s” Rob Marshall won the Directors Guild Award.)

Another jaw-dropper was Adrien Brody’s actor win for “Pianist.” Most pundits had predicted Jack Nicholson or Daniel Day-Lewis, since the two had split most of the pre-Oscar kudos.

Still, Brody’s win proved popular and he got a big laugh with his long kiss of presenter Halle Berry. Brody was the only nominee in this category who had never previously won and becomes the youngest winner in this category, 22 days short of his 30th birthday. (The previous record holder was Richard Dreyfuss for “The Goodbye Girl.”)

The pic also took home a third prize, for Ronald Harwood’s screenplay, adapted from the memoirs of Wladyslaw Szpilman. The Brit playwright wasn’t even nominated for a prize by the Writers Guild of America. He paid tribute to the film’s director, Roman Polanski, as a great director and great collaborator.

Singing a new tune

Those who accuse the Academy voters of being old and stodgy may have to reassess their view, given the fact that “Lose Yourself,” from Universal’s “8 Mile,” won for song over far more mainstream competition. The tune, with music by Eminem, Jeff Bass and Luis Resto and lyrics by Eminem, was the first rap tune ever nominated for an Oscar. It was the only one of the five, though, not performed on the telecast. Eminem did, however, perform it at last month’s Grammys.

Pedro Almodovar was saluted for his original screenplay for Sony Pictures Classics’ “Talk to Her” — only the fifth foreign-language pic to win a screenplay prize, and the first since 1966’s “A Man and a Woman.”

In the supporting actor race, Chris Cooper won on his first nom for his turn as the eccentric orchid thief in Sony’s “Adaptation.”

Aside from the shockers, it was an evening of first-time nominees including producer Martin Richards of “Chicago,” who has spent decades producing legit. “Chicago” is the first musical to win the top prize since “Oliver!” in 1968. And its victory is a testimony to perseverance: A pic version of the Broadway tuner was first proposed for the bigscreen more than 25 years ago.

In terms of studio tallies, Miramax unsurprisingly came out on top with 8½, even as its “Gangs of New York,” which scored 10 noms, went home-empty-handed. The company had earned 31 solo noms this year and shared with Par in nine noms for “The Hours.”

With the three key wins for “Pianist,” the year-old Focus Features scored its first Oscar prizes (though Oscars were given to its earlier incarnations such as USA Films and October Films).

New Line took home two for “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers”; Sony scored with “Adaptation” while Sony Pictures Classics won for Almodovar’s screenplay. All the other studios had one apiece: Buena Vista (“Spirited Away”); DreamWorks (“Road to Perdition”); United Artists/Alliance Atlantis (“Bowling for Columbine”); Universal (“8 Mile”); and Zeitgeist (“Nowhere in Africa”).

In addition, Sony scored one for Sony Pictures Imageworks in the animated-short category.

“Nowhere in Africa” grabbed the foreign-language film prize in a tough contest. This was the fourth nom for a unified Germany and its first win; prior to the unification of the country, West Germany and East Germany had nine noms. Zeitgeist Films has “Nowhere” domestically.

In the second feature animation race, Buena Vista scored an upset with a win for “Spirited Away.” The film, helmed by animation icon Hayao Miyazaki, becomes the first cel-animation pic to win in this race, after last year’s CGI “Shrek.” “Spirited,” though admired (it made lots of critics 10-best lists), was probably the least widely seen of the five toon nominees, and was easily the lowest-grossing pic in its category.

The documentary feature “Bowling for Columbine,” helmed by Michael Moore, had been acclaimed since its debut at Cannes in May and became a surprisingly huge box-office grosser for a docu.

Still, its win was not a foregone conclusion, since the Acad has often bypassed crowd-pleasers (particularly in the docu race). But “Bowling,” which questions America’s love of guns and violence, holds particular resonance in these war days. The prize was accepted by Michael Donovan and Moore, with the latter giving the most political acceptance speech of the evening.

“The Two Towers” was saluted for its smashing visual effects and sound editing. The quartet of effects winners included Joe Letteri and Alex Funke, as well as two men who won last year for the first “Rings” film, Jim Rygiel and Randall William Cook. Sound editing winners Ethan Van der Ryn and Michael Hopkins were first-time nominees.

Aside from the five best pic contenders, Acad voters recognized three other films that received four or more noms: “Frida” (six bids), “Road to Perdition” (six) and “Adaptation” (four). Of this group, only Focus Features’ “Far From Heaven” (four) went home with nothing.

With a supporting actress win for her riveting work in “Chicago,” Zeta-Jones became the first thesp to win for a perf in a musical since Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey in another John Kander-Fred Ebb musical, the 1972 pic “Cabaret.”

Kidman’s prosthetic nose got a lot of media coverage, but it was her work that reminded voters she’s an actress as much as she’s a star. Her perf as Virginia Woolf was particularly notable since it was in such sharp contrast to three very different turns in “Moulin Rouge,” “The Others” and “Birthday Girl” in the past two years.

Addressing the issue of why come to an awards show when the world is at war, she stated, “because art is important and because you believe in what you do and you want to honor that.”

Three of the four acting winners were playing real people: Brody as Wladyslaw Szpilman, Cooper as John Laroche and Kidman as Woolf.

“Frida” was saluted for Elliot Goldenthal’s music score and the makeup work of John Jackson and Beatrice De Alba.

In one of the most touching wins of the evening, Conrad W. Hall accepted for his father, Conrad L. Hall, who was feted posthumously for his cinematography on “Road to Perdition.” In Oscar’s history, there have only been a handful of posthumous wins, including scripter Sidney Howard, composer Victor Young and actor Peter Finch.

“Chicago” was cited for the editing of Martin Walsh; the art direction of John Myhre and set decoration by Gord Sim; the costume design of Colleen Atwood (her first win on her fourth nom); and the sound by Michael Minkler, Dominick Tavella and David Lee.

“Chicago’s” win was a mixed blessing, since it failed to land wins for either script or director. The last two times that happened: “All the King’s Men” in 1949 and “Gladiator” in 2000. This is the 20th time that there was a discrepancy between director and best pic, but it’s the third time in the last five years.

And in five of the last eight years, the top pic winner failed to take home a screenplay nod: “Braveheart,” “The English Patient,” “Titanic,” “Gladiator” and now “Chicago.”

Weinstein and his team smartly and aggressively promoted “Chicago,” ensuring that all voters had a chance to see it. While “Chicago” had particularly strong competition, the win wasn’t a total surprise: The pic’s 13 noms indicated the pic’s widespread popularity, and its momentum was maintained through Marshall’s DGA win, the Producers Guild victory for the pic and the SAG Award for ensemble acting.

Future film historians may remark that, in the troubled times of early 2003, voters chose the most upbeat of the five nominees, but that’s an oversimplification. It’s a biting view of celebrity worship and media manipulation, filled with unsympathetic characters and dark observations. But the film is so electric that audiences exit the movie feeling elated, rather than downbeat. At screenings and even at multiplexes, the film has been frequently interrupted by applause for musical numbers and choreography.

In a way, the path for “Chicago” was paved by Baz Luhrmann and Fox executives, who vigorously touted the 2001 “Moulin Rouge” to remind voters that musicals are a key part of Hollywood history and worthy of awards recognition.

That’s not to take anything away from the “Chicago” folk. Even in advance of the pic’s Dec. 27 domestic bow, word of mouth was sensational and the film was able to maintain its momentum through the long and intense awards campaign season.

The film’s popularity was so great that Steve Martin got a huge laugh in his opening monologue by joking about Miramax’s unusual and excessive campaign technique: “They made a really good movie that everybody liked.”

Each of the winners in the six races paid tribute to director Marshall. Also included in the thanks were the legit show’s helmer-choreographer Bob Fosse as well as composers John Kander & Fred Ebb and scripter Bill Condon, himself a nominee in the adapted screenplay race.

The film marks Miramax’s third best-pic triumph, after “The English Patient” and “Shakespeare in Love.”

The docu short-subject laurels went to “Twin Towers,” from filmmakers Bill Guttentag and Robert David Port. The 33-minute started out as a Dick Wolf TV reality pilot, but turned into a tribute to men of New York’s Emergency Service Unit. (Interestingly, three of the four docu short contenders were set in New York.)

Despite the cel win in the feature race, the winner in the animated-short race was CGI: Eric Armstrong for his “The ChubbChubbs!” from Sony Pictures Imageworks. The brief crowd-pleaser is set in an intergalactic Karaoke bar, with plenty of Hollywood in-jokes including japes about “E.T.,” Yoda and Jar-Jar Binks.

“This Charming Man” (Der er en yndig mand), from first-time contenders Martin Strange-Hansen and Mie Andreasen, was honored as live-action short film. The 29-minute Danish pic is a romantic comedy that charms auds as it delivers a subtle and stinging message about racism.

There were a handful of double nominees this year, including Almodovar, Polanski and Goldenthal. Only double contender Julianne Moore (lead and supporting acting) was shut out.

With the sound award going to “Chicago,” a nominee from a rival film in that category, “Spider-Man,” was propelled into Oscar’s history books. Kevin O’Connell is now the Susan Lucci of the Oscars, with 16 nominations without a win. (He had been tied with composer Alex North and art director Roland Anderson at 15.) However, O’Connell’s career is flourishing, and it seems just a matter of time before he wins (as Lucci eventually did).

In recognizing the Academy’s 75th anniversary, the org assembled 59 past acting winners in another seg that was a crowd-pleaser.

This year, there were 5,816 voting members in 15 branches; the largest is 1,311 actors; the smallest branch has the 121 documentarians.

The 75th annual Academy Awards were held, for the second time, at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood on Sunday night. The event, produced by Gil Cates and hosted by Martin, aired live domestically on ABC.

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