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DGA taps ‘Patient’s’ Minghella

The sweeping romance “The English Patient” continued its drive to the Oscars over the weekend, as first-time nominee Anthony Minghella won the Directors Guild of America Award.

Given the DGA’s track record as a precursor, “Patient” becomes a favorite for the Oscars. It already has won a Golden Globe for dramatic picture, as well as an ASC award for cinematography, among other honors.

Minghella thanked the members of his crew, the “5-1/2 minutes of names” in the credits at the end of the film.

But he also cautioned against treating the award like a competition. “We are not horses,” he told the audience of more than 1,000. “We are not in a race. We are all directors trying to survive, and I am so honored to be among them.”

Before “Patient,” Minghella had directed only two other pictures: “Truly, Madly, Deeply” and “Mr. Wonderful.”

The 49th annual awards, in fact, marked the first since their infancy in which all five nominees were getting their first DGA nods. In addition to Minghella, the four others were present in Los Angeles: Cameron Crowe (“Jerry Maguire”), Mike Leigh (“Secrets & Lies”), Joel Coen (“Fargo”), and Scott Hicks (“Shine”).

In television, Christopher Chulack won in the dramatic series category for the second year in a row, for the “ER” episode “Fear of Flying.” Andy Ackerman won in the comedy series category for the “Seinfeld” episode “The Rye.” And Don Mischer picked up his ninth award, winning in the musical variety category for the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games.

Former actors take turns

It was a strong night for actors turned directors. Stuart Margolin, perhaps best known as Angel on “The Rockford Files,” won for directing the Showtime children’s program “Salt Water Moose.” Betty Thomas, who once starred in “Hill Street Blues,” won in the longform category for HBO’s “The Late Shift.” And Al Pacino took an award for directing the Fox Searchlight documentary “Looking for Richard.”

But Pacino had doubts that he would go full-bore into directing features. “”I don’t think of myself in that way,” he said backstage. “Maybe I will after this, but I doubt it … I like the control of directing, but I don’t think that is reason enough.”

Thomas’ award came on the same weekend that her feature “Private Parts” premiered at the box office.

“I’m so glad my parents had a girl, because it makes me feel glad to be a girl and be up here,” she said.

In special honors, Joseph Dicso received the Franklin J. Schaffner Award. Gil Cates led a tribute to Sheldon Leonard, the DGA’s longtime secretary-treasurer, who died in January. His successor, Jack Shea, presented the Robert Aldrich Award to Delbert Mann, who won the Oscar and the DGA award for the 1955 film “Marty.” Mann, a former DGA president, recalled being guided by Aldrich as he was preparing to shoot “Marty.”

Lifetime achievement

Ceremonies also were held in New York at the Sheraton, where Max A. Schindler received the lifetime achievement award in news and Larry Kamm received the lifetime achievement in sports. Paula Zahn stepped in to emcee for Mary Tyler Moore, who was ill.

The fete in Los Angeles moved briskly along. with emcee Carl Reiner earning laughs in banter with Pacino, who had just gone offstage after winning for “Richard.”

“By the way, is your hair color for your new picture?” Reiner said. “It looks a little red.”

Pacino shot back: “It’s just for tonight.”

And the venerable Hal Kanter got in quips on this year’s rundown of nominations. Among them: “Audiences around the world are applauding ‘The English Patient,’ Anthony Minghella’s romantic tale of a Canadian nurse and a barbecued head.”Stanley Kubrick received the DGA’s highest honor, the D.W. Griffith Award, from George Sidney. The reclusive director was not present — he was in England shooting “Eyes Wide Shut” — but sent a videotaped message.

“I have compared Griffith’s career to the Icarus myth,” he said. “But at the same time I have never been certain whether the moral to the Icarus story should only be, as is generally accepted, don’t try to fly too high, or whether it may also be thought of forget the wax and features, and do a better job on the wings.”

Nicholson accepts

Jack Nicholson, who starred in Kubrick’s “The Shining,” accepted for the director in a speech that quoted a past review of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” as well as Bob Dylan and Bum Phillips and the director himself. Nicholson said it was the first time he had been at the awards.

“I promised Stanley no cheap jokes,” quipped Nicholson. “I didn’t understand the evening then.”

Backstage, Minghella recalled the struggle to make “Patient,” both because of the scale of the production and because the project fell through at Fox. “It was like a mountain I was climbing every day,” he said. “I am very happy I managed to scale that mountain and make a film people are going to see. The rest of this is just blessings you can’t hope for. You just hope that the film finds an audience, and the film has found an audience.”

Producer Saul Zaentz, however, did not see “Patient’s ” recognition, as well as honors bestowed on smaller films like “Shine” and “Fargo,” as a signal that will get studios to rethink their strategy toward big event pics.

“I don’t think it will affect their films,” he said. “What it will do is bring other directors to studio’s minds and other projects. But it is not going to change their business.”

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