Morality Wins Some, Loses Some at Oscars
BY stephen Hopkins
March 28 - April 3, 1999 Issue | Posted 3/28/99 at 1:00 PM
LOS ANGELES—This year's Academy Awards seemed to show that morality isn't totally dead yet in Hollywood.
Judges at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences couldn't help choose a story with a strong moral theme as this year's best picture. Nominated films addressed such heavy subjects as World War II, the Holocaust and the Reformation.
They chose a lighter option, picking the “art” film Shakespeare in Love, which swept the awards, winning top honors including best picture. In accepting the award, Shakespeare's leading actress, Gwyneth Paltrow, fought back tears as she graciously praised the other nominees and professed love for her family. With her at the event were her parents.
Shakespeare in Love is a playful look at a young William Shakespeare (Joseph Finnes) overcoming writer's block to scribe a play he had decided to call “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter.” The lovely Viola (Paltrow) disguises herself as a young man in order to play Romeo in the story. Soon Shakespeare becomes smitten with her female incarnation. Poetry flows freely and “Ethel” is redubbed “Juliet.” Queen Elizabeth (Dame Judi Dench, named as best supporting actress) offers a challenge that no play can reveal the true nature of love.
The film is so charming that one almost forgets there is more adultery than “true love” in it. Hollywood has not so aggressively romanticized this vice since the Oscar-garnished The English Patient.
Shakespeare in Love also nabbed best original screenplay for Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, as well as best costume design, comedy score and art direction.
Spielberg's 2nd Oscar
Steven Spielberg takes a more compelling look at virtue and vice in his ode to U.S. veterans of World War II in Saving Private Ryan. He was awarded his second Oscar for best direction in this exploration of valor in combat. Tom Hanks (who lost out in the best actor category for his part) leads a group of reluctant soldiers on a seemingly impossible mission to find and bring back a mother's last surviving son.
Though Spielberg's treatment is occasionally overstated, the film re-creates D-Day at Omaha Beach in one of the most spectacular war scenes ever filmed. Shot with hand-held cameras in muted greens and maroons, audiences can actually see laser bullets. The cinematographer, editor, and sound and sound effects teams all received well-deserved Oscars for their work. In the context of the story, the graphic scenes bring the audience to feel an enormous gratitude for the sacrifice the soldiers made.
In receiving the award, Spielberg also thanked his father his part in the war, and dedicated his Oscar to him.
Ryan easily overshadowed another World War II nomination for best picture, The Thin Red Line. Based upon the novel by James Jones, this is a sprawling account of Charlie Company at the battle of Guadalcanal. Despite its interesting juxtapositions between the lush landscape and the brutal warfare, the film is tortuously convoluted, and fails to make the impact Ryan does.
Spielberg was also recognized as the executive producer of the heart-wrenching Holocaust account The Last Days, chosen as best documentary feature. Yet it was an Italian who stole the show March 21 when he won awards for his own treatment of the Holocaust.
Roberto Benigni was named best actor for his part in Life is Beautiful. The movie, which he also wrote and directed, was also named best foreign language film. Benigni, a comedian, climbed onto his seat to cheer. He had good reason: His was the first foreign language film to receive seven nominations.
In exuberant, broken English, he cried out that he felt a “hailstorm of gratitude.”
Like Paltrow and Spielberg, he also credited his father with his success, and went on to thank his parents for the victory, saying that they gave him “the biggest gift, poverty.”
In the evening's only reference to a higher power, he exclaimed, “there is a Divinity and when you have faith, that Divinity appears. That's why I want to dedicate this prize to the victims of the Holocaust.”
Many Jews, however, had criticized the picture for underplaying the horrors of the Holocaust. In the story, a gregarious father attempts to shield his young son from the reality of the Holocaust by pretending it's all a game. Although the film does not mention God directly, its sense of hope resounds spiritually.
Benigni was particularly taken aback when Pope John Paul II had asked to see the film with him at a private Vatican screening (see Register, Feb. 21).
“I couldn't even watch the picture!” Benigni said. “I kept thinking: ‘Mamma mia! This is the real Pope watching the movie with me, giving me three hours of his time! Not even to Bill Clinton does he give three hours of his time!’” In what is being called the “Pope's Oscars,” a Vatican list of 45 outstanding films, Life is Beautiful is listed as No. 3.
Failures and Controversies
It's unlikely, though, that some of this year's nominations will make the Vatican list anytime soon. In a stridently anti-Catholic version of the English Reformation, Elizabeth was overlooked in its major nominated categories, winning only in the category of best makeup.
Another film which was strongly critical of the Catholic Church, Gods and Monsters, received an award for best screenplay adaptation, but lost in Sir Ian McKellen's bid for best actor. Lynn Redgrave, who plays his acerbic Catholic housekeeper, was also passed over for best supporting actress.
In the film, McKellen, who is a homosexual activist, plays the homosexual director of the 1931 Frankenstein, James Whale. The film is based on gossip that surrounded his suicide.
McKellen had reportedly told friends that, if he won the best actor award, he had planed to make an “impassioned” attack on discrimination against homosexuals in the film industry. On March 17 the London Daily Express observed that if McKellen did in fact make the statement, “it will make Hollywood history as the first time a gay man has raised the issue of his homosexuality at the event.”
Hollywood's ethic of “tolerance” was tested when the academy honored director Elia Kazan with the Lifetime Achievement Award. Kazan, who holds Oscars for Gentleman's Agreement and On the Waterfront, named Hollywood communists before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952.
What enrages many in the industry is Kazan's refusal to denounce his actions. It appears to indicate that he did it out of conscience rather than weakness. Tension filled the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion as the majority of the house refused to rise as the nearly 90-year-old Kazan made his entrance.
Formerly blacklisted writers, directors and actors gathered outside the movie academy headquarters in Beverly Hills the week before to protest and decry Kazan's award. The protesters took out full-page advertisements in the trade papers Variety and Hollywood Reporter showing an Oscar and proclaiming, “Don't Whitewash the Blacklist.”
Stephen Hopkins writes from New York.
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