Awards 'Patient' Sensation

Oscars: As expected, 'The English Patient' received a healthy dose of Academy Awards, but the best moves came from Cuba Gooding Jr.

March 25, 1997|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

"The English Patient," a passionate story of doomed love played out against the tragedy of World War II, dominated the 69th Annual Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences last night, winning nine awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.

But it was shut out of the two major acting awards, when both its stars, Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas, finished out of the money.

Instead, Geoffrey Rush, the Australian actor who brought dignity and pain to his portrayal of a concert pianist haunted from childhood by mental difficulties, won the Academy Award for "Shine." Rush played David Helfgott, a child prodigy who was so pressured by an overbearing, abusive father he spent many years institutionalized. Upon release, however, he slowly picked up the pieces of his life and rebuilt his career.

And Frances McDormand won for best performance by an actress for her role as Marge Gunderson, chief of police of Brainerd, Minn., who gets to the bottom of a violent crime in the eccentric and violent "Fargo." McDormand used her award acceptance to plea for "more complex roles" for women, based on skill, not marketing. Her remarks received the most hypocritical applause of the night from the audience.

In a stunning early upset, Juliette Binoche received the Oscar for best supporting actress for her role as a nurse who cares for a burned man in "The English Patient." Widespread early predictions had the award going to Lauren Bacall for "The Mirror Has Two Faces."

"I'm so surprised," said Binoche. "I thought Lauren would win. I haven't prepared anything."

Bumbling along, she concluded, "This must be a French dream," as she accepted the award, trumping old pro Bacall. Over a long career stretching back to her co-starring with soon-to-be husband Humphrey Bogart in 1944's "To Have and Have Not," Bacall had never before been nominated.

The cameras carefully studied Bacall as Binoche acknowledged her from the podium, but if they hoped for spite or bitterness, they didn't get it. Bacall, professional through her disappointment, nodded regally when Binoche admitted she thought the older actress deserved the award.

The award was an early indication of the power of "The English Patient," styled by many an "independent film," although it was released by Miramax, a division of Disney, and benefited from an extremely aggressive campaign in the trade magazines.

But it was Cuba Gooding Jr. who showed some moves last night as he won the best supporting actor award for his role as an exuberant pro football player who sticks with his agent in "Jerry Maguire." Gooding, who thanked his wife, God, Tom Cruise and nearly everybody else in the human race, gave Oscar joy a new image when he memorably carried on as speech-ending music urged him off stage.

Billy Bob Thornton won the best screenplay award for material based on another source. His character-driven Arkansas drama "Sling Blade" represented one of the few losses that "The English Patient" suffered. Joel and Ethan Coen won for best original script for the dark yet comic "Fargo."

After the usual soporific piffle from Academy president Arthur Hiller (a smug sentimentalist with enough hair to reforest Mount St. Helens), the Oscar broadcast got off to a brilliant start as Billy Crystal, through advanced technical magic, was inserted ironically into scenes from the five films nominated for best picture.

Playing against the seriousness of the moment, he demanded of Tom Cruise that he explain the plot of "Mission Impossible," and complained to the dying Kristin Scott Thomas, "You, you, you! Everything is about you!" Then David Letterman, in a good-natured cameo teasing his own less-than-stellar success as an Oscar host, dropped out of the sky in "The English Patient's" biplane and crashed right at Crystal's feet.

Then the wondrous Crystal exploded out of the screen in the flesh and delivered a spiffy monologue, comparing the world now to the world the last time he was the host of the Oscar show a few years back. "There was war in Bosnia and peace in rap music," he said to nervous laughter. Then, not pausing an expertly gauged second, he said, "It was so long ago I thought Bruno Magli starred in 'Il Postino.' "

The show was not entirely up to this level, however; it never is. Lesser notes were sounded by less than dazzling production numbers and visual pyrotechnics, including a long, apparently purposeless montage of movies about "going to the movies."

A dreary rendition of one of the nominated songs, from "That Thing That You Do!" was so amateurish it reminded some viewers of the old "Hullaballoo" show from the late '60s. And what was with that endless tribute to Shakespeare, which merely proved that John Wayne had more screen presence than Kenneth Branagh?

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