Fight To The Finish

On an evening full or irony and uncertainty, 'Gladiator's' 2001 Oscar triumph is a bloodless coup

March 26, 2001|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

"Strength and Honor," one of the producers of "Gladiator" exclaimed as the Roman epic took home the best picture Academy Award on a night when it also won four other Oscars. But for "Gladiator" and its newly crowned best actor star, Russell Crowe, the theme of the evening was more like that line from Friedrich Nietzsche and "Conan the Barbarian": "That which does not kill me makes me stronger."

"Gladiator" was no runaway champion. All evening, the Academy divided awards among "Traffic" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Gladiator." Host Steve Martin turned Crowe's surliness into a running joke. Benicio Del Toro of "Traffic" beat Joaquin Phoenix of "Gladiator" for best supporting actor, and when it came time for the writing and directing awards, "Traffic" won for best director Steven Soderbergh, over "Gladiator's" Ridley Scott, and Cameron Crowe won best original screenplay for "Almost Famous" over "Gladiator's" David Franzoni, John Logan and William Nicholson. (Best adapted screenplay went to Stephen Gaghan for "Traffic.")

Still, after three and a half hours passed, "Gladiator" emerged with five statuettes to four each for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Traffic." And in an evening that woefully lacked urgency and spontaneity, Crowe's acceptance on behalf of boys who grow up "on the downside of advantage" and build on "childhood imaginings," along with Julia Roberts' flood-beam smile when she took best actress and Bob Dylan's "Good God, this is amazing" when he won for best song (for "Things Have Changed," from "Wonder Boys") gave the show an 11th - nearly 12th - hour pick-me-up.

With a nod to "2001," the 73rd Academy Awards lifted off to the strains of the Nietzsche-inspired "Also Sprach Zarathustra." The sounds of famous Oscar moments spiraling into outer space and right into the "Destiny" module of the International Space Station "Alpha," where three movie fan-astronauts beamed Steve Martin down to start the show.

The "2001" motif (which included a satellite appearance from "2001" author Arthur C. Clarke) provided a fitting framework for a cool, slick awards show in which Martin, the most conceptual of popular comics, gave an effortlessly ironic yet also weightless spin to the spectacle of Hollywood royalty's annual re-anointment of itself.

Martin immediately drew a picture of a Hollywood in which ordinary life was dinner with Tom and Mel and Julia and Gwyneth. He established that Johnny Carson-esque comfort zone where repeated jibes at stars like Crowe for his bellicose attitude and womanizing would be seen as funnin' among friends - though Crowe himself seemed to take a while to get the joke.

Martin also assumed the Carson-esque function of town crier, positioning even the politics of the Hollywood community for the world: liberal, but a little wary of Clinton. Martin joked that because he wasn't in the White House, he couldn't just take his Armani tux for free.

And as if acknowledging that the audience was as white as the space travelers in Kubrick's movie, Martin quipped that he was up for "Shaft," but lost out to Sam Jackson because of Jackson's black take on the role.

But there was a more profound reason that the 2001 motif fit. Just as Kubrick's picture showed mankind reaching for an evolutionary leap that would take it beyond its morass, Hollywood is looking for transcendence from a landscape of escalating costs (and ticket prices), closing theaters and looming strikes.

At the start of the show, it looked as if Hollywood might be looking even more intensely than in previous years toward the indie world for a way out.

In the early goings, a Sony Pictures Classic sweep seemed to be in the making. Not only did "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" win the Art Direction Oscar for Tim Yip, over competitors like "Gladiator," but Marcia Gay Harden of "Pollock" upset Kate Hudson of "Almost Famous."

But as the night wore on, it was clear that the Academy wasn't about to let that happen. Peter Pau did win the cinematography award for "Crouching Tiger," and Tan Dun for the music. (And in a foregone conclusion, it won Best Foreign Film.) But the prize-winners soon spread over a handful of films, as DreamWorks' "Gladiator" picked up statues for sound, costume design, special effects; as "Traffic" won with Stephen Mirrione as editor.

Even a few crafts-people who worked for other films found their talent could not be denied, such as Jon Johnson for the Sound Editing on "U-571" and Rick Baker and Gail Ryan for makeup on "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas."

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