Golden Journey

Oscar finds its way to a new home thanks to help from Sidney Poitier's from-the-heart speech and wins by Halle Berry and Denzel Washington

March 25, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Two and a half hours into the 74th annual Academy Awards, the extravaganza reached an emotional highpoint when veteran actor Sidney Poitier took the stage to accept his honorary Oscar and the entire Academy took to its feet.

But it would be just one golden moment in a historic night that welcomed the Oscars into their new home and saw some old ghosts laid emphatically to rest, with Halle Berry and Denzel Washington joining Poitier as the only African-Americans ever to win best acting Oscars. It was such a momentous evening, even Woody Allen saw fit to show up.

While there was no overwhelming winner, A Beautiful Mind took four of the evening's major awards, including best picture, best director for Ron Howard and best supporting actress for Jennifer Connelly. A Beautiful Mind writer Akiva Goldsman also won best-adapted screenplay.

But the evening's tone was set by Poitier. In a speech that was moving for its utter selflessness and sense of moment, Poitier testified he would never have been able to travel his path to that stage had it not been for the filmmakers who bet against financial odds and cast him in movies like No Way Out, The Blackboard Jungle and The Defiant Ones. He honored African-American actors who went before him and those who've followed, in ways that at once acknowledged race and transcended it.

His message was that entertainment, America and the world are enriched when filmmakers are unafraid of artistic and human possibilities. Poitier spoke with a Martin Luther King Jr. ring at the midpoint of an evening that had already resonated with memories of the King era.

Poitier's speech alone was almost enough to make the more than four-hour broadcast worth watching. In an awards season that was marked by vulgar discussion of "the race card," the Poitier presentation and many of the moments surrounding it, including the historic best acting awards, had the effect of an air-clearing.

Berry became the first black actress to earn an Oscar in a lead role, for her portrayal of a death-row widow involved with her husband's executioner in Monster's Ball.

In her emotional acceptance speech, she roused the audience again and again. She seemed so overwrought when Russell Crowe handed her the award, you might have thought it was fitting that an actor playing a man who had a nervous breakdown was giving the prize to a woman who was having one.

But as she accepted for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll, and for contemporary African-American actors like Angela Bassett, she conveyed her genuine feeling of being overwhelmed by the realization that she was the one called to break down a door.

Moments later, Julia Roberts, who had famously proclaimed that she didn't want to live in a world in which Denzel Washington didn't possess a best actor Oscar, must have gotten a new lease on life when she handed it to the actor for his performance as a bad cop in Training Day. More in control than Berry after his standing ovation, Washington mused, "Two birds in one night. I spend 40 years chasing Sidney, you finally give it to me, you give it to him the same night. I'll always be chasing you Sidney."

Jennifer Connelly won best supporting actress, as many expected, for playing John Nash's wife in A Beautiful Mind, and dedicated it to Alicia Nash as a "champion of love." But Jim Broadbent scored an upset for playing literary critic John Bayley, husband of Alzheimer's-afflicted novelist Iris Murdoch, in Iris.

There were one or two major upsets, such as No Man's Land, from Bosnia-Herzegovina, beating out the wildly popular French entry Amelie for best foreign film. And the awards for movie arts and crafts were divvied up among Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Moulin Rouge and Black Hawk Down. Even if Dreamworks' Shrek won the best animated feature, Pixar won for best animated short (For the Birds) and its feature, Monsters, Inc., won for best original song, earning Randy Newman his first award after 16 nominations.

The Lord of the Rings also won four awards, but for cinematography, makeup, visual effects, and art direction.

The best producer of this Academy Year was Laura Ziskin, and she wasn't even nominated. She was, however, the woman behind an eye-popping Academy Awards TV extravaganza. It was overlong and unevenly paced, but it beat out most of the nominees for showmanship. Even the nods to Sept. 11 were done with class.

You may have gotten nervous when Tom Cruise took the stage to give his blessing to entertainers who were continuing to do their jobs even after the World Trade Center disaster - to bring the world, in his quote from Billy Wilder, "a little bit of magic."

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