Oscar sticks to the script

Working to a classic Hollywood script, the 72nd Academy Awards built to a crescendo in its final moments as American Beauty mounted a late surge to sweep the principal Oscars for best film, best director (Sam Mendes) and best actor (Kevin Spacey).

In the space of some six minutes, this dark-edged tale of suburban angst became the undisputed winner of this year’s ceremony. Embracing backstage after the final presentation, Mendes and Spacey sported the drained and exhausted look of two prize-fighters who’d just gone the distance. The suspenseful way the Academy stage-manages these events, it seems, takes a toll on the winners as well as the losers.

But even the cavalier dash of the Oscars’ closing minutes could not quite disguise the faint whiff of predictability in the air. In effect, the Oscars were effectively announced on Friday, when the Wall Street Journal published its exit-poll predictions of where the major awards were going.

The paper may have surveyed a slender 6% of eligible Academy voters, but its conclusions were to prove unnervingly accurate. Mendes won, just as it had said he would. Hilary Swank came from the outside to collect best actress for Boys Don’t Cry, just as it had said she would, and Michael Caine won best supporting actor for The Cider House Rules (just as it …you guessed). If you were taking the Journal as gospel, the sole surprise was Spacey, who won what appeared to be a narrow contest with the paper’s tip, Denzel Washington (nominated for The Hurricane).

All of which conspired to take some crackle off the night’s proceedings. If anything, Oscar 2000 was just too polished and genteel to fully satisfy. The speeches were kept to a Spartan minimum, the victors were dewy-eyed, but never hysterical. Even host Billy Crystal’s satirical barbs at the nominees were too well rehearsed and neatly packaged to bite the way they should.

Even so, this year’s Academy Awards boasted a few sights that will linger in the memory. We had Pedro Almodóvar (winning best foreign language film for All About My Mother) having to be dragged forcibly from the stage when his speech threatened to last longer than the film itself.

We had Isaac Hayes choking on a thick waft of dry ice as he tried to sing the theme from Shaft (“How do you lose Isaac Hayes?” shrilled Crystal). Later, novelist John Irving (winner of best adapted screenplay for The Cider House Rules) provided the night’s isolated political moment when he acknowledged the National Abortion Rights Action League. The Cider House Rules, which centres around a New England abortion clinic, provoked a protest outside the ceremony from enraged pro-lifers. Irving’s response at least showed that he was not about to shy away from the controversy.

Most entertaining of all, however, was Robin Williams’s exuberant rendition of the Oscar-nominated South Park song, Blame Canada. A scabrous satirical ditty, Blame Canada had already become one of the night’s big talking points, with rumours abounding that the broadcasters were poised to bleep the tune’s offending portions.

In the event, the song aired in a PG-version that still managed to retain much of the original content. Williams may have arrived on stage with tape over his mouth, but Blame Canada still mentioned kids farting and running off to join the Klan as well as a reference to “that bitch Anne Murray”. Only one decidedly R-rated verse (about a mother who is told to “go fuck myself”) was replaced by a more user-friendly version.

Elsewhere, the ceremony was rather better behaved. Accepting his award for best supporting actor, Michael Caine lavished praise on his rival nominees and consoled Tom Cruise (nominated for Magnolia) that his asking price would have plunged had he won. “Have you any idea how much supporting actors get paid?” Caine quipped. Still guaranteed an estimated $20m a movie, Cruise could afford to laugh off the loss.

In terms of Hollywood aristocracy, the evening’s main event was the presentation of the Irving Thalberg Lifetime Achievement Award to Warren Beatty. Accepting the honour from his old friend and sparring partner Jack Nicholson, the 62-year-old Beatty joked: “It’s a bit soon to be giving this to a guy in his early 40s,” before going on to thank his wife Annette Bening (“She is my treasure”).

The heavily pregnant Mrs Beatty, meanwhile, was providing a fascinating side-show all on her own. She was nominated for best actress (for American Beauty) and there were worries that she would not be able to haul herself up the stairs to collect the award. “If she wins, she’ll crawl up here on all fours,” her co-star Spacey assured the audience. But in the event she kept her seat to leave Swank (virtually unknown until Boys Don’t Cry shot her to fame) to stroll on stage and take the award.

Bening may have missed out, but her loss was just a blip in an otherwise glorious night for American Beauty, which finished the night with five Oscars in total. Accepting his award, Spacey gave fulsome praise to his “mentor”, the actor Jack Lemmon, whose performance in The Apartment was a direct inspiration for Spacey’s turn as suburban everyman Lester Burnham.

Moments later, Sam Mendes took to the stage to collect his award for best director. Still only 34, the Oxford-educated director has come a long way since his days of managing the Donmar Warehouse in London. His last-minute win capped a fruitful night for British hopes; an award to set alongside Michael Caine’s and the two trophies (for costumes and make-up) won by Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy.

And so the Oscar congregation breaks up into a welter of after-show parties and news interviews and behind-the-scenes schmoozing. Most of the assembled guests have been here before and know the scene like the back of their manicured hands. But for one man, it is the end of something special and the start of something new.

61-year-old Willie Fulgear observed the entire ceremony with a look of wry bemusement. The salvage worker’s discovery of the missing Oscars had won him a free ticket to the awards and reward of $50 000. Fulgear says he plans to return to his native Mississippi and buy himself a home there. For him, this Hollywood story is now drawing to a close.

The 72nd Academy Awards will be screened on M-Net on Monday March 27 at 7pm

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