`The English Patient' dominates the 69th Academy Awards

March 25, 1997

By Carrie Rickey

Knight-Ridder Newspapers


``The English Patient,'' a tale of burning passion that consumes its adulterous lovers, swept like wildfire through the 69th Academy Awards Monday night in Los Angeles.

Freely adapted by Anthony Minghella from the novel by Michael Ondaatje, ``The English Patient'' won nine awards, including best picture for producer Saul Zaentz and directing honors for Minghella.

The film, set in North Africa on the eve of World War II, is in the tradition of previous Oscar winners such as ``Gone With the Wind,'' ``Casablanca,'' ``Out of Africa'' and ``The Last Emperor,'' epic romances set against the backdrop of war.


As Billy Crystal, the witty host of Monday night's ceremonies, quipped of the film made by the English director, ``America's biggest export is the Oscar.''

Frances McDormand took actress honors for her role as Marge Gunderson, the placid, pregnant and implacable sheriff in ``Fargo.'' She is the second actress in a row to be written and directed to Oscardom by her partner. (Last year Susan Sarandon won for ``Dead Man Walking,'' directed by Tim Robbins.) McDormand's husband, writer-director Joel Coen, shared the Oscar for best original screenplay with his brother, Ethan.

Geoffrey Rush, who played David Helfgott in ``Shine,'' the story of the Australian piano prodigy's mental crack-up, reintegration and redemption, won the Oscar for actor against strong competition. One of his chief rivals was Billy Bob Thornton, the actor/writer/director of ``Sling Blade,'' who took home the Oscar for screenplay adapted from another source, in this case Thornton's own play.

Four out of the five best-picture nominees were made outside Hollywood. Cuba Gooding Jr., who won the supporting-actor award for ``Jerry Maguire,'' was the only winner of a major award for a studio-produced film.

Juliette Binoche, the waiflike French actress who played Hana, the war-damaged nurse who tends to the title character of ``The English Patient, took the award for supporting actress. ``I thought Lauren Bacall should have won this,'' Binoche said generously, paying tribute to the 72-year-old film legend who was widely expected to win for her role in ``The Mirror Has Two Faces.''

``The English Patient,'' which led the field with 12 nominations, also won the awards for cinematography, art direction, costumes, dramatic score, sound and editing.

Billy Crystal sparkled as the host of the 69th annual awards at the Shrine Auditorium.

In a video montage that inserted the comedian into scenes with the characters of ``Secrets & Lies,'' ``Jerry Maguire,'' ``Fargo,'' ``Shine'' and ``The English Patient,'' Crystal summarized and satirized the nominees for best films of 1996. Crystal's hilarious routine, capped by his traditional medley of best-film plot synopses, was as entertaining as many of the year's nominated performances.

A euphoric Gooding won supporting-actor honors for his performance as Rod Tidwell, the wide receiver with the wild moves, big mouth and bigger heart, in ``Jerry Maguire.'' The actor who popularized the catch phrase ``Show me the money'' showed gratitude instead, effusively thanking his family and everyone, ``everyone involved with the making of the film.

Though Crystal was agreeably puckish, the mood of the evening was elegant and gracious, those in attendance striving for the elevated tone of the nominated movies.

Even actors whose performances were snubbed by the academy graciously agreed to be part of the show. Madonna was not nominated for her role in ``Evita,'' but sang the Oscar-winning song from the film, ``You Must Love Me.'' And Debbie Reynolds, overlooked for her role in ``Mother,'' gamely presented an award, although she wryly alluded to having joined a 12-step program, Non-A-Nom, to get over her disappointment.

``You Must Love Me'' by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, won best original song. Madonna gave a restrained performance of the number. Less subdued was David Helfgott, the real-life Australian pianist whose saga is dramatized in ``Shine,'' performing a jittery ``Flight of the Bumblebee'' while muttering to himself.

There was the inevitable protest outside the Shrine Auditorium. Anti-pornography demonstrators denounced director Milos Forman for his ``The People vs. Larry Flynt,'' about the controversial Hustler magazine publisher played by Oscar nominee Woody Harrelson. Meanwhile, overhead, an airplane displayed a banner objecting that Columbia Studios, producer of the film, had not invited the subject of the movie to attend the Oscars. In fact, Flynt was present, enthroned in a gold wheelchair and wearing a sequined tuxedo jacket.

``When We Were Kings,'' the engaging prizefighting chronicle of Muhammad Ali and George Foreman's ``Rumble in the Jungle,'' took documentary honors for a film 23 years in the making. Ali, who received the most enthusiastic reception outside the auditorium, took the stage with Foreman to share the spotlight with producer David Sonenberg and filmmaker Leon Gast.

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