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'BRAVEHEART' CONQUERS\Gibson's epic wins Best Picture\Sarandon, Cage take acting honors.

Byline: Amy Dawes Daily News Staff Writer

The contest was more suspenseful than usual, but in the end, the "lord of all knickknacks, the king of all tchotchkes," as presenter Jim Carrey dubbed the Oscar, went to "Braveheart."

Mel Gibson's 13th century Scottish battle epic "Braveheart" stormed the Academy Awards to take five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, but other prizes were spread wide in a year that offered few surprises but an abundance of wit, sparkle and poignant moments.

"Now that I'm a bona fide director with a golden boy," said Gibson, looking at his Oscar, "I suppose, like most directors, what I really want to do is act."

A conservative choice in a politically charged year, "Braveheart" was the expected leader with 10 nominations going in. It also picked up Oscars for John Toll's cinematography, sound effects editing and makeup.

"Braveheart" was Gibson's second time out as a director, the first being "The Man Without a Face" in 1993. He follows a number of actors turned director who have won Oscars, including Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, Woody Allen and Kevin Costner.

The epic was the first film since 1987's "The Last Emperor" to win top honors without earning any acting nominations.

While "Braveheart" maintained Oscar's tradition of rewarding big-budget studio fare, a number of statuettes went to the kind of low-budget, risk-taking independent films that Oscar seems to be making more room for in recent years, including Best Actor for Nicolas Cage as a suicidal alcoholic in the $3.5 million "Leaving Las Vegas," and Best Actress for Susan Sarandon as a nun devoted to the spiritual salvation of Death Row inmates in "Dead Man Walking."

Cage, favored to win by critics and pundits, said he was still impressed with the Academy's daring.

"I think the fact that the Academy recognized me in this movie is really brave of them, and brave for the future of alternative movies," Cage said backstage.

Sarandon, also considered a front-runner after four previous nominations, thanked nun Helen Prejean, the real-life inspiration for her character, and writer-director Tim Robbins, whom she'd persuaded to take on the unlikely project. She pledged to share the award with him, noting, "Thank God we live together."

Regarding the movie's spiritual empathy for Death Row inmates, Sarandon stated simply, "May we all find a way to nonviolently end violence, and to heal."

Indeed, it was a politically charged year, with the weight of Republican attacks against Hollywood and activist Jesse Jackson's charges of minority exclusion hovering in the air.

In a bravura monologue charged with barbs of her own, host Whoopi Goldberg took the heat off, declaring herself "the mighty Afro-deity" and noting that she had "something to say to Jesse Jackson, but he's not watching, so why bother."

Presenter Nathan Lane, currently starring in the hit drag film "The Birdcage," hit the target when he joked that he'd seen politician Ross Perot outside ranting about "why more nutty billionaires weren't nominated."

Widely expected - and widely applauded - was the Oscar to Emma Thompson for her sparkling screenplay adaptation of Jane Austen's "Sense And Sensibility," which made Thompson the first Oscar-winning thespian ever to win a writing statue, though others have been nominated.

"I don't really know how to thank the Academy for this and if I try we will be here till Christmas," she quipped. "I don't know how she (Austen) would react to an evening like this, but I do hope she knows she's really big in Uruguay."

Thompson was a first-time writer, as was Christopher McQuarrie, whose twisty, diabolical blueprint for director Bryan Singer's "The Usual Suspects" made him an Oscar winner.

Actor Kevin Spacey grabbed the gold for his supporting role as long-winded con man Roger "Verbal" Kint in "The Usual Suspects." Exuberant at the podium, the 1977 graduate of Chatsworth High School thanked his mother for driving him to acting classes on Ventura Boulevard when he was 16, saying, "I told you it would pay off."

Destiny also smiled on supporting actress winner Mira Sorvino, whose Oscar was widely expected after a Golden Globe and critical raves for her hilarious turn as a bubble-headed prostitute in Woody Allen's "Mighty Aphrodite." A teary-eyed Sorvino thanked her father, actor Paul Sorvino, who wept with pride.

Among other affecting moments was the prolonged standing ovation for actor and director Christopher Reeve, who arrived on stage in a wheelchair and tuxedo after surviving a paralyzing riding accident.

Reeve, breathing with the help of a tube in his throat, introduced a tribute to films that "courageously put social issues ahead of box-office success."

"I want you to know that I left New York in September and I only arrived here this morning," Reeve joked. "But I wouldn't have missed this welcome for the world."

Academy members, including actor Tom Hanks, could be seen squinting back tears.

Also moving was the proud bearing and fierce effort on the part of Kirk Douglas to express his appreciation, especially to his wife, as he accepted a lifetime achievement award just weeks after suffering a debilitating stroke.

The actor, who struggled with stroke-caused paralysis on the right side of his face that slurred his words, accepted an honorary Oscar for "50 years as a creative and moral force in the making of motion picture community."

Steven Spielberg said Douglas, 79, was an actor who "shaded heroics with self-doubt and shaped villainy with compassion" in roles from "Spartacus" to Vincent Van Gogh in "Lust For Life."

Douglas, who has never won an Oscar for acting, thanked his family.

"I see my four sons. They are proud of the old man," he said.

Also recognized for lifetime achievement was animator Chuck Jones, 83, honoring a 60-year career in which he's brought to life such classic characters as Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Daffy Duck and Elmer Fudd. Jones, who began work during the Great Depression, said, "I find it incredible even today that somebody offered to pay me to draw, and I've been doing what I enjoy most ever since."

Named Best Foreign Film was the Netherlands' entry, "Antonia's Line," director Marleen Gorris' self-proclaimed "fairy tale" about a Dutch matriarchy in which generations of women define their lives independently of men. Gorris called the Oscar "a fairy tale come true."

"Anne Frank Remembered" won Best Documentary Feature.

In the category of animated shorts, producer Nick Park won his third Oscar for "A Close Shave."

Goldberg, who like the show's producer Quincy Jones is African-American, shunned Jackson's call for participants to wear multicolored ribbons. She reeled off a list of imaginary ribbons in her collection, including the traditional red ribbon for AIDS awareness a "milky white ribbon for mad cow disease," and a "fake fur ribbon for animal rights."

"You don't ask a black woman to buy an expensive dress and then cover it with ribbons," she said.

Jackson led about 75 marchers outside the Hollywood offices of KABC-TV (Channel 7) from the award ceremonies. Demonstrations also were held in cities including Chicago and Washington, D.C.

CAPTION(S):

PHOTO

(color) Mel Gibson exults backstage with two of five Oscars his film "Braveheart" earned, including Best Picture and Best Director. Gus Ruelas/ Daily News
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 26, 1996
Words:1199
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