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OSCAR TAKES CONVENTIONAL ROUTE 'GLADIATOR' WIN SURPRISES FEW BUT - REJOICE! - THE MIRIMAX BEAST IS FINALLY PUT DOWN.

Byline: Bob Strauss Film Critic

Despite the hosting efforts of Steve Martin, it wasn't a very wild and crazy Academy Awards. Aside from the usual quotient of unexpected nods sprinkled throughout the evening, in a field that was considered one of the closest Oscar races in years, the 73rd annual event concluded on the most conservative, conventional note that it possibly could have.

Best Picture winner ``Gladiator'' was the biggest production, the biggest box-office hit and, by a long shot, the most violently mind-numbing nominee of the five. The academy could have chosen to honor a film bold enough to attack a gnarly social issue in all of its hopeless complexity or broken a nearly three-quarter-century tradition by recognizing that cinema speaks in an international language. But, as they often do, the voting members went for the obvious, spectacular choice.

Not hook, line and Titanic, though, and for that the group deserves some praise. Steven Soderbergh's win for directing ``Traffic'' defied a frontal lobe's worth of conventional thinking - that the race was between ``Gladiator's'' Ridley Scott and ``Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's'' Ang Lee, because Soderbergh's tandem nominations (he also directed ``Erin Brockovich'') canceled out his chances of winning. But that's about as good as it got; the academy's other demonstrations of thinking outside its traditionally middlebrow box were of the omission and small-potatoes varieties.

Although many awards were foregone conclusions, like the two Soderbergh-directed wins - for ``Erin Brockovich'' Best Actress (and world-class stage hog) Julia Roberts and ``Traffic'' Supporting Actor Benicio Del Toro - Stephen Gaghan's ``Traffic'' Adapted Screenplay and ``Crouching Tiger's'' Foreign Language Film consolation prize, some of the choices represented at least mild repudiations of established academy groupthink.

Russell Crowe's Best Actor win over Tom Hanks, for example, indicates that these things are not necessarily the popularity contest most believe them to be, and that an incorrigible bad boy (albeit an infernally charming one) can tear up the town and still trounce its most beloved citizen.

Of course, Crowe really should have won last year for ``The Insider'' instead of ``Gladiator,'' but some stupid Oscar traditions die hard.

One that we should be elated to see bite the dust, however, is Miramax Films' relentless efforts to promote mediocre work to Oscar glory. The academy reacted strongly to being bamboozled into nominating the soft-centered ``Chocolat'' for Best Picture, resulting in a Miramax shutout for the first time in a decade. Maybe now the company will consider going back to its true glory of making films like ``The Crying Game,'' ``The Piano'' and ``Pulp Fiction'' - which aesthetically timid Oscar may not have liked all that much, but was forced to show respect for.

Now, if only the voting members had been a little more resistant to the equally emphatic, Oscar-pimping ways of DreamWorks, the studio that pushed so hard for ``Gladiator'' and (second) Best Original Screenplay winner ``Almost Famous.''

The upsets, such as they were, clustered toward the beginning, with ``Crouching Tiger's'' art director Tim Yip edging out Arthur Max's impressive but overwrought ``Gladiator'' designs and ``Pollock's'' Marcia Gay Harden, rightly or wrongly, beating out academy favorites Judi Dench, Kate Hudson and Frances McDormand for the Supporting Actress statuette.

But while Stephen Mirrione's early Film Editing win for ``Traffic'' was hardly a surprise - since the movie constantly shifts between three distinct storylines, its cutting was the easiest to appreciate - it set up false hopes for a climactic shockeroo, as this category is almost always a bellwether for the night's Best Picture winner.

Also, as always, unpredictable: rare moments of acceptance speech eloquence, even more outstanding in a year when the Best Actress forgot to thank, of all the people in her universe, the real Erin Brockovich.

``Crouching'' composer Tan Dun's acknowledgment of the academy's should-have-gone-farther move toward barrier-bridging was both poetic and relevant. And not only was Peter Pau's cinematography Oscar for ``Crouching'' one of the evening's best deserved, his speed-reading of thank-you names was a delightful example of enunciation under stress that many award-winning actors would do well to study.

Appropriate, too, that Pau's classic but energized images were cited in a year when the first honorary Oscar ever was bestowed on a director of photography, the master of magical Technicolor composition Jack Cardiff. And how great that he and Best Song composer Bob Dylan got two of the evening's few - and long overdue - standing ovations.

The Cardiff honor also made for a classy counterbalance to the Thalberg Award for distance-running vulgarian Dino De Laurentiis. Yeah, some of the producer's old neo-realist pictures were great, but for the most part ... well, three words sum it up: ``King Kong'' remake. Dino's advocacy of young (and, therefore, cheap) talent aside, with Ellen Burstyn, Dench and Albert Finney blanked, this was the evening's true stick-around-long-enough Oscar moment.

And ironic, wasn't it, that a veteran of De Laurentiis' caliber was the one singled out in the year 2001, when the show's producers fell all over themselves to reference the film masterpiece that bears the year's name - made by the same Stanley Kubrick whom the academy had never seen fit to award a major Oscar for his own wild, crazy and brilliant work.

Once again, the academy has proven that, for all of its rhetoric about art, it's mainly in the business of circus spectacle.

``I'm an actor, I read the sript, and I learn the lines, put the costume on and Bob's your uncle.''

- Russell Crowe

Best Actor winner for ``Gladiator''

``What am I going to be political about, mad cow disease?''

- Best Actress winner Julia Roberts

laughing off rumors that her acceptance speech might turn political

``I dedicate this to all the musicians who inspire us, and (to) my family.''

- Cameron Crowe

Winner Best Original Screenplay for ``Almost Famous''

CAPTION(S):

5 photos

Photo:

(1 -- 3 -- cover -- color) They're All WINNERS

Everyone gets something from Oscar: `Gladiator' - Best Picture

Steven Soderbergh - Best Director, `Traffic'

`Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' - Best Foreign Film

(4) An honorary Oscar was bestowed on Jack Cardiff, the first cinematographer to receive such a lifetime tribute in the awards' history.

John Lazar/Staff Photographer

(5) ``Traffi,'' starring Michael Douglas, right, won four Oscars, including Best Director.
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Title Annotation:L.A. Life
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 26, 2001
Words:1026
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