Going down to the wire, Oscars pick `Gladiator'

Monday, March 26th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ The Oscars were like a sudden-death overtime, with the best-picture announcement a three-way tiebreaker for ``Gladiator,'' ``Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon'' and ``Traffic.''

Each film already had taken four Oscars, so it all came down to Sunday night's last award, with the Roman epic ``Gladiator'' finally prevailing.

Even then, all three films came away with top prizes. ``Crouching Tiger's'' wins included foreign-language film and original score. Among ``Traffic's'' honors were best director for Steven Soderbergh, supporting actor for Benicio Del Toro and best adapted screenplay for Stephen Gaghan.

Two guys named Crowe had something to crow about. Russell Crowe took best actor for ``Gladiator,'' and Cameron Crowe won the Oscar for original screenplay for his rock 'n' roll memoir ``Almost Famous.''

``It's probably appropriate, the feeling when they announce your name for a music movie is psychedelic,'' Cameron Crowe said back stage.

The sheer physical effort was the hardest part of playing the fallen general Maximus in ``Gladiator,'' Russell Crowe said.

``I was very heavily beaten up on this movie,'' said Crowe, who also was nominated last year for ``The Insider.'' ``We didn't have time to take breaks in production to repair me, so we just had to keep going.''

Hollywood's top female star, Julia Roberts, won best actress for ``Erin Brockovich'' after going 10 years since her last nomination.

Her voice quavering, the giddy Roberts waved off the official Oscar timer trying to limit her acceptance speech, spending several minutes gushing her thanks.

``Everybody tries to shut me up,'' Roberts said backstage. ``It didn't work with my parents. It doesn't work now. A gal's gotta have her moment, that's what I think.''

During the ceremony, Roberts forgot to mention the real-life Erin Brockovich, so she made up for it backstage, praising the legal aide who led a court fight over water pollution.

``During my out-of-body experience earlier tonight, I didn't acknowledge her, shamefully. Shamefully,'' Roberts said. ``And really, she is the center of the universe which was our movie.''

Amid the box-office hits that dominated the Oscars, there was the small, searing drama ``Pollock,'' which earned the supporting-actress statue for Marcia Gay Harden.

``Pollock'' director Ed Harris, a best-actor nominee for the title role, spent a decade trying to make the film biography of painter Jackson Pollock.

Backstage, Harden said she had forgotten to thank former colleagues when she worked as a waitress while trying to land acting jobs.

``I said I would say thank you to all the waiters and waitresses who used to cover my shift for me so I could run down to audition,'' Harden said.

The only best-picture contender that came away empty-handed was ``Chocolat,'' which lost in all five of its categories.

``Gladiator'' had led the field with 12 nominations, followed by 10 for ``Crouching Tiger'' and five apiece for ``Erin Brockovich'' and ``Traffic.'' The latter films were both directed by Soderbergh, who had two director nominations.

Ang Lee had seemed the favorite for best director for ``Crouching Tiger.'' Lee had won the Directors Guild of America honor, and it was only the fifth time in the 53-year history of the guild's awards that the winner failed to also take the Oscar.

Some Oscar analysts thought Soderbergh was handicapped with two nominations because he might split his own vote. The gritty, documentary-style ``Traffic'' had been widely considered Soderbergh's best chance of the two films to win the directing honor.

Throughout awards season, Soderbergh had refused to give Oscar voters any hints about which film he would prefer them to support.

``You know, whenever people ask me, `Which of your films is your favorite?', I say, `The one I'm making right now,''' Soderbergh said.

It was Hollywood's return to the gladiatorial arena that took center stage at the Oscars. ``Gladiator'' was a glitzy, $100 million revival of the mammoth Roman spectacle, the first time Hollywood had taken on the genre in 35 years.

While ``Gladiator'' director Ridley Scott, co-star Joaquin Phoenix and the film's writers were shut out, the movie's creators had cause to celebrate considering the obstacles it overcame. The movie had the majestic scope that the academy often favors, but some critics felt it lacked the writing and acting heft that helps make a best picture.

It also was released in May, running counter to Hollywood wisdom that academy voters gravitate toward prestige films that come out near year's end.

But after grossing $450 million worldwide, the biggest commercial success in the best-picture field, ``Gladiator'' also proved durable with awards voters.

The movie's other wins were for visual effects, costume design and sound.

``It takes a lot of people to make a Colosseum, but it only takes one or two to mess it up,'' said Douglas Wick, a producer on ``Gladiator.'' ``To all the wizards who brought to life the sights, sounds and citizens of a faraway world, we should take a chisel to this statue and give you your fair share.''

``Gladiator's'' huge edifices and panoramic views of Rome were created through a seamless blend of partly built sets completed in post-production with computer imagery.

The Colosseum seats were filled with 2,000 live extras and 33,000 computer-created spectators. Legions of warriors in the savage opening battle, when Maximus exhorts his troops to ``unleash hell,'' were augmented by digitally reproducing the extras.

It was the second straight best-picture win for Hollywood's newest studio, DreamWorks, formed in 1994 by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen.

Last year, DreamWorks won best-picture honors for ``American Beauty.''

DreamWorks distributed ``Gladiator'' domestically, while producing partner Universal handled the film's overseas release. It was Universal's seventh best-picture honor and the first since Spielberg's ``Schindler's List'' in 1993.

For all of ``Gladiator's'' technical wizardry, the filmmakers credited a flesh-and-blood actor for much of the movie's success.

``Russell Crowe,'' said producer Wick, ``put the human back in the hero.''