'And I am not just saying that . . .': The Oscars

THE OSCARS: Once a year they leave the security of Beverly Hills and the San Fernando Valley to venture into downtown Los Angeles. Stepping out of their limos on to a two-speed red carpet (slow lane for megastars, fast lane for co-stars), they take their places in the charade that is the Academy Awards. Phil Reeves looked on from the wings

AND THE WINNERS WERE . . .

Best picture Schindler's List

Best actor Tom Hanks (Philadelphia)

Best actress Holly Hunter (The Piano)

Best director Steven Spielberg (Schindler's List)

Best supporting actor Tommy Lee Jones (The Fugitive)

Best supporting actress Anna Paquin (The Piano)

Best art direction Allan Starski, art direction; Ewa Braun, set direction (Schindler's List)

Best visual effects Dennis Muren, Stan Winston, Phil Tippett, Michael Lantieri (Jurassic Park)

Best make-up Greg Cannom, Ve Neill, Yolanda Toussieng (Mrs Doubtfire)

Best sound effects editing Gary Rydstrom, Richard Hymns (Jurassic Park)

Best animated short film The Wrong Trousers (Nicholas Park, producer)

Best live action short film Black Rider (Pepe Danquart, producer)

Best sound Garry Summers, Gary Rydstrom, Shawn Murphy, Ron Judkins (Jurasic Park)

Best costume design Gabriella Pescucci (The Age of Innocence)

Best documentary short subject Defending Our Lives (Margaret Lazurus and Renner Wunderlich, producers)

Best documentary feature I Am a Promise: The Children of Stanton Elementary School (Susan Raymond and Alan Raymond, producers)

Best original score John Williams (Schindler's List)

Best cinematography Janusz Kaminski (Schindler's List)

Best foreign language film Belle Epoque (Spain)

Best film editing Michael Kahn (Schindler's List)

Best original song 'Streets of Philadelphia' from Philadelphia (Bruce Springsteen)

Best original screenplay Jane Campion (The Piano)

Best screenplay adaptation Steven Zaillian (Schindler's List)

It was always going to be a formality. All that was ever at stake was how many Oscars Schindler's List would win, how graciously Steven Spielberg would accept his long-overdue recognition, and whether the whole affair would be disrupted by an earthquake.

But it was also always going to be a classic study in Hollywood hypocrisy. There, in all their finery, were the great and the good of the film industry, furiously applauding a man whom many had never particularly liked, and to whom they have not been been especially generous over the years. And, all over a film which many believe would probably have never made it beyond the 'in- tray' had Spielberg's alert eye not fallen upon it.

In the circumstances, Spielberg, the world's most commercially successful director, sounded remarkably generous, as he clutched two of the seven Oscars won by his movie - the Best Director and Best Picture awards. 'I have no resentment,' he said, standing back- stage moments after his victory. 'I have never had any resentment. And I am not just saying that because I am happy tonight. Absolutely not.'

His triumph, complete with a tearful on-stage tribute to the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust, was the highlight of the 66th Academy Awards, but it was by no means the only one. Who will forget the sight of Anna Paquin, the 11-year-old New Zealander, gulping and gasping with excitement underneath her sequinned woolly hat, barely able to reach the microphone to deliver her acceptance speech as Best Supporting Actress.

Or Tom Hanks's extraordinary, overblown, tribute to Aids victims and the US Constitution before he carried off the Oscar for Best Actor for Philadelphia? Or the shattered expression of Liam Neeson, Spielberg's leading man, whom many tipped for the same award? It was classic fare, in what has become an extraordinary annual ritual, a piece of theatre which has as many scenes off-stage as on.

It began at around 4pm, two hours before Whoopi Goldberg, the first woman host of the Oscars show, strode out before hundreds of millions of viewers to give the lie to those who said that she was too unpredictable, or too vulgar, or too silly to fill the shoes of Billy Crystal. (In the event, she did fairly well, and committed no howlers.)

A procession of stretch limousines began to wind down the freeways from Hollywood, Beverly Hills, the San Fernando Valley and Malibu to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, venue for the show in downtown LA. Overhead, a light aircraft buzzed across the blue sky, towing a banner: 'World's Funniest Movie Script] Needs producer. Call Ruskin.'

For many of the limo passengers, this was the only time in the year that they visit this part of town. On normal days, when the streets are not crowded with police, there are scores of homeless panhandlers on the streets, living under plastic sheeting and in cardboard boxes. Some of the more grim scenes in Falling Down were filmed just down the road. Generally speaking, it is not a desirable place to be.

After stepping out from the gloom of luxury into the afternoon air, with the help of one of around 100 red-coated valets, the guests faced one of the occasion's more harrowing requisites: the arrival line, a stretch of red carpet, some 30-yards long, which leads from the street into the Pavilion. It ran in front of a pen of TV cameras, many local stations broadcasting live.

The carpet was roped off into two halves, and became a measure both of the status and of the popularity of those that trod it. The slow lane was to allow the superstars - Clint Eastwood, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Tom Hanks et al - to wander from interviewer to interviewer, answering a series of breathtakingly inane questions ('What does it mean to you to be here?').

The fast lane was so that Hollywood's lesser names - has-beens, wannabes, and other unknowns - could walk hurriedly towards the entrance, knowing they would do so without so much as the click of a shutter. In a world where so much store is placed on adulation, this was suffering. A number wore dark glasses, supplying themselves with a reason for not being recognised.

American publications love to boast that their Oscars coverage comes from 'behind the scenes'. This is accurate, although perhaps not in the sense in which they mean it. In reality, the media was as tightly controlled as an Iraqi visitor to the Pentagon. The scores of print journalists covering the awards were placed in a warehouse-like room on the fourth floor of the Dorothy Chandler building, some distance from the ceremony itself. It was a spartan affair, crammed with narrow tables decorated by white table-cloths and small bottles of Evian water.

There were eight people to a table - four on either side, like bingo players, or croupiers at a night- class. Ludicrously, given the surroundings, everyone wore tuxedos or ball gowns. There was no choice. THIS ATTIRE IS MANDATORY] said the memo from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which threatened to ban anyone who disobeyed. Into this lowly place, the show was relayed via three small televisions.

As we sat squeezed into our plastic-backed chairs, we were given our instructions by a harassed-looking woman standing on a dias in one corner. After each award was handed out, the victor would be brought in for interviews. We each had a sheet of paper with a figure on it, she explained. 'When a star comes in and you want to ask a question, you raise your number. Please do not ask too many questions, just one or two.' Raise a number? Would Hildy Johnson have tolerated this?

It could only get worse. No one really knew what to ask many of the Oscar winners. The awkwardness was almost palpable when several flushed- looking victors from the more obscure categories appeared, happily clutching their trophies, only to be left standing around until someone deigned to raise their number.

Then Tommy Lee Jones walked in, carrying his Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for his role as the relentless detective in The Fugitive. Now we recognised him. Here was a veteran, someone who could lead us to the elusive core of movie- making, the intoxicating mystery of stardom and success. But we got off to a dismal start.

First question: 'What was it like to have to accept an award with a bald head?' Jones (who shaved it for his latest role) looked disappointed: 'Well, we thought about putting on wigs. We thought about all the other alternatives, but it proved to be a pain, so I decided to come as I am.' A conspiracy theorist tried a different tack: 'Three times tonight you have said how lucky you are to be a working actor,' he said, accusingly, 'so what are you really trying to say?' Jones expained that he was attempting to tell the truth.

It took Anna Paquin, the 11-year- old, to cut through the hogwash. She was brought to us, only moments after her charming acceptance of her Oscar for her role as Holly Hunter's daughter in Jane Campion's The Piano. What was going through her mind, amid the mayhem, we all wanted to know?

'I was thinking, this can't be happening, this can't be happening . . . I never thought I would win it. But, it's pretty fun though.' She was a little daunted, facing 150 or so journalists. After all, she was only a little older than the youngest-ever winner, Tatum O'Neal (Paper Moon, 1973). But she shows early promise in the art of the put-down, an essential weapon in the armoury of any serious player. After a long- winded and silly question about her future career, she replied, witheringly: 'What do you mean?'

Outside, the limos gathered to sweep the glitterati away to the post-awards parties, watched by a disgruntled cop from the LAPD. 'I work nights and I don't even recognise these people,' he growled. Tomorrow, it would be business as usual.

(Photograph omitted)

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