How America had Oscars for breakfast

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"PLEASE TRY to behave yourselves!" announced a disembodied voice to the assembled crowd of journalists, television crews and anxious publicists as we made our way up the stairs of the Samuel Goldwyn theatre for the grand announcement of this year's Academy Award nominations.

It was hardly a scrum. In fact, apart from the odd culprit carrying a plastic coffee cup past the "no food or drink beyond this point" sign, there was barely a murmur of haste or undue anticipation. After all, it was 5.30am - a ludicrous time to organise a media event of any kind, but one that gave a telltale clue about the true purpose of the proceedings.

Honouring the most distinguished film professionals of the past year was only part of the story. The main object of the exercise was to pack as many freshly honoured nominees on to the breakfast television shows as possible.

As the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Bob Rehme, stepped out onto the stage with his celebrity co-host, Kevin Spacey, producers and publicists nervously cradled their mobile phones in one hand and fingered their list of key phone numbers in the other.

The presenters did not bother read out the whole list, just the nominees for acting, directing, screenwriting and best film - proof, if any was needed, that Mr Spacey set his alarm clock and donned his best suit not for the benefit of the assembled hacks but to brighten the feeds to the morning news magazines. There were cheers and applause for a few of the popular nominees - Cate Blanchett and Lynn Redgrave obviously have their fans among the foot-soldiers of the big networks - but the affair was treated largely as a mechanical exercise in media logistics.

"Let's call James Coburn at home!" murmured one TV executive as his name came up for best supporting actor in the Paul Schrader movie, Affliction.

"Where's Steven Spielberg? Have we figured out if he has left for Berlin yet?" asked another. The producer-director of Saving Private Ryan, up for 11 awards, was on his way to the Berlin Film Festival to present The Last Days, a Holocaust documentary he produced.

As the more obsessive Oscar watchers pointed out, while he is there he will find it hard not to run into Private Ryan's arch-rival, Shakespeare in Love (13 nominations), which is showing in the festival competition.

The brief show over, the real scrum began as publicists ran for the full nominations lists being handed out at the back of the theatre. Is there a client on this list, they all wondered, scouring the small print of awards for make-up, sound editing and best documentary.

Amid the confusion, the folks from Miramax looked particularly smug. Not only was their Shakespeare in Love the biggest winner of the morning, but Life is Beautiful, Roberto Benigni's bittersweet concentration camp comedy, garnered an astonishing seven nominations - the biggest cull ever for a foreign (Italian) film, including nods for best film, best actor (Benigni), best director (Benigni) and best screenwriter (Mr Benigni again).

This coup was no fluke - Miramax has been promoting both films with extraordinary energy since the start of the year. The Oscars are quintessential show business, and marketing is increasingly the prime force in that business.

Having won the battle, though, Miramax now has to win the war - or rather hope that its versions of war (Life is Beautiful) and love and war (Shakespeare in Love) win out over the darker, more brooding visions of conflict on offer (Saving Private Ryan and Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line). All will be revealed on 21 March.

Nominees For Main Awards

Best Picture: Elizabeth; Life Is Beautiful; Saving Private Ryan; Shakespeare In Love; The Thin Red Line.

Best Actor: Roberto Benigni, Life Is Beautiful; Tom Hanks, Saving Private Ryan; Sir Ian McKellen, Gods And Monsters; Nick Nolte, Affliction; Edward Norton, American History X.

Best Actress: Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth; Fernanda Montenegro, Central Station; Gwyneth Paltrow, Shakespeare In Love; Meryl Streep, One True Thing; Emily Watson, Hilary and Jackie.

Supporting Actor: James Coburn, Affliction; Robert Duvall, A Civil Action; Ed Harris, The Truman Show; Geoffrey Rush, Shakespeare In Love; Billy Bob Thornton, A Simple Plan.

Supporting Actress: Kathy Bates, Primary Colors; Brenda Blethyn, Little Voice; Dame Judi Dench, Shakespeare In Love; Rachel Griffiths, Hilary and Jackie; Lynn Redgrave, Gods And Monsters.

Director: Roberto Benigni, Life Is Beautiful; Steven Spielberg, Saving Private Ryan; John Madden, Shakespeare In Love; Terrence Malick, The Thin Red Line; Peter Weir, The Truman Show.

Foreign Film: Central Station, Brazil; Children Of Heaven, Iran; The Grandfather, Spain; Life Is Beautiful, Italy; Tango, Argentina.

Screenplay, written directly for the screen: Warren Beatty and Jeremy Pikser, Bulworth; Vincenzo Cerami and Roberto Benigni, Life Is Beautiful; Robert Rodat, Saving Private Ryan; Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, Shakespeare In Love; Andrew Niccol, The Truman Show.

Screenplay, based on material previously produced or published: Bill Condon, Gods And Monsters; Scott Frank, Out Of Sight; Elaine May, Primary Colors; Scott B Smith, A Simple Plan; Terrence Malick, The Thin Red Line.

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