Annette expects, Sam delivers and a night for 'Beauty' ends with a golden handful

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The Independent US

Sam Mendes referred to himself modestly as a "bloke from the English theatre", but as the Oscars rained down on American Beauty, his very first outing as a film director, he could barely hold back the tears.

Here he was, Steven Spielberg smiling beatifically at him on one side, Kevin Spacey hugging him on the other, under the gaze of Hollywood's glittering finest and a worldwide audience of millions. His distinguished cinematographer, Conrad Hall, even compared him to the young Orson Welles. Fantasies of cinematic grandeur do not come much more complete than that, and for a moment - just a brief moment - even Mendes's laconic cool could not quite hold. "I'm a little bit overwhelmed," he admitted gently.

As well he might have been: American Beauty picked up five Oscars in all, for best film, best director, best actor(Spacey), best original screenplay (Alan Ball) and best cinematography (Hall, who also won an award in 1970 for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid).

American Beauty's triumph was not much of a surprise, since the film had already scooped all the major Hollywood guilds' awards and had earned some of the most consistently glowing critical reviews of any film in recent years. The only big question was whether Annette Bening would add to the film's triumph by winning the best actress prize and, since she was fully nine months pregnant, whether she might even go into labour during the ceremony itself.

The real suspense of the evening, in fact, was not focused on the stage at all but on the middle seat in row two of the stalls where Bening, flanked by her husband Warren Beatty, alternated between sheer radiance and painful wincing that could have been fatigue, or back ache, or perhaps even the first hint of contractions. Billy Crystal, the show's host, made a crack about a production due for release that very night. The television cameras swung back towards her periodically to check she was still there.

A medical crew was understood to be on hand in case of need and Spacey, who had been lined up to present an award with her (he ended up doing it on his own), wagered that if she won an Oscar she would crawl on to the stage on all fours. But, first, there was a long night of pomp and circumstance to get through.

The ritual guessing games had largely been spoiled by The Wall Street Journal, which broke with Oscar etiquette by conducting an informal poll of academy voters and publishing the results over the weekend - results which proved to be unerringly accurate in all but one case; the paper had predicted that Spacey would be beaten to the best actor award by Denzel Washington for his role in The Hurricane.

Angelina Jolie was named best supporting actress for Girl, Interrupted, and Michael Caine won vindication for his omission from last year's list (for Little Voice) by winning best supporting actor for The Cider House Rules.

Caine paid lavish tribute to his fellow nominees, saying he felt like their representative rather than a true winner. He made a big fuss of Haley Joel Osment, the 11-year-old lead of The Sixth Sense, and said Jude Law would be "a huge star whatever happens". He was more irreverent with Tom Cruise, who plays a sex guru in Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia, suggesting he might have done better not to win. "Do you know how much supporting actors get paid?" Caine joked.

The musical section produced another British win, for Phil Collins who wrote the theme song to Disney's animated version of Tarzan, but he - along with the other musical nominees - was thoroughly upstaged by Robin Williams and a troop of chorus girls in Mountie outfits who performed the song "Blame Canada" from the animated comedy South Park. Williams, who had been drafted in to clean up the lyrics for family consumption while still making them funny, appeared on stage with a large piece of masking tape over his mouth, only to rip it off and launch gleefully into a verse about breaking wind.

Almost three hours in, Bening was still in her seat, and the show felt as if it might just wait out her pregnancy no matter what. Her husband accepted an Irving Thalberg Award for lifetime achievement, making a speech so long he himself said he had better wrap it up before his new child popped out.

Pedro Almodovar, whose All About My Mother picked up another widely anticipated award for best foreign language film, wittered on in what seemed to be deliberately incoherent fashion until his fellow Spaniards, Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz, dragged him away from the microphone.

Altogether briefer was John Irving, accepting a screenplay award for the adaptation of his book, The Cider House Rules, who scored a quick political point by thanking Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Rights League before seemingly being silenced by the show's producers.

At last the awards - longer even than last year's, despite the Academy's stated intention to keep them shorter - came into the home stretch and Ms Bening was seen on camera doing quick breathing exercises.

Evoking one of the most powerful images of American Beauty, Alan Ball thanked "that plastic bag in front of the World Trade Center for being whatever it is that inspires us to do what we do". Kevin Spacey, echoing the dry humour of his character, Lester Burnham, accepted his award saying: "This is the high point of my day. I hope it doesn't go downhill from here." Dan Jinks, one of the film's producers, was so exercised by the occasion that he ended up thanking "all of his parents". His co-producer, Bruce Cohen, might have got his awards ceremonies mixed up when he thanked his "Grammy".

But what about best actress? In the end it went to Hilary Swank, for her remarkable performance as a transsexual in the low-budget independent filmBoys Don't Cry.Bening did not look too upset. After all, what's an Oscar next to the impending birth of your fourth child?