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Third "Ring" movie wins 11 Oscars

Monday, March 01, 2004

By Kim Crow and Barbara Vancheri, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

HOLLYWOOD -- It is Hollywood's version of "my precious" -- not a gold ring, but a gold statuette for Best Picture, one of a record-tying 11 Academy Awards bestowed last night upon "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King."

Mark J. Terrill, Associated Press
Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson and Philippa Boyers pose with their Oscars.
Click photo for larger image.


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Its triumph marked the first time a fantasy film has won Best Picture, and the first victory for the third movie in a trilogy. But one could argue the award was really meant to honor all three entries in "The Lord of the Rings" saga, which began in 2001 with "The Fellowship of the Ring" and continued the following year with "The Two Towers."

Its conversion of 11 nominations into 11 Oscars, for art direction, costume design, visual effects, makeup, sound mixing, original score, film editing, song, adapted screenplay, director and picture, made it one of the three most honored pictures in Academy Award history.

Only two other movies -- "Ben Hur" and "Titanic" -- have earned that many Oscars. However, they went into the ceremony with more nominations. "Ben Hur" had 12; "Titanic," 14.

Filmed more or less simultaneously by Oscar-winning director Peter Jackson in his native New Zealand, the trilogy cost an estimated $400 million and represented a major gamble on the part of the studio that produced it, New Line. Had the first film faltered at the box office, the losses could have shut down the studio.

"I'm so honored and relieved that the Academy and the members of the Academy that have supported us have seen past the trolls and the wizards and the hobbits in recognizing fantasy this year," said Jackson.

He read "The Lord of the Rings" when he was 18, and he couldn't wait until the movie came out. "Twenty years later, no one had done it -- so I got impatient," he said.

But destiny seems to have chosen the 42-year-old New Zealander to direct the series of films based on J.R.R. Tolkien's beloved trilogy. His description of his native land as "not a small country but a large village" might just as well be applied to the Shire, the peaceful farming region that is home to Tolkien's hobbits, the pint-size heroes of the tale.

Jackson even looks like a hobbit. He's short (5-foot-7), plump and bearded. Also, like Tolkien's halflings, he proved himself capable of a herculean task: filming three movies that required grandiose special effects, spectacular battle scenes and a large ensemble cast.

He got his start making homemade horror movies, baking latex masks in the family oven. Before "The Lord of the Rings," he was best known for "Heavenly Creatures," a fantastical rendering of a true story of a notorious murder in New Zealand in the 1950s. "The Lord of the Rings" knocks 'em dead in a different way.

"Return of the King" became the 11th film to win Best Picture without a single acting nomination (prior to last night, the most recent such movie was "Braveheart").

Mark J. Terrill, Associated Press
Sean Penn accepts the Oscar for best actor for his work in "Mystic River."
Click photo for larger image.

And since no actors from "Return of the King" had been nominated, that cleared the way for wins for leading actors Sean Penn and Charlize Theron and supporting players Renee Zellweger and Tim Robbins.

Say what you will about Penn's politics or his refusal to play the Hollywood game (he typically doesn't cuddle up to the women of "The View" or tell funny vacation tales to Dave or Jay), you cannot argue about his talent. He often is called "the best actor of his generation" and his searing turn in "Mystic River" affirmed that, as did his work in the recent "21 Grams."

This was Penn's fourth bid for Best Actor. He also was nominated for "Dead Man Walking," "Sweet and Lowdown" and "I Am Sam."

In "Mystic River," Penn plays an ex-convict who is the married father of three girls and operator of a corner grocery whose world implodes when his 19-year-old daughter is murdered. In one memorably photographed scene, his character Jimmy Markum is so out of his mind with pain and heartache and animalistic anger that a ring of police officers can barely contain him. In another, he has a haunting encounter in a funeral home and in yet still another, tells a pal that he cannot cry for his daughter, even as he does that very thing.

The 43-year-old actor, who made his feature-film debut in "Taps" and entered pop-culture fame as Jeff Spicoli in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," is also a writer, director and producer. At one point in his career he vowed to quit acting but he rebounded, better than ever.

Looking nothing like her "Monster" character, Theron kissed her actor-boyfriend Stuart Townsend and ascended to the stage of the Kodak Theater to declare, "This has been such an incredible year. I don't believe this" before thanking, among others, director Patty Jenkins and her makeup artist, snubbed at nomination time. She vowed not to cry but nearly dissolved into tears, as she gazed at her mother, who had "sacrificed so much for me to be here."

Until "Monster," Theron had been considered a good actress -- but a great beauty. Buried beneath contact lenses, false teeth, an extra 30 pounds, mottled and freckled skin, hair in need of a good cut and conditioning, and eyelids weighed down with gelatin (to give her the exhausted look that comes naturally to the rest of us), Theron had a chance to shine.

Kevork Djansezian, Associated Press
Best supporting actor for his role in "Mystic River," Tim Robbins, and best supporting actress Renee Zellweger for her role in "Cold Mountain" tap Oscar statues backstage.
Click photo for larger image.

She transformed herself into a doppelganger of the "damsel of death." The onetime model and ballerina, who has thanked her mother for giving her a one-way ticket to Hollywood, played serial killer Aileen Wuornos, a highway prostitute executed in Florida in 2002 for murdering six men.

The Oscars have a history of rewarding women who downplay their beauty: Nicole Kidman, for instance, as Virginia Woolf or Halle Berry as a woman who loses her husband to Death Row and her son to a hit-and-run accident. The 28-year-old Theron, a native of South Africa, made her feature film debut in "2 Days in the Valley" as the love interest of James Spader, and began garnering bigger roles against such stars as Keanu Reeves, Johnny Depp, Matt Damon, Woody Allen, Ben Affleck and the men in "The Italian Job."

Zellweger had us at hello. Winning over Oscar took a little longer.

Zellweger appeared in a string of pulp movies ("Love and a .45," "The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre") before she broke through as Tom Cruise's romantic interest in "Jerry Maguire."

For him, it was love at first sight. But the third time proved the charm for Academy voters. She earned Best Supporting Actress honors for playing the dogged, down-home farmhand who keeps Nicole Kidman's pampered preacher's daughter from starving in the Civil War epic "Cold Mountain."

"I am overwhelmed. I am overwhelmed. Thank you," Zellweger, glowing in a strapless white gown, said.

In addition to thanking her co-stars and director, Anthony Minghella, she paid tribute to "Actors Clearinghouse for the good start, Vincent D'Onofrio for teaching me how to work, Tom Cruise for showing me that very early on, kindness and success are not mutually exclusive. And finally, most importantly in my life, my glorious family, my immigrant mom and dad. Thank you for never saying don't try."

She also mentioned her brother and his new wife, "who clapped the loudest and laughed the loudest."

Zellweger was nominated as Best Actress last year as the starstruck murderess in the musical "Chicago," directed by Pittsburgh's Rob Marshall. Protesting that she couldn't sing, she tried to turn the role down but Marshall convinced her to take it. She lost the Oscar to Kidman, who portrayed Virginia Woolf in "The Hours."

A year earlier, she received her first nomination for playing the title role in "Bridget Jones's Diary," based on the best-selling novel about a lonely English working woman seeking love and self-improvement. Zellweger gained 20 pounds for the role and dispelled all doubts about whether a native of Texas could play a convincing Brit.

Mark J. Terrill, Associated Press
Annie Lennox accepts the Oscar for best original song for Into the West from the motion picture "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King."
Click photo for larger image.

Zellweger was visibly trembling when she came back into the press room. When asked about the current trend of lovely ladies deglamming themselves for roles, she said, "If it's a trend, by that I hope that you mean interesting parts, parts playing multifaceted women really rich in their journeys. The more you can change yourself, the more removed the character is from your own experiences, the more rewarding it is."

The 35-year-old actress recently finished filming the "Bridget Jones" sequel and will appear opposite Russell Crowe in a film about the boxer Jim Braddock. She has also been tapped to play fellow Texan Janis Joplin, a role that will find her singing again but in a very different style, in the biopic "Piece of My Heart."

In one way, Robbins from "Mystic River" was the luckiest actor in the Kodak Theater. His name was in the first envelope to be opened, for Best Supporting Actor, about 20 minutes into the broadcast.

"Oh boy. Wow. Thank you so much," the actor said. "This is really a lovely, lovely honor. I'd like to thank my fellow nominees, who are all spectacular and I want to work with all of you in a movie at some point."

Robbins also singled out novelist Dennis Lehane, screenwriter Brian Helgeland, fellow cast members and director Clint Eastwood. "You're making my mantle very crowded," quipped the much-honored actor, who now has an Oscar to bookend the one belonging to his longtime companion, actress Susan Sarandon.

Looking sleek and boyish in a black-on-black tuxedo, Robbins thanked his parents, Sarandon and their three children, sons Jack and Miles Robbins and actress daughter Eva Amurri.

Robbins then delivered a powerful message to the billion viewers: "In this movie, I play a victim of abuse and violence and if you are out there and are a person that has had that tragedy befall you, there is no shame and no weakness in seeking help and counseling. It is sometimes the strongest thing that you can do to stop the cycle of violence."

The actor had been nominated for an Academy Award only once before -- for directing "Dead Man Walking" starring Sarandon. The couple are among the more outspoken members of the show business community and were famously told a year ago by the Baseball Hall of Fame that a planned celebration of their movie "Bull Durham" had been canceled -- and so had their appearance.

Reporters backstage didn't shy away from urging the uber-political Robbins to speak his mind. He obliged by urging people to register to vote and get involved in the political process, but he waxed more eloquently about his experience in "Mystic River."

"First of all, to be involved in this whole process with this particular movie is what the joy is," he said. "Because as I was doing it, it was reinvigorating me. I wanted to work hard and do it right. It reminded me of my first film; there was only one or two takes for each set-up. It gave me great confidence in myself. That's all due to Mr. Eastwood. He imbues his actors with that confidence. He is a unique and great director."

Last week, The Public Theater in New York opened "Embedded," a play the 45-year-old Robbins wrote and directed. It's an outrageous comedy that "skewers cynical embedded journalists, scheming government officials, a show-tune singing colonel and the media's insatiable desire for heroes."

Documentary maker Errol Morris, who made "The Fog of War" with Michael Williams, was one of the more honest men in the room: "I'd like to thank the Academy for finally recognizing my films ... I thought it would never happen."

"Fog of War" is a compelling look at the mistaken assumptions behind the Vietnam War as told by former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who was thanked by Morris.

In an echo of last year's protests against the war in Iraq, the filmmaker added, "Forty years ago, this country went down a rabbit hole in Vietnam and millions died. I fear we're going down a rabbit hole once again and if people can stop and think and reflect on some of the ideas and issues in this movie, perhaps I've done some damn good here."

Backstage, Morris said he loved the idea of sending copies of his film to the White House. "If they are willing to watch it, they can have it any time they want. Have I made a connection to 40 years ago to today? Absolutely."

Another first-time winner: Sofia Coppola, who wrote the original screenplay for "Lost in Translation." Her win put her family into the Oscar record books. The Coppolas -- Sofia, father Francis Ford and grandfather Carmine -- became the second three-generation Oscar family. The first were the Hustons: Walter, John and Anjelica.

Richard King, winner in the sound editing category for "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" spoke for others in the winners' circle: "I'm just glad that 'The Lord of the Rings' wasn't nominated in my category." That was the same sentiment expressed by the makers of "The Barbarian Invasions," a Canadian film honored as Best Foreign Language Film.

In a show that featured many winners reading long lists of names from slips of paper extracted from jacket pockets or jewel-encrusted evening bags, one of the sweetest moments came at the conclusion of Andrew Stanton's acceptance speech for best animated film, "Finding Nemo."

Stanton is a writer-director for Pixar Animation Studios and it had been his own fretful tendencies as a dad that inspired the story about a missing clownfish. Looking at his wife, Julie, in the audience, Stanton said, "I wrote it to you in a note in eighth grade and now I can say it in front of 1 billion people: I love you."

He wasn't the only one sending out a heartfelt message to a loved one.

Adam Elliot, winner for Best Animated Short Film for "Harvie Krumpet," might have made Oscar history by thanking his boyfriend onstage. But backstage, he seemed a bit worried about his words: "We've only been dating for two months, do you think that might have been a little much?"

The 76th annual Academy Awards had its requisite Pittsburgh connections. In addition to the eye-popping commemorative poster designed by artist Burton Morris, Aliquippa native Joe Letteri shared in the prize for visual effects for "Return of the King." He won an Oscar a year ago, in the same category.

"Peter called me in October of '98 to come down for two months and two years later, I was still there," he said backstage. "We believed in the project, and I just got caught in Shelob's web."

Even the most beloved and popular fantasy films turned out by Hollywood in the past -- "The Wizard of Oz," "Star Wars," "E.T." -- never won the Best Picture statuette. "Return of the King" was viewed with more gravity because of the times in which it was released. As in the movie, evil powers from mysterious lands far to the east threaten the world with their deadly plans.

Based on a beloved series of books by J.R.R. Tolkien that was first published 50 years ago, "The Lord of the Rings" relates how hobbit Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) comes into possession of the One Ring of Power, coveted by the evil Lord Sauron in his designs to conquer and control Middle-earth.

Aided by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), the king-in-waiting Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), elves, dwarves, men and his fellow hobbits, Frodo must carry out what appears to be a suicide mission -- smuggle the ring into Sauron's stronghold, Mordor, and destroy it by casting it into the lake of fire where it was forged.

McKellen and director Jackson were nominated for Oscars for "The Fellowship of the Ring," but neither received a nomination the following year for "The Two Towers."

In a year that saw Hollywood lose some of its brightest and biggest lights, a few -- longtime Oscar host Bob Hope, Katharine Hepburn and Gregory Peck -- received individual memorial tributes.

The show opened with Oscar winner Sean Connery, who invited the world to celebrate the magic of going to the movies -- and spoofing them, as host Billy Crystal did in his now-expected opening montage. His insertion into "Return of the King," "Monster" and "Cold Mountain" were more seamless than usual, although they also featured more nearly naked Crystal than usual, too. He shrieked, just as Diane Keaton had, when caught without clothes in "Something's Gotta Give."

The Oscars pulled out the stops to restore glamour to Hollywood's biggest night. The ruby-red carpet was back, and so were the much-coveted bleacher seats. There were no concerns that gowns and gems would be considered ostentatious while war was being waged in Iraq, which prompted news breaks last year with a somber-faced Peter Jennings.

The weather wasn't quite picture-perfect although the rain held off. Under cloudy skies and below-average temperatures, the red carpet was clogged with movie stars, who all seemed to arrive in the same clump -- perhaps looking for warmth from shared body heat.

In an effort to reduce the sometimes nasty campaigning for awards, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences moved up the show to Feb. 29. It returned Crystal as host for the eighth time, hired Morris to design its signature, best-selling poster, scheduled the ABC show during its lucrative sweeps period and booked a galaxy of younger stars as presenters.

Even the odds-on favorite for Best Picture, "Return of the King," was adored around the world, providing a built-in audience along the lines of "Titanic" years ago.

Honorary awards were kept to a minimum, with only filmmaker Blake Edwards receiving such an Oscar last night. It was given to reward his "extraordinary distinction in lifetime achievement." His citation read: "In recognition of his writing, directing and producing an extraordinary body of work for the screen."

Edwards is the son of a production manager and grandson of a silent-screen director. He started his career as an actor, appearing in "Ten Gentlemen from West Point" in 1942. He wrote his first film, "Panhandle," in 1948 and moved into the director's chair with the TV series "Four Star Playhouse" in 1952.

His list of credits as writer, director and producer have included "Days of Wine and Roses," "Breakfast at Tiffany's," "Victor/Victoria," a series of Pink Panther movies and the black comedy "S.O.B." He has been married to Julie Andrews since 1969.

Backstage, Edwards leaned heavily on a cane and sat in a chair to field questions from the crowd of journalists. Asked about the difference between his classic comedies and today's gross-out fests, he said: "Whether or not my films live on, or whether or not there's a difference, there's a place for both.

"I was raise in a particular way, silent films, the great comics, a certain kind of comedy. I literally sat at the feet at some of the great comedy directors. I'm just tuned into that. A lot of the things that the younger generation finds funny I just can't relate to them. Not looking down on them, things just change. Younger audiences like some of my films, they still understand whatever it is that makes that era so important."

Kim Crow can be reached at or 412-263-1308.Barbara Vancheri can be reached at or 412-263-1632.

PG Movie Editor Ron Weiskind also contributed to this report.

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