Solemn Themes Won Praise on Oscar Night

From `Schindler's List' to `The Piano' and `Philadelphia,' serious movies earn top honors

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

TO no one's surprise, Hollywood's night of nights for 1994 is going down as Steven Spielberg's year of years. The director of four of the Top-10 moneymaking movies ever finally received the Oscar recognition that had eluded him for two decades, including an 0-for-11 shutout for ``The Color Purple'' in 1984.

In addition to Best Director and Best Picture honors to Spielberg for this year's film about the Nazi Holocaust in ``Schindler's List,'' Spielberg-directed films won eight other Oscars: three in technical categories for ``Jurassic Park'' (visual effects, sound-effects editing, and sound) and five more for ``Schindler's List'' (including cinematography, original score, and screenplay adaptation).

``I implore all the educators who are watching this program, please do not allow the Holocaust to remain a footnote in history,'' Spielberg said in his second trip to the podium in Los Angeles's Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on March 21. ``There are 350,000 [Holocaust survivor] experts who just want to be useful with the remainder of their lives. Please listen to the words and the echoes and the ghosts and please teach this in your schools.''

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Spielberg, the director of such megahits as ``E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,'' ``Jaws,'' ``Close Encounters of the Third Kind,'' and ``Raiders of the Lost Ark,'' acknowledged his many years of being known for films that were commercially successful but of questionable artistic value.

``This is the best drink of water after the longest drought in my life,'' he said.

The themes underlined in ``Schindler's List'' - remembrance, tolerance, and the power of film to transform public knowledge - were echoed in two other films. The Jonathan Demme-directed film about a man struggling with AIDS, ``Philadelphia,'' gave Tom Hanks his first Oscar for ``Best Actor'' as well as ``Best Original Song'' to rocker Bruce Springsteen for his ballad, ``Streets of Philadelphia.''

Acknowledging the creative influence of his high school drama teacher and a high school friend, Hanks said, ``I wish my babies could have the same sort of teachers, the same sort of friends.''

THE documentary ``I Am a Promise: The Children of Stanton Elementary School'' was singled out for its revelations about the struggles of underprivileged youth.

``This film revolves around issues; the inner city and poverty,'' said producer Alan Raymond backstage after accepting the Oscar. ``It is one that more Americans should be interested in but is neglected.'' Wife and co-producer Susan Raymond said the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences should be lauded for keeping the documentary category in its worldwide Oscar telecast.

Among the top actor/actress categories, the main surprise was a Best Supporting Actress award to Anna Paquin, the 11-year-old New Zealand girl who was 9 during the filming of ``The Piano.'' Struck almost speechless at the podium, the diminutive Paquin managed to thank director Jane Campion, who later won for Best Original Screenplay, and Holly Hunter, who won Best Actress.

Accompanied backstage by her father, Paquin was equally non-plussed, barely able to utter answers to reporters. Finally her father introduced himself to explain that Anna's film role came by happenstance. Previously without any inclination toward acting, Anna auditioned for the part to keep up with her older sister who had also tried out, he said.

All in all, Oscar night 1994, which was hosted by actress-comedian Whoopi Goldberg, is being lauded by cinemaphiles as one of the more smooth-running, tightly written shows honoring films from one of Hollywood's best seasons. By attempting mature themes, and often controversial ones, the top-nominated filmmakers opted for substance over style.

Here are some of the comments by winners backstage:

* ``I don't think it boils down to anything so simple as bad guy vs. good guy,'' said best supporting actor, Tommy Lee Jones, when asked if voters went for his role as a cop in ``The Fugitive'' because the character was more positive than his Oscar opposition, a Nazi officer (played by Ralph Fiennes in ``Schindler's List'') or boozing wife-abuser (Laurence Fishburne in ``What's Love Got to Do with It?'') ``I don't believe [that kind of voting] is a trend or a fad. I really have a higher regard for the intelligence of the voters,'' Jones said.

* ``The growth of traveling animation festivals is helping bring animated films to a wider audience [after] the demise of the short film,'' said Nick Park, Oscar winner for ``The Wrong Trousers'' for Best Animated Short Film.

* ``I gave it a shot, but actually rock songs are harder to write than ballads,'' said Bruce Springsteen when asked why he didn't deliver ``Philadelphia'' director, Jonathan Demme, the driving rock anthem Demme originally asked for. Remarking that his first award for film music was an ``unexpected thrill,'' Springsteen said boyhood-era films such as ``The Grapes of Wrath,'' ``How Green Was My Valley,'' and ``Searchers'' helped shape his life and attitude as much as music.

* ``Filming [``Schindler's List''] in Europe contributed everything to the truth of the film,'' Spielberg said when asked why he opted for location shooting in Krakow, Poland, instead of less expensive soundstages in Hollywood. The scenes within Oskar Schindler's factory were shot in Schindler's actual apartment, he says. ``If [the movie] were made on the back lot, we would have had California faces ... rather than the [salutary effect] of being on the largest killing field in the history of industrialized murder.''

Other awards from Monday's Oscarcast include: ``The Age of Innocence'' (Gabriella Pescucci) for Best Achievement in Costume Design''; ``Belle Epoque,'' (Fernando Trueba, producer) for Best Foreign Language Film; and honorary tributes to Paul Newman (the Jean Hersholt Award) and Deborah Kerr.

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