Retrospective: Oscars 1999

It may have come as a shock to many in attendance and many millions more watching at home but the warning signs were there. After all Shakespeare in Love had received a staggering thirteen nominations (just behind the record 14 handed to All About Eve and Titanic) and had the full might of Miramax who were campaigning millions of dollars of promotion on their behalf. The Weinstein Brothers at this point already possessed a glorious track record when it came to the Academy Awards having previously helped Good Will Hunting get off the ground and exhausitvely supporting The English Patient all the way to a highly undeserving Best Picture win. Whereas most major film companies were willing to spend in the region of $2 million worth of promotional money when it came to the Awards season, the Weinstein brothers took it to the next level and it is estimated that they spent $5 million in their campaign for Shakespeare in Love. Front-runner Saving Private Ryan was still seen as the heavy favourite however as it was expected that its sheer quality would see it prevail. Whilst there was nothing particularly bad about Shakespere in Love it just appeared to be no more layered than a light-hearted televison drama which would, and as I think we are about to prove, indeed did fade into obscurity through the passage of time. Saving Private Ryan on the other hand presented a visceral, relentless and powerful vision of the true nature of the World War II battleground and managed for the most part to escape the melodramatic trappings of Spielberg's previous Oscar favourite (and eventual winner) Schindler's List. Intriguingly all five nominations for Best Picture at the 99 event revolved around just two settings - Elizabethan England and World War II. The other three contenders were: Life is Beautiful which was also heavily backed by Miramax and became (until the release of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) the most decorated foreign film in Academy history. Revered by some and deplored by others, the film took home three statuettes for Best Foreign Language Film, Best Leading Actor for Robert Benigni (we'll focus on that diabolical piece of decision-making a little later on) and Best Dramatic Score. Director Terrence Malick returned to the spotlight after a twenty year gap with his deftly plotted and haunting war effort The Thin Red Line. The film was perhaps a little too subtle and required too much patience to ever really be a serious threat in this category even though it was probably the finest film nominated. Elizbabeth was the big costume drama rival to Shakespeare in Love but was unfortunate not to receive the same level of publicity. As it was the film took away a single award for Best make-up. The most glaring omission in the Best Picture category was Peter Weir's excellent and highly relevant satire The Truman Show. Another film which was completely ignored by the Academy was Todd Solondz's excellent but controversial multi-narrative character study Happiness. Whilst the honest and blunt sexual content and implication was unlikely to win many Oscar votes, the array of fine performances (both lead & supporting) deserved better recognition. Also how could the Academy not open their hearts to the Coen Brothers hysterical classic The Big Lebowski? The film received no nominations despite featuring perhaps the best writing and acting of any other film that year. Steven Spielberg took home his second Best Director Oscar for Saving Private Ryan. This marked the first time in almost a decade that the Best Picture prize was rewarded to a film where the director was not also honoured. This statistic no doubt made Shakespeare in Love's win later in the evening all the more surprising. Robert Benigni decided to launch into character when he picked up the Leading Actor Prize and proceeded to celebrate in a manner almost as irritating and over the top as the performance he was being rewarded for. Nonetheless his win was quite the historical feat as he became only the second man in history to win an Acting Award under his own direction (Laurence Olivier accomplished this feat first for Hamlet decades earlier) and the first male actor to win for a foreign language film role. When you think of all the great male foreign language performances of years gone-by from Peter Lorre to Daniel Auteil to Klaus Kinski to Marcello Mastroianni this actually shows the Academy in a very bad light. Miramax backed both Shakespeare in Love and Life is Beautiful and their hard work and money paid off with twenty nominations and ten wins on the night. Benigni beat out competition from Academy favourite Tom Hanks' emphatic lead performance in Saving Private Ryan, Edward Norton's striking and violent turn in American History X, theatre actor Ian McKellen's first nomination for the low budget Gods and Monsters and Nick Nolte as the mentally-ill small town cop in the film Affliction. Much like the 2000 ceremony, 1999 failed to reward Jim Carrey with a nomination. As much as I detest Carrey's whacky work as a comedian I can not deny his talents as a serious, dramatic actor and he definitely deserved a nod for his layered, troubled and challenging role in The Truman Show. You guys put that right with our 2000 retrospective, awarding Jim Carrey a nomination for Best Actor for Man On The Moon. The Thin Red Line failed to score any Oscar nominations from its fine ensemble cast and last year's Oscar winner Jeff Bridges should have been nominated for his performance as the Dude in The Big Lebowski. His comic timing was perfect and the way he underplayed his role was technically excellent. Gywyneth Paltrow's win for Leading Actress has to be one of the least deserving in the Academy's long history.

She was as good as the film allowed her to be but there was nothing striking or memorable about her performance or at least not in the same way as there was for Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth or Emily Watson in Lars Von Trier's Breaking the Waves. The latter performances were far more convincing, emphatic and engaging than the winning actress who has since gone on to produce much better work. Gwyneth's Oscar win transformed her from a quirky American actress into a bona fide superstar who become a much sought after performer in the years that followed. The other two nominees in this category included Meryl Steep (surprise, surprise) for her eleventh nomination in the film One True Thing. In spite of a staggering sixteen career nominations Streep has not actually picked up an Academy Award in almost thirty years and must now be numb to the inevitability of her name popping up in either the lead or supporting category. By contrast the Brazilian actress Fernandra Montenegro was up for her first nomination in Walter Salles film Central Station. James Coburn who ended up starring in almost seventy films during his long career was the Best Supporting actor winner in 1999 for his role as alcoholic and abusive father in Affliction. He beat out competition from the likes of Geoffrey Rush (Shakespeare in Love), Billy Bob Thornton (A Simple Plan), Robert Duvall (A Civil Action) and Ed Harris (The Truman Show) There was no love for John Goodman for his great turn in The Big Lebowski, a film which also included great supporting male performances from the likes of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Steve Buscemi, David Huddleston and a glorious cameo from the super versatile John Turturro. Eight minutes of screen time was enough for Judi Dench to secure the Best Supporting Actress prize for Shakespeare in Love. She beat out competition from first time nominee Rachel Griffiths (Hilary and Jackie), previous Oscar Winner Kathy Bates (Primary Colours), British actress Blenda Blethyn (Little Voice) and Lyn Redgrave (Gods and Monsters.) The most drama on the night revolved around Elia Kazan's controversial honary award "in recognition of his indelible contributions to the art of motion picture direction." Whilst no-one could deny his artistic claim to the prize, Kazan had infamously "named names" during the McCarthy trials in the fifties and news of his award caused outrage amongst blacklisted directors, actors and writers. Outside the ceremony hundreds of protesters voiced their disapproval. Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro both looked uncomfortable in handing over the prize and a number of people in attendance refused to applaud when Kazan appeared on stage.

The contrast in reactions was actually quite something to behold with some stars standing to enthusiastically show their support and others sat stony faced not moving a muscle. You could feel the tension in the air as Kazan accepted his award and the prestigious organization were perhaps thankful that he kept his speech short. Voting will begin soon on our retrospective look back at the 1999 Oscar Ceremony.
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