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Small films win big at the Oscars

‘Million Dollar Baby,’ ‘Ray’ not huge box office smashes

Whenever the Academy Awards voters go a little overboard, they tend to make course corrections the following year.

“Ben-Hur,” the costliest and the most popular epic of 1959, won more Oscars than any movie in history (11). In 1960, the best picture prize went to a small black-and-white comedy-drama, “The Apartment,” which was much less successful at the box office.

Cecil B. DeMille’s splashy 1952 extravaganza “The Greatest Show on Earth” was followed by a 1953 black-and-white drama, “From Here to Eternity,” in the best picture winners’ circle. “Gladiator” (best picture, 2000) was followed by the much less spectacular “A Beautiful Mind” (best picture, 2001).

Last year, “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” tied with “Ben-Hur” (and “Titanic”) by winning 11 Oscars. And last night another course correction was made. With nary a hobbit in sight, the 77th Academy Awards ceremonies had to make do with honoring several non-blockbusters.

The year’s most popular movies were largely shut out, and predictions of dire ratings preceded the ceremonies. Too bad. The Oscar voters were just doing what they often do after honoring a blockbuster: saluting movies that didn’t have to break the $100 million mark in order to win them over. Maybe they felt a little guilty about handing over all those statuettes last year to a colossal hit that hardly needed the help.

Small films make goodClint Eastwood’s small-scale, relatively low-budget boxing drama, “Million Dollar Baby,” which cost $30 million and has so far grossed only about twice that, walked off with four major prizes: best picture, director (Eastwood), actress (Hilary Swank) and supporting actor (Morgan Freeman).

The priciest movie in the running for major awards, Martin Scorsese’s Howard Hughes biography, “The Aviator,” has yet to make back what it cost ($110 million), though the five Oscars it won last night should help. Cate Blanchett was named best supporting actress for her impersonation of Katharine Hepburn; the film was also honored for costume design, art direction, Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing and Robert Richardson’s cinematography.

The best actor prize went to Jamie Foxx for his impersonation of Ray Charles in “Ray,” which also won an Oscar for sound recording. Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor’s “Sideways” script won for best screenplay adaptation, while Charlie Kaufman collected the award for best original screenplay: “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Jan A.P. Kaczmarek’s score for “Finding Neverland” was honored, and so was the makeup crew on “Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events.”

The only major box-office hits to score were “Spiderman 2,” which won for best visual effects, and “The Incredibles,” which collected the Oscars for best animated feature and best sound editing.

Much less popular, even in art-house terms, were the Oscar winners for best documentary feature (“Born Into Brothels”) and best foreign-language film (Spain’s “The Sea Inside,” which, like “Million Dollar Baby,” deals with euthanasia). Other Oscars went to “The Motorcycle Diaries” (best song: “Al Otro Lado Del Rio”), “Mighty Times: The Children’s March” (best documentary short), “Ryan” (best animated short) and “Wasp” (best live-action short film).

Mixed results from Chris RockAware of the lack of box-office appeal of the major nominees, producer Gilbert Cates tried to shake up the format, but the results were spotty. For freshness and potential shock value, Chris Rock was hired to lure in the younger audience that failed to tune in for the Grammys or the Golden Globes earlier this year.

Unfortunately, his opening wisecracks, aimed at Colin Farrell, Jude Law and President Bush’s deficit spending, seemed like old news. So was the montage of clips from classics that opened the show. Previous emcee Billy Crystal’s habit of inserting himself into the opening montage was much-missed.

More of a shock was the awkward presentation of several awards, with nominees standing on stage, beauty-pageant style, as they waited for the winner to be announced -- or seated in the balcony while a presenter stood in the aisle, resembling nothing so much as a stranded usher. Rock joked at one point that the next award would be presented in the parking lot.

If it wasn’t quite the train wreck many predicted, the show lacked excitement during its first half. But a standing ovation for Sidney Lumet, who was presented with a special award for his body of work (“Network,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Serpico”), was a high point. So was the Jean Hersholt award, which was presented to film preservationist Roger Mayer.

And the final awards were filled with emotion. Eastwood brought his 96-year-old mother to the show, while Swank refused to let an impatient orchestra hurry her through her list of people to thank: “You can’t do that because I haven’t gotten to Clint yet.” Foxx paid moving tribute to his first acting teacher, his deceased grandmother: “Now she talks to me in my dreams. And I can’t wait to go to sleep tonight because we got a lot to talk about.”

That other awards showOn Saturday, the 20 (presented on the Independent Film Channel) were handed out to some of the same films. Robin Williams, announcing that “Sideways” had won best picture (in addition to best screenplay and three acting awards), claimed that the movie’s title referred to “the way the country’s going.”

Jodie Foster, presenting the best director award to Payne for “Sideways,” pointed out that the first Independent Spirit award for best director, presented 20 years ago, was a tie between Martin Scorsese and Joel Coen. A clever montage of past Indy prize losers included Julia Roberts and John Sayles.

Samuel L. Jackson, the emcee, used the “f word” to praise cable television for allowing him to say whatever he wanted. “Talk about progress,” he grinned, possibly thinking about the restrictions that Rock and Williams would face on Oscar night (when Williams turned up on stage with tape over his mouth). Another Indy prize winner, Jem Cohen, invoked the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the A.C.L.U. to defend his film, “Chain.”

Other Indy winners included “The Motorcycle Diaries,” “Born Into Brothels,” “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster,” “Garden State,” “Maria Full of Grace,” and “Mean Creek” — which won the annual John Cassavetes prize for the best film made for less than $500,000.