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Monday, March 26, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movies

Rare three-way Oscar scrap

Special to the Seattle Times

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One of the closest races in recent Academy Awards history ended with three movies dominating the awards last night in Los Angeles.

Ridley Scott's Roman epic, "Gladiator," took five awards, including best picture and actor (Russell Crowe), while Steven Soderbergh's drug-war drama, "Traffic," landed four, including best director (Soderbergh), screenplay adaptation (by Stephen Gaghan) and supporting actor (Benicio Del Toro). Ang Lee's American-financed, Taiwan-based, Mandarin-language adventure, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," also won four: three technical awards plus best foreign-language film.

Most years are dominated by single films like "Titanic" or last year's "American Beauty." Not since 1982, when "Reds," "On Golden Pond" and "Chariots of Fire" fought it out has a race among three movies been this close. That year, "Chariots of Fire" won best picture, while Warren Beatty won best director for "Reds," and "On Golden Pond" took best actor and actress.

Ang Lee, who won the Independent Spirit awards for best picture and director Saturday night, had been considered the front-runner in those Oscar categories because he had also won the Directors Guild of America prize for best director. Rarely have the Academy voters disagreed with the DGA. The last time was 1996, when the DGA honored Ron Howard for "Apollo 13," and the Academy picked Mel Gibson for "Braveheart."

Julia Roberts continued to pile up her best-actress awards (Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild and several others) for Soderbergh's "Erin Brockovich" with her first Oscar, claiming the movie was "sinfully fun to make" as she proceeded to give another of her lengthy acceptance speeches. Crowe, who was considered a longshot to front-runner Tom Hanks for the title-role performance in "Gladiator," paid tribute to a director who put up with his reluctance to play several scenes: "I owe this to one bloke, and his name is Ridley Scott."

Still, perhaps the biggest single surprise of the evening was Marcia Gay Harden's award for best supporting actress, for her impassioned performance as Jackson Pollock's long-suffering wife, Lee Krasner, in "Pollock."

When she visited Seattle a couple of months ago, Harden had been shut out of the Screen Actors' Guild awards and doubted she would be nominated for the Oscar. Last night she thanked the voters for "taking the time to even view the tape and consider our film." Forgotten in the Golden Globes and other awards, she did receive the New York Film Critics' prize for "Pollock" back in December.

Del Toro's award was widely expected. He earned the Screen Actors Guild award for best actor earlier this month. He dedicated his award to the people who assisted the production in Arizona and Mexico.

Although a landslide for "Gladiator" had been predicted, the technical awards were spread around fairly evenly, with "Traffic" winning for best film editing, "The Grinch" for best makeup, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" for best cinematography, original score and art direction, "U-571" for best sound editing, and "Gladiator" for best sound recording, visual effects and costume design.

Peter Pau, who won for cinematography, may have crammed more names into his rapid-fire acceptance speech than any winner in Oscar history. Another high point among the acceptance speeches was Deborah Oppenheimer's comment on the inspiration for "Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport," which won for best feature-length documentary. Her mother was among the thousands of children saved during the transport of Jewish children to England during the Holocaust.

The original script award went to Cameron Crowe for "Almost Famous," an autobiographical comedy-drama which he called "a love letter to music and my family."

Three men in their 80s were honored with career-achievement Oscars. A thrilling montage of cinematographer Jack Cardiff's movies ("Black Narcissus," "The Red Shoes" "The African Queen") proved Martin Scorsese's point that Cardiff created "paintings that moved." Ernest Lehman was honored for his screenplays for "Sweet Smell of Success" and "The Sound of Music"; he cautioned movie critics and others to remember that all film productions begin and end with a script. The Thalberg Memorial award went to Dino de Laurentiis, whose credits include Italian classics ("Nights of Cabiria") and American breakthroughs ("Blue Velvet") he expressed the hope that Italian movies would regain their freshness.

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