It was a gathering of the clan.
Mel Gibson’s boldly epic “Braveheart” was victorious in battle at the 68th-annual Academy Awards on Monday night, taking home prizes for best picture and best director. It won five Oscars.
But in the most wide-open award ceremony in years, there was no one big winner - and in the weepiest, most family-oriented Oscars in recent memory, there were plenty of acceptance speeches to go around.
Nicolas Cage won for best actor for “Leaving Las Vegas.” Susan Sarandon won for best actress for “Dead Man Walking.” Kevin Spacey and Mira Sorvino picked up supporting-performance awards for “The Usual Suspects” and “Mighty Aphrodite,” and “Pocahontas” won for best song.
Actress Emma Thompson also won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay for “Sense and Sensibility,” in which she also starred.
The long shots and dark horses brought a measure of excitement to a race that, in seasons past, had all the breakneck excitement of today’s presidential primaries. Last year, “Forrest Gump” was such a shoo-in that the only suspense came from wondering if host David Letterman ever was going to get a laugh. The year before, “Schindler’s List” had been such an obvious front-runner that the night seemed like a testimonial dinner.
This time there were fewer sure things, with insiders unable to decide on a best-picture front-runner beforehand (although there seemed to be a groundswell of late support for “Apollo 13”). Spacey’s win was a bit of a surprise, as was Christopher Reeve’s appearance. And in another surprise, the show ended without disasters, and nearly on time.
Other things were more predictable. Some acceptance speeches tried to stretch their orators’ 15 minutes of fame into an hour; others were mercifully short. Still others used the spotlight to actually talk about issues. The makers of two documentaries about the Holocaust used their time to bring on the surviving heroes of their stories; the show’s producer, Quincy Jones, wore a rainbow ribbon in solidarity with Jesse Jackson’s protest against the almost complete absence of black nominees; Reeve spoke about the challenge and responsibility of art.
There were other familiar pleasures. The gowns and evening clothes were just as alternately gawdy and gorgeous as any veteran Oscar watcher could hope. The paparazzi and celebrity reporters were on the job hours before the ceremony began, of course, with Roger Ebert, Army Archerd and the mother/daughter team of Joan and Melissa Rivers all staking out territory and asking the stars about their chances and their clothes.
And in this family-values year, the best-picture nominees weren’t the only symbols of Hollywood domesticity. Richard Dreyfuss brought his children, Meryl Streep took her son, Spacey escorted his mom, Sharon Stone dated her dad and Rod Steiger rambled on about his wife.
It fell to the supremely normal Tom Hanks, of course, to bring the whole pre-show hysteria safely back down to earth. How did he feel being there without a nomination for a change? “Overjoyed,” he answered. “Essentially, it’s a night of free food.”
Later, inside, the ceremony honored other great Oscar traditions as well. There were the terrible production numbers, including a supermodel salute to the costume nominees. There were gaffes and glitches. (Tim Robbins was identified as Susan Sarandon’s “husband”; a salute to animator Chuck Jones was badly edited; Quincy Jones and Stone lost the envelope announcing the winner of best dramatic score.)
There were also plenty of examples of the real reasons we watch Hollywood’s annual celebration of itself, brief moments of true emotion and sweet sentiment. For many winners, it was a celebration of family. Spacey gave a touching speech, thanking his director, his agent - and his mother, for driving him “to all those acting classes on Ventura Boulevard.” Sorvino thanked her father, Paul, and the camera cut to him bursting into tears. Later, Kirk Douglas - now battling, not the legions of Rome, but the after-effects of a stroke - took the stage and the camera found his son Michael weeping silently, and his wife sobbing.
It was a night for familial love and filial devotion - although there were also few rare, and almost welcome bursts of anger and ego. “I had something I wanted to say to Jesse,” host Whoopi Goldberg cracked in her opening monologue, “but he’s not watching, so why bother?”
Mostly, though, Goldberg simply oversaw it all, avoiding David Letterman’s self-immolation and steering clear of Billy Crystal’s self-importance. She kept things moving, if not particularly hilarious, with jokes about Pat Buchanan, the etiquette of lapel ribbons and the offenses of “Showgirls.” She kept a clear-eyed sense of proportion, too, as she presided over this annual love fest - “or, as it’s known in certain circles, ‘Cutthroat Island.”’
Which was inarguably true. You never doubted that, once the final family tear had dried and the last limo had left the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, it would be deal making and back stabbing all over again. It’d be business as usual again, soon enough.
But for a few hours Monday night, Hollywood held a family reunion. And the guest of honor was a picture called “Braveheart,” the epic about a 13th-century Scottish patriot.