American Beauty dominates, but British talent gets more than a nod

He was, as he put it, "just a bloke from English theatre" but it was Sam Mendes's night at the Oscars. Duncan Campbell reports from Los Angeles
Mon 27 Mar 2000 07.22 EST

He was, as he put it, "just a bloke from English theatre" but it was Sam Mendes's night at the Oscars. American Beauty, the first film directed by the British director, swept the board, winning best picture, best director, best actor, best screenplay and best cinematography awards at a ceremony which also managed to celebrate transexuality and abortion rights.

Sam Mendes said hello to all his "friends watching in his flat in Primrose Hill" and Pedro Almodovar listed all the saints to whom his sisters had lit candles to ensure his victory in the best foreign language film category for All About My Mother before being dragged off stage by Antonio Banderas for exceeding his time limit. "We live in a different culture," he told the audience, explaining that in Spain it was already "six years in the morning."

The ceremony lasted slightly less time, but by the end of it most of the predicted winners had thanked their parents, spouses and visionary producers, and headed off for the far more testing task of getting past security and into the post-Oscar parties in Beverly Hills.

The success of American Beauty was the undoubted theme of the night, even if it had been predicted for the last three months, but there were other highlights, not least the attendance of Annette Bening who was due that very day to give birth to her and husband Warren Beatty's fourth child. (Cue many jokes about productions.)

Hilary Swank won the best actress award for her part in the $2m independent film, Boys Don't Cry, based on the true story of a woman who passed as a man and was murdered because of it. She used her acceptance speech to call on people to "celebrate our diversity".

One of the loudest rounds of applause for the night went to the man who described the Oscars ceremony as a "meaningless, self-serving meat parade": George C Scott, who died last year, appeared in the In Memoriam spot which honours film business people who have moved on.

The man who had already picked up more Oscars than anyone on stage was there as guest of honour: Willie Fulgear, the 61-year-old freelance salvage worker who found 52 of the 55 stolen Oscars in LA's Koreatown last week, looked more of a star with his snappy fedora than many of the real ones.

Britain done well. Michael Caine made a suitably urbane acceptance speech as he took the best supporting actor award from Dame Judi Dench: "I'm basically up here as a survivor," he said. Phil Collins won best original song Oscar for You'll be in My Heart from Tarzan, and the first Oscar of the night, for costume design, also went Britain's way.

Lindy Hemming who designed the spectacular outfits for Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy made a gracious and brief speech of thanks that "our little film" had been honoured. The orchestra accompanied her on to the stage with The Lord High Executioner from the Mikado, hinting that this might be the night when death row (The Green Mile features an electric chair execution) really made it big. That was not to be.

But Topsy-Turvy provided the audience with another more humane acceptance speech after Christine Blundell and Trevor Proud took the make-up Oscar. "Mike Leigh, top guy," said Ms Blundell. "Thanks to the rest of our team. Thank you." And that was it. No wonder the audience, steadying itself for three hours of tears and dedications applauded so loudly.

The Matrix took Oscars for the sound, visual effects and editing, and Sleepy Hollow for art direction. The first of the acting awards went, as predicted, to Angelina Jolie, for her supporting role in Girl, Interrupted.

Alexandre Petrov who won the Animated Short Oscar made what is believed to have been the first acceptance speech in Russian. One Day in September beat the critics' favourite, Wim Wenders's Buena Vista Social Club to the documentary feature award.

Before the ceremony, the actresses had had to face the traditional Mastermind questions on their way down the red carpet: "who made your dress?" "Why did you choose that colour?" Some television crews, unable to be heard above the din, held up signs with instructions: "Please spin around!" They may have got more than they bargained for when one dress-wearer spun round to reveal Trey Parker, the husky co-writer of animated film South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, who had come in drag. They might have got even more than they bargained had he and his colleague Mark Shalman won the best song prize for their scatalogical Blame Canada.

There was an honourary Oscar for Polish director Andrzej Wadja presnted by Jane Fonda who was welcomed "home" by Billy Crystal. The Irving Thalberg award went to Warren Beatty, who said that he regarded it as a greater prize than the White House in which direction many of the audience had hoped he might have been heading.

Politics made a brief appearance. Billy Crystal referred to the Robin Williams film about a robot who wants to become a human being: "it's called the Al Gore story". To show balance, he suggested that the list of winners of the awards was the best-kept secret in America - "with the possible exception of what George W Bush did in the 70s" (a reference to the question the Texas governor is often asked about whether in his youth he had used recreational substances not manufactured by Nike.) John Irving received cheers when he paid tribute the National Abortion Rights League in his acceptance of best Oscar for the adapted screenplay of The Cider House Rules.

The building next door to the Shrine in this slightly run-down part of LA is the 32nd Street school carries a bold injunction to its students on one wall: "live, learn, recycle." Doubtless words that any of the night's disappointed producers are even now taking to heart.