This was originally published in TheWrap Magazine Foreign Language Issue.
Gil Cates saw it coming. At a production meeting a month before the 71st Academy Awards in 1999, the longtime Oscar producer was running through the show’s lineup in front of a room of staffers, ABC executives and Academy brass. When he got to the presentation of the Best Foreign Language Film category, Cates laughed. “And if Roberto Benigniwins,” he said, “be prepared for a very long show.”
Three days earlier, Benigni had won the best actor honors for “Life Is Beautiful” at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, where the hyperactive Italian comic responded with a delirious and lengthy speech in broken English. His film, in which he played a man who tried to turn life in a Nazi concentration camp into a game for his son, was up for seven Oscars.
They included Best Foreign Language Film, where “Life Is Beautiful” was the prohibitive favorite over competitors like Brazil’s “Central Station;” Best Picture, where it had no chance to beat “Shakespeare in Love” or “Saving Private Ryan;” and Best Actor, where he was considered likely to lose to Ian McKellen for “Gods and Monsters.”
Sure enough, “Life Is Beautiful “won the foreign-film award. And sure enough, Benigni went nuts. He walked on the back of seats in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (including one occupied by Steven Spielberg), he leapt and he rambled and he gave an exuberant speech that contained gems like, “I feel like now to dive into this ocean of generosity!”
Then came the Best Actor category, where the nominees also included Nick Nolte for “Affliction” and Edward Norton for “American History X.”
“Before the show, Ian came up to me and said, ‘Nick, I don’t care if you win or if I win or if the guy with the bald head and the swastikas [Norton] wins,'” Nolte told TheWrap. “‘But if that little Italian fart wins, I’m gonna have a fit.'”
Benigni did win, and he made a detour on his way to the stage. “He sought me out and said ‘I’m soooo sorry!'” McKellen told TheWrap with a wry grin. “I wonder how sorry he really was.”
Benigni’s second acceptance speech was even more delirious than his first. In the wings of the stage, Randy Newman and Peter Gabriel waited for the actor to finish so they could perform “That’ll Do,” their nominated song from “Babe: Pig in the City.”
“I would like to be Jupiter and kidnap everybody and lie down in the firmament making love to everybody!,” Benigni yelled.
Newman turned to Gabriel, shook his head and muttered,“It’ll be like following an animal act.”
And a few minutes later, McKellen, Nolte and Norton met in the bar and began mocking each other for losing to the little Italian fart. It was, Nolte said, “the most fun I’ve ever had at an awards show.”
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