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Benigni Dazzles in Oscars Victory

March 22, 1999

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ He danced across seat backs and hopped up the stage steps before grabbing two Oscars and the dazed, delighted heart of Hollywood.

Roberto Benigni made Academy history Sunday night by winning a best actor Oscar as the star of a foreign language film. ``Life Is Beautiful,″ which he directed and wrote, also won best foreign film and for dramatic musical score.

``How do you say, it’s the hailstorm of kindness of gratitude for you,″ enthused Benigni, whose exuberant Italian accent and animated body language pulled a celebrity audience not easily impressed to its feet.

Presenter Sophia Loren praised ``a dear Italian friend″ before announcing Benigni’s first win of the evening. Famous in Italy, but little-known here, Benigni popped up, jumped atop seat backs and stepped over heads.

When he reached Steven Spielberg’s chair, he wobbled and clutched the famous director’s hand as Spielberg’s wife, actress Kate Capshaw, laughed and held Benigni’s leg to keep him from falling.

Onstage, he wrapped his arms around Loren and his Oscar for best foreign-language film. While Loren wept in the background, and celebrities such as Goldie Hawn cried in the audience, Benigni exuded, ``I want to dive into this audience, you know; your generosity is too much.″

In the Tuscan village where Benigni was born, Italians were still wide awake in the wee morning hours today when the hometown boy made good on Oscar night.

``Roberto! Roberto! Roberto!″ the crowd gathered at a huge TV screen set up in the community center at Vergaio cried out when Benigni won.

People jumped to their feet when the awards were announced, weeping with joy, dancing around and kissing Benigni’s sister Albertina, a florist.

His elderly parents, already exhausted from the recent excitement and attention when Benigni’s film got a stunning seven nominations, didn’t manage to stay up for the party. But Albertina said she’d taped the whole Oscar show for them.

Despite its global popularity, Benigni’s film also was criticized for trivializing the Holocaust by using comedy.

``Life Is Beautiful,″ follows an Italian Jew and his young son into a Nazi concentration camp. Benigni, as the father, protects his young boy by pretending the whole experience is a big game with prizes awarded for not crying and not giving voice to hunger.

The Nazis, Benigni tells his son, are ``the mean guys.″

He drew his inspiration in part from his own father’s ordeal _ he survived a German labor camp in World War II.

The film has become the highest-grossing foreign language film in North American history and brought Italy’s Oscar total to 10, the most won by any non-English-speaking country.

Soon, Benigni was back, winning the best actor statuette. In a speech sometimes indecipherable because of his accent and his energy, he gushed, ``This is a terrible mistake, because I used up all my English.″

Not quite. In big sentences short on continuity, Benigni talked on.

``I’m not able to express all my gratitude. Now my body is in tumult. It is a colossal moment of joy. ... I would like to be Jupiter and kidnap everybody and lie down in the firmament making love to everybody. Grazie, grazie, America, land of a lot of things. I don’t deserve this. But I hope to win some other Oscars.″

Benigni became the first filmmaker in 50 years _ since Sir Laurence Olivier and ``Hamlet″ _ to direct his own Oscar-winning performance.

He is possibly Italy’s most famous living actor, known for his physical humor and rubbery face and body. He has worked for directors such as Costa-Gavras, Federico Fellini and Jim Jarmusch.

His American film debut came in Jarmusch’s ``Down by Law″ in 1986, playing a maladjusted Italian on the lam in rural Louisiana whose English is, well, bad.

But Benigni was perfectly understood Sunday when he acknowledged those who died in the Holocaust.

``I want to thank those who are not here, who gave their lives so that we can say, ’Life Is Beautiful.‴