How 'Life Is Beautiful's' Roberto Benigni Stole the Oscars Show in 1999

Roberto Benigni
Roberto Benigni
 

This story first appeared in the March 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Roberto Benigni upstaged the other big events at the 1999 Oscars, no easy feat considering there was plenty of news: an upset best picture win by Shakespeare in Love, a protest against honoree Elia Kazan and Steven Spielberg's second directing victory for Saving Private Ryan.

The focus of the night had been the contest between Miramax's Shakespeare and DreamWorks' Ryan. For months, there had been accusations of shenanigans in wooing voters and reports of overspending on ads. But that battle took a backseat when Sophia Loren joyously waved the envelope containing the name of foreign-language winner Life Is Beautiful and shouted "Roberto!"

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The Italian actor-director, then 46, made his way to the podium by walking partway across the tops of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion's seats and said, "This is the moment of joy, and I want to kiss everybody because you are the major of the joy, and he who kisses the joy as it flies lives in eternity's sunrise, say the poet."

His speech galvanized the audience to such an extent that when Tom Stoppard picked up his award for co-writing Shakespeare, the Brit got a major laugh when he deadpanned, "I'm behaving like Roberto Benigni underneath."

Life, a Holocaust comedy-drama, also won Benigni the Oscar for best actor.

On his second trip to the stage, this time using the aisle, he was more restrained, saying, "This is a terrible mistake because I used up all my English."

Since then, Benigni has directed two films including 2002's Pinocchio, toured with a one-man show doing recitals of Dante and will appear in Woody Allen's Nero Fiddled.

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