Oscars become Coen country as brothers’ latest crime tale ‘No Country for Old Men’ wins big

By David Germain

LOS ANGELES – They ground up Steve Buscemi in a wood-chipper. They made baby-snatchers out of Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter. They turned mythic Greek wanderer Odysseus into a Depression-era roots-music minstrel with George Clooney’s face.

Two of the most imaginatively twisted minds in modern film, Joel and Ethan Coen, completed their journey from the fringes to Hollywood’s mainstream on Sunday as their crime saga “No Country for Old Men” won a leading four Academy Awards, including best picture.

In a year when the quirky, offbeat and just plain weird storytelling of the Coens triumphed at the biggest ceremony in show business, the oddball brothers found a lot to like in their fellow nominees.

“It sounds like a cliche, but all the movies that were nominated were really interesting to me personally, and that isn’t always the case,” Joel Coen said. “All of them to me personally I thought were fantastically good movies.”

The Coens’ brooding, bloody tale of violence in a desolate corner of west Texas was the American standard-bearer for an Oscar show that otherwise had an international flair.

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    All four acting prizes went to Europeans: Frenchwoman Marion Cotillard, the best-actress winner for “La Vie En Rose”; Spaniard Javier Bardem, who took supporting actor for “No Country”; and Brits Daniel Day-Lewis and Tilda Swinton, he claiming his second best-actor honor for “There Will Be Blood,” she winning supporting actress for “Michael Clayton.”

    Talking to reporters backstage, Swinton still was in disbelief, saying she initially thought “I heard someone else’s name and suddenly, slowly heard my own” when she was announced as the winner for her role as a ruthless attorney.

    “I’m still recovering from that moment, and I have absolutely no idea what happened after that,” Swinton said. “So, you know, you can tell me my dress fell off and I’d believe you, so don’t be cruel.”

    Day-Lewis, a previous best-actor winner for “My Left Foot,” was gratified that a line he utters in “There Will Be Blood” – “I drink your milkshake,” a reference to draining oil that’s not yours – has found a life in the broader vernacular.

    “I think it’s fantastic,” Day-Lewis said. “If people absorb something that you’ve done – for whatever your reasons are, it’s not relevant – but if that gets absorbed into the culture in such a way that people make something else, somebody can make something else out of it, that’s delightful to me.”

    By winning three Oscars – best picture as producers on the film, director and adapted screenplay – the Coens matched a feat achieved by only an elite list of filmmakers who also received three awards for a single film, including Francis Ford Coppola (“The Godfather Part II”), James Cameron (“Titanic”) and Billy Wilder (“The Apartment”).

    They did miss out on a chance to become the only people to win four Oscars with one film, losing the editing prize, for which they had been nominated under the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes.

    How did the fictitious Jaynes, whom the Coens describe as a cranky British recluse in his 80s, take the loss? “We haven’t talked to him,” Ethan Coen said backstage. “We know he’s elderly and unhappy, so probably not well.”

    Crime often has paid for the Coens, a pair of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett fans who gravitate toward lawbreakers even in their comedies, such as Cage and Hunter’s infant-kidnappers in “Raising Arizona,” the bumbling thieves in “The Ladykillers,” an abduction that leaves a trail of bodies – including Buscemi in a wood-chipper – in “Fargo,” or Clooney and his fellow jailbreakers in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

    “They’re as talented as anybody in the game over decades now,” Clooney, a best-actor nominee for “Michael Clayton,” said of the Coens. “For 20 years they’ve made films that last.”

    In addition to its Oscar haul, “No Country” has delivered the Coens’ biggest commercial spoils with $64 million and climbing at the domestic box office, topping the $45.5 million gross of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

    The biggest commercial success among the best-picture nominees, the $100 million hit “Juno,” came away with the original screenplay Oscar for first-time scriptwriter Diablo Cody, who penned wickedly smart dialogue for her cast, led by best-actress nominee Ellen Page as a pregnant teen.

    “I’ve always been a writer, I’ve always been a storyteller, but I never thought about screenwriting,” Cody said backstage. “I grew up in the Midwest, you don’t know any screenwriters. It didn’t seem like a realistic career possibility.”

    Adding to the international Oscar flavor, the animation winner was a U.S. film set in a Paris restaurant, “Ratatouille.” The best-song recipient was a tune written by the Irish and Czech stars of a micro-budgeted romance set in Dublin, “Once.”

    The globe-trotting thriller “The Bourne Ultimatum” swept all three of its categories, film editing, sound editing and sound mixing. Other winners included three films set around Britain and Europe: “Atonement” (music score), “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” (costume design) and “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” (art direction).

    Host Jon Stewart started his opening monologue with a wisecrack about the 100-day writers strike that ended just in time for the Oscars to come off as usual.

    “These past three and a half months have been very tough. The town was torn apart by a bitter writer’s strike, but I’m happy to say that the fight is over,” Stewart said. “So tonight, welcome to the makeup sex.”

    As singer Edith Piaf in “La Vie En Rose,” Cotillard became the first performer ever to win an Oscar for a French-language film. Backstage, she crooned a bit of a Piaf song in French and described the task she had in playing the singer from her fiery teens to her fragile 40s.

    “My aim was to understand her, to understand her heart, her soul, and so I went as deep as I could,” Cotillard said. “I tried to do my best to find her inside me. But it was not so hard because I really love her.”