Home » More Actors Should Accept Their Oscars Like Roberto Benigni

More Actors Should Accept Their Oscars Like Roberto Benigni

Life is Beautiful—or, if you’re practicing Italian, La Vita È Bella—may be one of the most obvious Oscar-bait movies of all time. In fact, the Italian Holocaust tragicomedy probably informed a lot of the 21st century’s most Oscar-thirsty films. It’s a bittersweet, laugh one minute, sob the next movie about the power of family. But it’s so heartwarming. I won’t hear otherwise!

Roberto Benigni, who directed, wrote, and starred in the film, was known for making huge scenes while the movie garnered critical and awards acclaim. When Life is Beautiful won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival in 1998, Benigni kissed the feet of Martin Scorsese, the jury president that year. Naturally, when the Oscars rolled around about a year later, Benigni was overjoyed to hear his name announced as a winner—twice.

Before we get into that, though, I’d be remiss if I didn’t plug Life is Beautiful, one of my favorite films. Benigni stars as Guido (is there any Italian name better than that?), a goofy Jewish waiter living in fascist Italy in 1939 who falls head over heels for “princesa” Dora (Benigni’s real life wife Nicoletta Braschi). Though their romance is a comedy of errors, they finally get married and have a baby, Giosué (Giorgio Cantarini).

They’re an eccentric family, with quirks like getting by using one bicycle as a mode of transportation. But they love each other so much! And we, as audience members, love them like we’re a part of the family! That’s what makes it so hard to watch the historical fiction play out: Guido, Dora, and Giosué are sent to a concentration camp, where they fight to keep their family together and alive.

It’s harrowing, yes, but the comedic aspects propel Life is Beautiful into a moving ode to the power of love and family, especially spotlighting the sacrifices a parent makes in order to keep the essence of childhood alive. Benigni, a child at heart, proved just how important this was while dancing on the tops of chairs at the 71st Academy Awards as he won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

The Oscars are usually limited to small pleasantries and a bit of light comedy fodder from the host. But here was Benigni, an outspoken Italian goofball, prancing atop the backs of Steven Spielberg, Dame Judi Dench, and Tom Hanks. This was the lighthearted foolishness of the famed Ellen selfie mixed with the gonzo Moonlight/La La Land shakeup, years before either iconic Oscars moment would take place.

All eyes were on Benigni. (Well, of course they were, because he had just won an Academy Award—but those eyes were fixated on the jolly Italian fellow.)

Before making his way to the stage, Benigni hopped around like Peter Rabbit. He swung his arms in the air, calling for more cheers and claps from the crowd. He gave a smile wide enough to be seen from the upper rafters of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where the Oscars were held in 1999.

Normally, we see some tears and hugs with family members when a winner gleeful strides up to the stage. But to see someone at the peak of their career, glowing, so happy to be alive, brimming with childlike whimsy—well, this reaction meshes perfectly with the themes of Life is Beautiful.

Benigni used both feet to jump up each step to retrieve his award from legendary Italian actress Sophia Loren. To spring as if there were an imaginary pogo stick beneath you is one thing; to do this in front of Sophia Loren is another.

The actor delivered a powerful speech thanking his wife and the young actor of the film, and gave special recognition to the victims of the Holocaust who inspired the film. Unfortunately, though, he was so shaken up by his first win that he was too mind-blown to speak when he won again for Best Actor. No chairs were harmed in the second win—he stayed down this time.

“This is a terrible mistake because I used up all my English. I don’t know!” Benigni said. “I am not able to express all my gratitude, because now, my body is in tumult because it is a colossal moment of joy so everything is really in a way that I cannot express. I would like to be Jupiter! And kidnap everybody and lie down in the firmament making love to everybody, because I don’t know how to express.”

What a lovely man. I don’t think anyone will ever match the same level of excitement Benigni brought to his Oscar wins, but I sure hope to see that level of Oscars joy again this year.

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March 2023