Actors honor Benigni, Shakespeare & Co.

By Nick Madigan

HOLLYWOOD (Variety) - With great exuberance and obvious surprise, Roberto Benigni, the irrepressible force both behind and in front of the camera in ``Life Is Beautiful,'' won the best actor award Sunday at the fifth annual Screen Actors Guild Awards.

The best actress prize went to Gwyneth Paltrow, for her role as the Bard's muse in ``Shakespeare in Love,'' an award that follows her win in the same category at the Golden Globes. The cast of ``Shakespeare'' won the prize for best ensemble work in a motion picture.

As he bounded onto the stage at the Shrine Exposition Hall, Benigni picked up presenter Helen Hunt and twirled her around. ``Mamma mia!'' he exclaimed as the applause thundered.

``I would share this award,'' he went on, mentioning his fellow nominees Joseph Fiennes (``Shakespeare''), Tom Hanks (``Ryan''), Ian McKellen (``Gods and Monsters'') and Nick Nolte (``Affliction''). ``I learned so much from what you did.''

Then, to great laughter, Benigni said he was so full of joy that ``every organ in my body is moving in a very bad way.''

When her turn came, Paltrow looked out at fellow nominee Cate Blanchett (``Elizabeth'') and, appearing momentarily lost, said, ``Cate, I was positive you were going to get it -- that's why I didn't prepare anything!''

Later, Paltrow said that when she was making the picture she ``honestly felt that the caliber of the film was far above any other movie I've made.''

Paltrow -- whose other SAG competitors were Jane Horrocks (``Little Voice''), Meryl Streep (``One True Thing'') and Emily Watson (``Hillary and Jackie'') -- said also that the Oscar race is ``up to the gods'' and that she would not rate her chances.

The best supporting actress award was carried away by Kathy Bates, for her role as the hard-nosed political troubleshooter in ``Primary Colors.'' The best supporting movie actor was Robert Duvall, for ``A Civil Action.''

For the second consecutive year, Julianna Margulies was named best actress in a TV drama series, for ``ER.'' She thanked her co-star George Clooney, who she said was ``really responsible for a lot of my work on that show.''

Margulies ascended the stage again when the ``ER'' cast won SAG's award for best TV ensemble in a drama series, the fourth year it has done so. Later, speaking with reporters, she said the cast works so well together because they almost function as a dance troupe, ``and I think it's created this movement that everyone responds to.''

The prize for best actor in a drama series went to Sam Waterston of NBC's ``Law & Order.'' He said on stage that he had tried to convince himself that awards don't matter but that winning another one convinced him of why it does. ``I'm moved because it reminds you of how much you have to be grateful for,'' Waterston said.

Michael J. Fox won for best actor in a comedy series for ``Spin City,'' but could not be present because he was working in New York. Also absent was Christopher Reeve, who won for ``Rear Window,'' for best actor in a TV movie or miniseries.

The best actress in a comedy series was Tracey Ullman, for ``Tracey Takes On.'' Asked later whether she had ever contemplated serious roles, Ullman said it wasn't likely. She has 22 regular characters and about 100 wigs and ``a big box of rubber things I put on.''

``I shall continue to do variety until I'm too old and arthritic,'' she said. ``I can't settle into one character.''

Angelina Jolie won for best actress in a drama series, for ``Gia.''

The cast of ``Ally McBeal'' won the ensemble award for comedy series. ``It's especially special because it comes from actors,'' lead player Calista Flockhart said of the award. ``For me, this cast is the height of what it means to work as an ensemble.''

Kirk Douglas was given SAG's lifetime achievement award, after tributes from Lauren Bacall, Janet Leigh, Dan Aykroyd and, on tape, his son Michael.

``If you're going to be a great actor, you have to be a good person,'' Aykroyd said.

``I'm young -- I've only made 82 movies,'' Douglas said after acknowledging a standing ovation.