Prelude to Kiwi fame in film

TOM HUNT
Last updated 10:17 22/03/2014

Twenty years ago today a Lower Hutt girl stood on a stage and gulped nervously.

In that staggeringly endearing moment the world knew Kiwis could make world-beating films, even if the film in question was technically Australian.

It was March 22, 1994, when The Piano won Jane Campion an Academy Award for best original screenplay, Holly Hunter won for best actress, and 11-year-old Hutt Valley girl Anna Paquin won an Oscar for best supporting actress.

The film would also see Campion, a New Zealander living in Australia, become the first female film-maker to receive the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

Paquin's award was arguably the lesser of the three Oscars but it is the one that has stayed firmly in the public mind now for two decades.

In her category, she was up against Emma Thompson for In the Name of the Father, Winona Ryder for Age of Innocence, Rosie Perez for Fearless, and Holly Hunter for another film she worked on that year, The Firm.

When presenter Gene Hackman read Paquin's name out as the winner, the shock on the 11-year-old's face was genuine. On stage, the nervous gulps lasted for 21 seconds before finally, in a very-Kiwi accent: "I would like to thank the Academy . . ."

She had just become the first New Zealander to win an acting Oscar. An audience of more than one billion around the world saw it.

It was "pretty cool", she told reporters back stage.

She was asked, what next? "What do you mean?," she replied.

Years later, when she won a Golden Globe for her role in vampire television series True Blood, she said: "I don't even remember that, it was very blurry and crazy . . . This is quite blurry and crazy, too, but at least I'm old enough to drink and stay out past 10pm."

Sam Neill, one of the stars of The Piano, yesterday said while there was no way during production of foretelling the film's upcoming success, "I knew we were making something of considerable depth and significance".

Ironically, because it was not technically a New Zealand film - Campion lived in Sydney, the film was produced by an Australian and financed by the French - it got no New Zealand awards.

"It's New Zealand by inclination but not by pedigree."

While he never worked closely with Paquin - Hunter and the young star-to- be were like "two amoebas that hadn't quite split yet" - he had since watched her success with "delight".

"She was a sort of natural."

Neill said The Piano was "a bunch of people making a film in northern New Zealand - it wasn't like a big leap for New Zealand."

New Zealand Film Commission chief executive Dave Gibson said that though The Piano was not technically a New Zealand film, its Oscar wins were an early indicator New Zealanders could make it big on the world movie stage. "At that stage your average New Zealander imagined it wasn't possible for New Zealanders to win an Oscar."

The movie was filmed in New Zealand and - in an early indicator of the tourism generated by Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit - people would visit The Piano locations, such as Bethells Beach, west of Auckland.

- The Dominion Post

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