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April 23, 1998 12:00 AM

Oscar was generous this year, spreading his gold among a number of movies, rather than on just one favorite . . . though he also sure liked Julia Roberts. But by the time that the 73rd annual Academy Awards wrapped on Sunday night, “Gladiator,” with five Oscars — including those for best picture and actor Russell Crowe — crouched before no one. “Traffic” also staged an upset, taking the director Oscar away from “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” filmmaker Ang Lee (who had won the Directors Guild Award) and handing it instead to “Traffic” director Steven Soderbergh. But it was Julia who was the bell of the ball. “I love it up here,” crowed the “Erin Brockovich” star, 33. Wearing a vintage Valentino and needing help from her significant other, Benjamin Bratt, to maneuver the few steps up to the podium, the star warned the producers of the show that she wasn’t going to stick to a time constraint in her words of thanks. And she didn’t. “I love the whole world,” she finally said at the conclusion of her speech. “I’m sooo happy. Thank you.”

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