After two Oscar wins for ''Life is Beautiful,'' the road for this Italian actor is paved in gold


Hey, Roberto Benigni! You’ve just won two Oscars, for Best Actor and Best Foreign Language film for Life Is Beautiful, the highest-grossing foreign flick in U.S. history. In the process, you’ve charmed our pants off with your goofy, adorable puss, mile-a-minute butchered English, and ”All you need is love” evangelism! After you get done making love to every single one of us, what are you going to do next?

As Hollywood waits and wonders, the man Steven Spielberg has dubbed an ”Italian Furby” is on vacation and — get this — not talking. But according to those close to him, it’s clear what he won’t be doing. Forget that rumored sequel to 1993’s Son of the Pink Panther, Benigni’s first bid for U.S. stardom and a critical and commercial flop. Scrap those plans for a Disney comedy that was to be produced by Steve Oedekerk (Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls). Don’t wait for his appearance in the French smash Asterix and Obelix vs. Caesar, in which he plays the villainous Detritus — no U.S. distributor has bitten yet. And don’t mistake 1994’s The Monster or 1981’s My Asylum for new product, even though these early Benigni comedies will soon be returning. In fact, prompted by Beautiful‘s success (Miramax is projecting a $50 million-plus gross, more than double the old foreign-flick record held by Il Postino), Lions Gate is mounting an aggressive spring relaunch for The Monster. ”He’s now a major international star,” says Mark Urman, copresident of Lions Gate. ”When you win a Best Actor Oscar, you’re right up there.” But how long he stays there depends on these issues:

— To auteur or not to auteur? Those close to Benigni say his next project will follow Beautiful‘s formula: a film written and directed by and starring…Roberto Benigni, with his wife, Nicoletta Braschi (a.k.a. la principessa), and shot in Italy. Benigni, 46, will begin working on the script next month. ”The best way for him to insure creative success is to be true to himself and keep on manufacturing the product himself,” says Urman, who predicts a distributor bidding war for his next film.

— Should he do the obligatory comedy/action buddy-cop film? ”He’ll be offered a lot of big studio movies with bad pairings, like him and Jackie Chan,” says producer Mark Johnson. ”The question will be if he wants to move into that game.” Adds talent manager Michael Rotenberg, a partner in 3 Arts Entertainment: ”I don’t want to see [Benigni] do that. He’s such a wonderful talent, he should stay unique to himself and not to American business cliches.” But if Benigni is tempted to do big productions, Rotenberg suggests two vehicles once earmarked for fellow clown Jim Carrey: The Incredible Mr. Limpet (about a guy who becomes a fish) and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (about a guy who’s a hero in his dreams).

— Should he stray from shtick? A typical Benigni flick is a comedy of errors or mistaken identity in which he plays a charming innocent in sticky situations. Beautiful‘s deviation was only in its deeper themes. Hollywood’s advice: Stick with what’s worked. Says John Davis, producer of Dr. Dolittle and this summer’s Dudley Do-Right: ”I’m sure he could do Hamlet if he wanted to. But I think what we want him to do is keep using his comic abilities.”

Life Is Beautiful

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • Roberto Benigni