Crash, a film that suggests America has far to go to become a true racial melting pot, upset heavily favored Brokeback Mountain in being named the best picture of 2005 at last night's 78th annual Academy Awards ceremonies.

The film, whose characters clash along racial lines, also earned Oscars for Paul Haggis and Bobby Moresco's original screenplay and Hughes Winborne's editing.

Haggis, also director and a producer of Crash, admitted he was "shocked" when his film was announced as best picture instead of Brokeback Mountain.

"We're still trying to figure out if we actually got this," he said, holding his Oscar aloft.

Brokeback Mountain did not walk away empty-handed, as Ang Lee was cited for his direction, Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana for their adapted screenplay and Gustavo Santaolalla for his original score.

No film dominated the awards. Crash, Brokeback Mountain, Memoirs of a Geisha and King Kong each won three Oscars.

In accepting his directing award, Lee praised the central characters of Brokeback Mountain, gay ranch hands played by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, for teaching "all of us ... the greatness of love itself."

Backstage, Lee congratulated the makers of Crash, but could not hide his disappointment. "I am so proud of this movie," he said. "Why they didn't vote for it, I don't know."

Screenwriter McMurtry suggested that academy members tend to support urban films over those with rural themes. He also guessed the film's Los Angeles setting helped, since so many academy members live in the Los Angeles area.

Favorites Philip Seymour Hoffman and Reese Witherspoon won the lead actor and actress Oscars. Hoffman won for playing author Truman Capote in Capote, while Witherspoon won for her take on singer June Carter Cash in Walk the Line.

The early part of last night's awards presentation was dominated by films with clear political messages, as George Clooney and Rachel Weisz won supporting actor and actress Oscars for movies that questioned America's Mideast policy and the world's treatment of medical crises in Africa.

In the evening's first award, Clooney won for playing a burned-out, overweight CIA agent in Syriana. Clooney entered the evening contending for three Oscars (also for directing and writing Good Night, and Good Luck).

Weisz won for playing a political activist working in Africa whose murder leads to an investigation of government corruption in The Constant Gardener, a thriller based on a book by John Le Carre.

Nick Park's Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, a showcase for stop-motion animation, won for best animated feature, a category dominated since its inception by films from Pixar studios. Backstage, Park joked how glad he was that "Pixar didn't have a movie this year."

A special Oscar was presented to director Robert Altman, praised by presenters Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep as a man "who didn't play by the rules or stick to the script."

Although nominated for the directing award five times (for M*A*S*H, Nashville, The Player, Short Cuts and Gosford Park), Altman - long recognized as one of Hollywood's favorite, most contented loners - has never won a competitive Oscar.

"I look at it as a nod to all of my films," Altman said in accepting his award, "because for me, I have made just one long film."

In one of the evening's most competitive categories, last summer's surprise hit March of the Penguins was named the best feature-length documentary. And in a shocker that no doubt increased the film academy's street cred, the best song Oscar went to "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp," from Hustle & Flow.

Other Oscars were awarded to Memoirs of a Geisha (art direction, costume design and cinematography), The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (makeup) and King Kong (visual effects, sound mixing and sound editing). Tsotsi, from South Africa, won the award for best foreign language film.

Brokeback had been the frontrunner for the best picture Oscar since nominations were announced Jan. 31, but momentum had been building for Crash.

Both movies generated their share of controversy, Brokeback Mountain for its gay central characters and their intimate relationship, Crash thanks to a simmering dispute over which of the six credited producers should be allowed onto the Oscar stage should it win for best picture. The academy ruled it would allow only two, Haggis and Cathy Schulman, leading at least one slighted producer to file suit.

For the second straight year, the motion picture academy opted for a rookie host. This year, the new guy onstage was The Daily Show's Jon Stewart.

After an opening that suggested he was way down the list of preferred hosts, Stewart riffed on nominated films and poked fun at stars in attendance, as well as the glamour that always accompanies the ceremony.

At an Oscars ceremony where the year's big blockbusters (King Kong, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith) were noticeably absent from the major Oscar categories, fans outside the Kodak Theatre hardly seemed to notice. Chosen by lottery to sit in bleachers set up along Hollywood Boulevard, they started gathering at 7 a.m. yesterday.

But the lack of mainstream audience interest in the best picture nominees - none of the five films has earned more than $80 million at the box office - had academy and ABC officials worried about the ratings for last night's telecast. Last year's Oscars telecast drew an average audience of 41.5 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research, down from the 43.5 million for 2004's Oscar telecast.

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com