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'Slumdog Millionaire' wins top Oscar prize

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In a rags-to-riches story that only Hollywood could write, "Slumdog Millionaire" won best picture -- and seven other Academy Awards on Sunday night at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood.

Not bad for a movie that was almost a straight-to-DVD release.

The inspiring and heartbreaking story about an impoverished Mumbai teen who ends up on a TV game show fell on hard times when its original distributor went out of business. Fox Searchlight swooped in to champion the film and turned it into this year's Cinderalla story. Since then, it marched on through the awards season, picking up plenty of trophies along the way from critics groups as well as the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild awards as well as the Directors Guild of America and Writers Guild of America awards.

"We had no stars. We had no power or muscle ... but we had a genius for a director. ... We had passion and belief," said producer Christian Colson in accepting the award with the cast behind him, including several of the small poverty-stricken children who appear in the film, shot in India.

In all, the film won eight of the 10 awards it was nominated for, including director for Danny Boyle, song for "Jai Ho," original score, editing, adapted screenplay for Simon Beaufoy, cinematography and sound mixing. (It lost out on two other Oscars, including a second song nomination.)

Earlier in the night, Sean Penn called the academy voters a bunch of "commie, homo-loving sons of guns."

He was joking, of course, as he thanked the academy for giving him the lead actor Oscar for his touching performance as slain gay rights activist Harvey Milk in "Milk." Penn also joked that he was especially touched, considering how hard he sometimes makes it for the public to appreciate him. As his wife, Robin Wright Penn, cried in the front row, he chastized those who voted for Proposition 8 and said, "We've got to have equal rights for everyone."

It was a big night as well for Kate Winslet and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."

On her sixth try, Winslet finally won her Oscar, for lead actress as an ex-Nazi prison guard in "The Reader."

"I'd be lying if I [said I] hadn't made versions of this speech before; I think I was 8 years old staring into the bathroom mirror and this was a shampoo bottle. Well, this is not a shampoo bottle." She called for her dad to whistle to her so she'd know where he was in the audience -- then she waved and told him she loved him. Referring to the film's late producers Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack, she looked up at heavens, grabbed her Oscar, and said, "Anthony and Sydney, this is for both of you."

In second place was "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." The fable about a man who ages backward won three Oscars, for visual effects, art direction and makeup.

Funnyman and muscular dystrophy fundraising champion Jerry Lewis received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. The frail 82-year-old -- who has raised over $2 billion with Labor Day muscular dystrophy telethons -- was visibly moved by the standing ovation and loud cheers from the audience at the Kodak Theater. Fellow comic actor Eddie Murphy, who starred in a remake of one of Lewis' biggest hits, "The Nutty Professor," described him as a comic genius as he presented Lewis with the award.

The ceremony also took a poignant turn when the late Heath Ledger won supporting actor for his dark, disturbing performance as the Joker in the Batman film "The Dark Knight."

Ledger, who died 13 months ago at age 28 from an accidental drug overdose, is only the second performer to win a posthumous Oscar. Peter Finch was the first, for best actor for 1976's "Network."

Ledger's father, mother and sister received a standing ovation as they made their way to the stage to accept the award. "This is ever so humbling," his father said. "We'd like to thank the academy for recognizing our son's amazing work" and everyone who gave Ledger "creative license to develop and explore this crazy Joker character." Ledger's sister said, "We proudly accept this award on behalf of your beautiful [daughter] Matilda."

Many had tears in their eyes during the speech, including Angelina Jolie and Winslet.

"Dark Knight" also picked up an Oscar for sound editing.

The first award of the night went to Penelope Cruz for supporting actress in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" for playing a jealous ex-wife in the Woody Allen comedy. "Has anyone ever fainted here?" said the nervous and excited Spanish actress.

As part of an effort to shake things up this year and boost sagging ratings, five supporting actress winners presented the award, including last year's winner, Tilda Swinton, and veteran Eva Maria Saint, who received the award 54 years ago for "On the Waterfront."

The show was running just a bit behind schedule -- but it still seemed to move as slow as molasses at times.

The interlude staged by Baz Luhrmann celebrating movie musicals -- featuring host Hugh Jackman, Beyonce, Zac Effron and Vanessa Hudgens -- didn't seem to help.

That said, Jackman exclaimed twice: "The musical is back!"

One of the biggest headlines of the night? OMG! Jennifer Aniston and Jolie were just feet from each other!

The long-awaited encounter between Aniston and Jolie did not results in fireworks, but Aniston looked a tad uncomfortable standing on-stage next to Jack Black as they introduced a montage of clips from animated movies. It was the closest the women have reportedly gotten since Jolie snared Aniston's former husband, Brad Pitt. Hollywood's glamour couple were sitting in the front row of the Kodak Theater.

Original screenplay went to Dustin Lance Black for "Milk," who said, "Thank you, God, for giving us Harvey Milk."

In an emotional acceptance speech, the openly gay Black said that when he moved with his family to San Francisco at age 13, he learned about Milk. "It gave me hope, it gave me the hope to live my life openly ... and that maybe I could fall in love one day and get married." He said he wanted to pass along a message that he knew Milk would want him to deliver to young men and women grappling with accepting their sexuality.

"You are beautiful, wonderful creatures with value," Black said. "No matter what anyone tells you, God does love you," and he predicted that gays and lesbians would soon have full equal rights across the country.

In other awards, there was an upset for foreign film with Japan's drama, "Departures," winning over the favorite, Israel's "Waltz with Bashir." The Disney-Pixar box office hit "Wall-E" won animated feature film. "La Maison en Petits Cubes" won animated short. "The Duchess," which starred Keira Knightley, won costume design. Live action short was "Auf der Strecke (On the Line.)" "Smile Pinki" won documentary short subject. "Man on Wire" won feature documentary.

The jokes about a singing and dancing Wolverine were true, as Jackman sang, dance and cracked wise like a Las Vegas comic as the 81st ceremony got underway at the Kodak Theater.

Jackman quipped that he got the hosting duties because of his lack of range, since he's an Australian, who played an Australian, in a movie called "Australia." He claimed that times were so tough that the Academy Awards nixed an opening number but he decided to do one anyway on a shoestring budget with threadbare props: The song-and-dance took him through all the top film nominees with a surprising number of lowbrow references, including swimming through excrement (in reference to "Slumdog Millionaire") and sprouting pubic hair as a child (in homage to "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"). He carried Anne Hathaway on-stage to join him in the reference to "Frost/Nixon," joked that he never got around to seeing "The Reader" and put on padding to play "The Wrestler."

The finale ended with him singing "I'm Hugh Jackman ... I'm Wolverine!" -- and a standing ovation from a delighted audience.

Oscar also revealed a facelift: A shimmering curtain of Swarovski crystals accented the stage, and the orchestra sat on-stage, echoing the venerable Coconut Grove -- where the Oscars were held during Hollywood's golden era.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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