So dominant was the film that other winners even joked about its performance. "We're so thankful that Lord of the Rings did not qualify in this category," producer Denise Robert said in accepting the best foreign language Oscar for Canada's The Barbarian Invasions.
In fact, so often did the New Zealand filmmakers responsible for Return of the King take to the stage last night that, about halfway through the ceremony, host Billy Crystal joked, "It's now official. There's no one left in New Zealand to thank."
The only other films to win 11 Oscars were Ben-Hur and Titanic. The other films to sweep were Gigi and The Last Emperor, which both went nine for nine.
In the acting categories, Charlize Theron won the best actress Oscar, for portraying serial killer Aileen Wournos in Monster, while Sean Penn, a four-time nominee, won as best actor for Mystic River. And heavy favorites Tim Robbins and Renee Zellweger took home the supporting actor and actress awards.
Robbins, playing a childhood abuse victim turned emotionally stunted adult in director Clint Eastwood's Mystic River, used the occasion of his win to urge that abuse victims seek help.
"If you are a person that has had that tragedy befall you," Robbins said from the stage of the Kodak Theatre, "there is no shame and no weakness in seeking help and counseling -- it is sometimes the strongest thing that you can do to stop the cycle of violence."
Known as one of Hollywood's more outspoken liberals, Robbins refrained from making any political statements while accepting his award. But backstage, he praised an industry that allows him to succeed even while espousing beliefs some may find controversial.
"For me, what that says is that there is a real profound and deep understanding amongst not only members of the academy, but the American people, of what it is to live in a free society, that they feel they don't have to punish."
He also said he looked forward to taking his Oscar back to the home he shares with former best actress winner Susan Sarandon. "We're going to join them together in a little room, turn out the lights, light some candles, see what happens -- little Oscars, wouldn't that be scary?"
Zellweger, who won for playing a crude but resourceful backwoodswoman in Cold Mountain, was among several nominated actresses this year whose striking good looks were obscured in their spotlighted performances. She said she hoped her win, however, was for more than the effective use of makeup.
"If it's a trend, I hope that it's a trend for interesting parts ... characters who are rich in their journeys," she said, adding, "it's a wonderful thing when you can get lost, forget who the [actor] is and just follow the characters."
Also last night, Pixar studio's Finding Nemo, the summer 2003 box-office champion, won the Oscar for best animated film, the studio's first win in the award's three-year history.
Errol Morris' The Fog of War, an extended interview with former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, won the best documentary award in an especially strong field. "I'd like to thank the academy for finally recognizing my films," said a smiling Morris, whose documentaries include the landmarks Gates of Heaven and The Thin Blue Line. "I thought it would never happen."
The evening also included special tributes to Katharine Hepburn and Bob Hope, Hollywood legends who died in the past year. And an honorary Oscar was given to director Blake Edwards, the man responsible for guiding Peter Sellers through the Pink Panther film series.
Crystal, host for the eighth time, followed an opening monologue with his traditional crowd-pleaser, a musical tribute to the five best picture nominees. Return of the King, for instance, was feted to the tune of "My Favorite Things" (Crystal apologized in advance to Julie Andrews), while Lost In Translation was serenaded to the tune of "Maria," from West Side Story (to director Sofia Coppola, Crystal sang, "Now you're sitting here in your Oscar finery/While your dad's stomping grapes at the winery").
That the big show opened without a hitch was a relief to fans and organizers alike, many of whom were glad to see the return of the glamour and conspicuous consumption that had been absent last year. Red carpet festivities were canceled in 2003 in deference to the war against Iraq, which began just days before the Oscar ceremony.