HOLLYWOOD, Calif. - Slumdog Millionaire, a joyous story of enduring love and unexpected riches among the lower castes of India, took home the Oscar for best picture at last night's 81st annual Academy Awards, capping an unlikely awards season for a movie that barely got released in this country.
The movie, which was picked up at the last minute by Fox Searchlight Pictures, dominated the awards, winning eight of the nine categories in which it was nominated (its only loss came in the sound editing category). In addition to best picture, the movie's awards included best director for Danny Boyle, best adapted screenplay, best original score and best original song for "Jai Ho."
On her sixth try, Kate Winslet finally won her Oscar, taking home the best actress prize for the Holocaust drama The Reader. And Sean Penn took home his second best actor Oscar, for playing gay-rights icon Harvey Milk in Milk. Although Mickey Rourke may have been the sentimental favorite, for his surprising comeback performance in The Wrestler, Penn's performance proved too strong and charismatic for Oscar voters to resist.
"You commie, homo-loving sons of guns," Penn said as he accepted the Oscar. He also paid tribute to his prime competitor, saying, "Mickey Rourke rises again, and he is my brother."
Earlier in the evening, Heath Ledger and Penelope Cruz made history in taking the awards for best supporting actor and actress.
Ledger, who was perhaps the evening's most prohibitive favorite, won only the second acting Oscar ever given posthumously. Cruz's win represented the first for a Spanish actress.
Although a leaner Oscar telecast had been promised, chances for that looked slim from the beginning. The evening's emotional high point came midway through with the best supporting actor win for Ledger, whose mesmerizing turn as The Joker in The Dark Knight became an unexpected epitaph after he died at age 28 of an accidental drug overdose 13 months ago. His parents, Sally Bell and Kim Ledger, and his sister Kate Ledger accepted his Oscar. Both father and sister were near tears as they spoke from the Kodak Theatre stage.
"We proudly accept this award on behalf of your beautiful Matilda," Kate Ledger said, referring to Ledger's 3-year-old daughter with actress Michelle Williams.
Peter Finch won the first posthumous acting Oscar 32 years ago, earning the best actor nod for 1976's Network.
The expected Oscar showdown between Slumdog Millionaire and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button played out through the early evening; at the two-hour mark, each film had won three Oscars. But other films got to enjoy the spotlight as well.
Dustin Lance Black, who won the original screenplay Oscar for the biopic Milk, talked backstage of how much comfort and inspiration he took from Milk.
"Harvey gave me his story, and it saved my life," Black said. "I felt it was time to pass it on."
For the second straight year, a movie from Pixar studios won the animated feature Oscar. The winner last night was WALL-E, the adventure of an anthropomorphic trash compactor left behind as the last occupant of an ecologically devastated Earth with only a cockroach and a VHS of the movie Hello, Dolly! to keep him company.
Director Andrew Stanton, an earlier animated feature Oscar winner for 2004's Finding Nemo, thanked his high-school drama teacher for casting him as Barnaby in a production of Hello, Dolly! "Creative seeds are sewn in the oddest of places," he deadpanned.
This also proved to be a good year at the Oscars for Japan, as films from that country won for foreign language film (director Yojiro Takita's Departures) and animated short (director Kunio Kato's La Maison en Petits Cubes).
The evening's first Oscar, for best supporting actress, was presented by a team of five previous winners in that category: Eva Marie Saint, Goldie Hawn, Whoopi Goldberg, Anjelica Huston and Tilda Swinton. Each nominee was afforded a short vocal tribute. And the winner Cruz, for Woody Allen's passionate romantic comedy Vicky Cristina Barcelona, began her remarks by promising to go over the time allotted for an acceptance speech.
"I'm not going to be 45 seconds, I can promise you that," she said.
The team presentation, however, was a big hit with her.
"It was amazing to see all those women up there," Cruz said backstage, "women that I admire so much."
Even before last night's ceremony, Slumdog Millionaire was the talk of the town. A group of youngsters who acted in the film, all amateurs found on location in Mumbai, were brought to Hollywood, at least in part to answer charges that they had been exploited and underpaid by the filmmakers. The kids proved the hit of the red carpet.
Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, who won the adapted screenplay Oscar for Slumdog, praised the young actors backstage.
"It's wonderful being 9," he said. "You don't have stress or tension. They're just having fun."
Other Oscars went to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (visual effects, art direction, makeup), Slumdog Millionaire (cinematography, sound mixing, film editing), The Duchess (costume design) and The Dark Knight (sound editing).
The feature-length documentary Oscar went to James Marsh and Simon Chinn's Man on Wire, the story of French tightrope walker Philippe Petit's 1974 walk between the World Trade Center's twin towers in New York.
For a complete list of winners, go to baltimoresun.com/entertainment
Best Picture: : Slumdog Millionaire
Actor: : Sean Penn, Milk
Actress: : Kate Winslet, The Reader
Supporting Actor: : Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Supporting Actress: : Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Director:: Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
Adapted Screenplay: : Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire
Original Screenplay: : Dustin Lance Black, Milk
Animated Feature Film: : WALL-E