"We have been so truly overwhelmed by the honor and respect being bestowed upon him with this award. Tonight we are choosing to celebrate and be happy for what he has achieved," added mom Sally Bell.
"Heath, we both knew what you had created in the Joker was extraordinarily special and had even talked about being here on this very special day," concluded sister Kate. We wish you were. But we proudly accept this award on behalf of your beautiful Matlida."
Peter Finch, who won for his supporting role in Network in 1976, two months after his death, is the only other actor to receive a posthumous Oscar.
Penélope Cruz was named Best Supporting Actress for her role as a dangerously sexy—and jealous—ex-wife in Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the 34-year-old beauty's first win in two tries.
"It's not going to be 45 seconds. I can say that right now," an instantly emotional Cruz began her speech. "Has anybody ever fainted here? Because I might be the first one…Thank you, Woody, for trusting me with this beautiful character."
Talking about staying up late in Spain to watch the Oscars when she was a little girl, she said, "I always felt that this ceremony was a moment of unity for the world, because art in any form has is and will always be our universal language and we should do everything we can to protect its survival."
Aside from the identity of the presenters in general, one of the surprises kept so carefully under wraps by producers hoping to inject some see-it-to-believe-it pizzazz into the Oscar telecast, which saw viewership sink to an all-time low last year, was the gathering of five past winners per acting category to dole out honors to this year's deserving thesps—a touch that helped get the waterworks going before they even reached the stage.
Robert De Niro, Ben Kingsley, Anthony Hopkins, Michael Douglas and Adrien Brody drew quite a bit of applause before passing out Penn's award, while Shirley MacLaine, Halle Berry, Sophia Loren, Nicole Kidman, Marion Cotillard rallied for Winslet.
Cruz accepted her Oscar from defending champ Tilda Swinton, Whoopi Goldberg, Goldie Hawn, Anjelica Huston and Eva Marie Saint, who picked up her little gold guy in 1955 for On the Waterfront.
Christopher Walken, Kevin Kline, Cuba Gooding Jr., Alan Arkin, and Joel Grey teamed up to fete Ledger. Missing from the ad hoc quintet was last year's winner, Javier Bardem, who had a work commitment in Europe.
Upping the hunk factor in Bardem's absence was a dashing, classic-tux-clad Hugh Jackman—tapped by producers to bring some old-Hollywood glamour back to the show, who kicked the festivities off with a splashy opening number, a regular bit when Billy Crystal hosted, but this time carried off by a Tony-winning singer and dancer who also happens to be the reigning Sexiest Man Alive.