Slumdog Millionaire hit the real jackpot tonight.
With controversy unable to upset the momentum, the uplifting little film set in the slums of Mumbai that almost went straight to DVD was named Best Picture at the 81st Annual Academy Awards, one of eight wins for the surprise box-office hit.
"As you can see, our film was a collaboration between hundreds of people, and I'm so happy that some of them could be with us here tonight to share this moment," said producer Christian Colson, surrounded by director Danny Boyle and the film's stars, including the six children who played Dev Patel, Freida Pinto and Madhur Mittal at younger ages.
"When we started out, we had no stars, we had no power or muscle, we didn't have enough money, really, to do what we wanted to do," Colson said. "Most of all we had passion and we had belief, and our film shows that if you have those two things, truly anything is possible."
"My kids are too old to remember this now, but when they were much younger, I swore to them if this miracle ever happened I would proceed in the spirit of Tigger from Winnie the Pooh, and that's what that was," Best Director winner Boyle said onstage after engaging in three vigorous hops while grasping his prize.
"I don't know what it looks like on television, but in the room it's bloody wonderful," the British filmmaker said as he thanked his wife, kids, colleagues and the people of Mumbai. "You dwarf even this guy," Boyle said, pointing at Oscar.
Slumdog was also honored for cinematography, original score, film editing, sound mixing and song, "Jai Ho" by A.R. Rahman and Gulzar. Scribe Simon Beaufoy won Best Adapted Screenplay for transforming the novel by Vikas Swarup.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which led going into the night with 13 nominations, wound up with just three awards, all in technical categories.
Sean Penn, the other obvious choice for Best Actor, deprived us of another Mickey Rourke acceptance speech when he won the award for channeling pioneering gay politico Harvey Milk in Milk. Both Penn and Best Adapted Screenplay winner Dustin Lance Black used their time in the winner's circle to give a voice to a political cause—the recent ban on gay marriage in California.
"I think that it is a good time for those who voted for the ban against gay marriage to sit and reflect and anticipate their great shame, and the shame in their grandchildren's eyes if they continue that way of support," Penn said after cheerfully greeting the crowd as "you commie, homo-loving, sons of guns."
"I did not expect this, but, and I want to be very clear that I do know how hard I make it to appreciate me often," he said, eventually concluding his thank-you list with a shout-out to Rourke, his "brother."
Six-time nominee Kate Winslet, not a sure thing once her role as a tortured former concentration camp guard having an affair with a teenager in The Reader was bumped up to Best Actress status, finally had her moment.
"I'd be lying if I hadn't made a version of this speech before. I was probably 8 years old and staring at the bathroom mirror, and this would have been a shampoo bottle. Well it's not a shampoo bottle now!" Winslet said, becoming steadily more overjoyed as her speech—very eloquent, this time—went on.
"I'm so lucky to have a wonderful husband and two beautiful children who let me do what I love and who love me just the way that I am. Anthony and Sidney—this is for you, this is for both of you," Winslet continued, referring to late producers Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack, who both died last year. "And I want to acknowledge my fellow nominees—these goddesses. I think we all can't believe we're in a category with Meryl Streep at all. I'm sorry, Meryl, but you have to just suck that up."
Heath Ledger's posthumous awards season culminated with the biggest win of them all, the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. While The Dark Knight director, Christopher Nolan, had been doing most of the honors this year, Ledger's father, mother and one of his sisters were on hand to accept on his behalf.
"Firstly, we'd like to thank the Academy for recognizing our son's amazing work," said Ledger's dad, Kim, whose son died 13 months ago. "Warner Bros. and Christopher Nolan in particular for allowing Heath the creative license to develop and explore this crazy Joker character. This award tonight would have humbly validated Heath's quiet determination to be truly accepted by you all here, his peers, within an industry he so loved. Thank you."
"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 Matilda."
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. (Conrad Hall is the last of any posthumous recipients, winning for his Road to Perdition cinematography at 2003 Academy Awards.)
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 Spanish beauty's first win in two tries and the fifth time Allen has coaxed an Oscar-winning performance from a supporting player.
"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 for some 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 and Marion Cotillard rallied for Winslet.
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.
Hence, it was quite charming. It also encouraged Jackman to join Beyoncé for a lengthy tribute to movie musicals (which did, however, give Zack Efron and Vanessa Hudgens a reason for being there) that culminated in a frenzied Riverdance-esque routine to Mamma Mia!'s title song.
Jackman must have saved Baz Luhrmann's life in the bush or something, because the more-annoying-than-anything number was staged by the Australia director.
Sunday's show ran three hours and 30 minutes, though some time was saved by having presenters handle two or more awards at a time, such as Sarah Jessica Parker and Daniel Craig, who handed out Oscars for costume design (The Duchess), art direction (Benjamin Button) and makeup (Button again), and Will Smith, who gave out four—film editing (Slumdog), sound editing (The Dark Knight), sound mixing (Slumdog) and visual effects (Benjamin Button).
Jerry Lewis received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for his seemingly tireless efforts on behalf of Jerry's Kids and the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
"For most of my life I've thought that doing good for someone didn't mean you would receive commendation for that act of kindness. At least until now," the 82-year-old funnyman said. "This award touches my heart and the very depths of my soul because of who the award is for and those who will benefit."
Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt may have gone home empty-handed, but the camera still panned to them plenty, perhaps most notably when Jennifer Aniston and Jack Black were onstage presenting Best Animated Feature to the Disney-Pixar hit WALL-E.
A far more shocking twist than Angie vs. Jen was the upset Japanese film Departures scored over frontrunner Waltz With Bashir and festival darling The Class in the Best Foreign-Language Film category.
"This is a new departure for me. And I—we'll—be back, I hope. Thank you!" director Yojiro Takita proudly announced—although he couldn't top the sentiment Kunio Katô offered when he won Best Animated Short for La Maison en Petits Cubes:
"Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto," he concluded.