Anne Hathaway

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for VH1

The prime-time portion of the posthumous honoring of Heath Ledger has begun.

The late thesp was named Best Supporting Actor at the 14th Annual Critics' Choice Awards Thursday—not the first award bestowed upon Ledger for his extraordinarily nuanced performance in The Dark Knight, but his most public win to date and his peers' first chance to give him an evening-gown-and-tux-clad standing ovation.

"Anyone who's seen any of the extraordinary work that Heath did knows that I can't presume to speak for him in any way, because his voice was as unique as it was original. But...I know that I speak for all of us when I say that working with him was one of the greatest experiences any of us ever had or probably ever will have," said director Christopher Nolan, whose film also notched a win for Best Action Movie, in accepting the trophy on Ledger's behalf.

The superhero blockbuster lost out on the top prize, however, to critical darling Slumdog Millionaire, which rose above all comers with a leading five wins, including Best Picture and Best Director for Danny Boyle.

And despite all the buzz about Mickey Rourke, this year could be shaping up to be Sean Penn's once again, as it was the Milk star who walked away with the Best Actor trophy and shared in the biopic's win for Best Ensemble.

"I will trust that you understand that at heart this is a beauty contest, so I had an advantage," Penn said, prompting the camera to grab a shot of his fellow nominee Brad Pitt laughing heartily. (Both Pitt and the young lady sitting next to him, Angelina Jolie, went home empty-handed, but as crowd warmer-upper Jason Alexander pointed out to him earlier: "You're going home with her, she's going home with you. Nobody here is a loser.")

Sean Penn

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for VH1

This bodes well for Penn—who went on to thank the film's cast, screenwriter, director Gus Van Sant and "the guy who would have been [his] first choice to play the lead in this movie, Harvey Milk"—who was last selected top dog by the Broadcast Film Critics Association in 2004 for Mystic River, the same film that helped him snag his first Oscar a month later.

A more surprising result was the tie that sprang from the Best Actress race between veteran Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway, whose reviews for Rachel Getting Married have been the best of her career.

But while Streep had Doubt costar Viola Davis succinctly accept on her behalf, a stunned and emotional Hathaway thanked every actress ever for being so awesome. (We'll forgive the rambling, it was her first time.)

"Thank you so much!" she began. "Oh my God. I don't know how to win awards, I know how to not be nominated for awards. I know how to do pratfalls and wear tiaras. This is very new."

Years later, the scorned star tearfully thanked her father, "who protects [her] and has shown [her] that there are good men in this world."

Not in the house tonight were Best Supporting Actress Kate Winslet, a winner for her decades-spanning turn in The Reader as a concentration-camp guard who has an affair with a teenage boy; Dev Patel, named Best Young Actor (under 21) for his breakthrough role in Slumdog Millionaire; and Bruce Springsteen, whose title tune for The Wrestler was a winner for Best Song.

And most everyone who won, whether in person or in absentia, has a chance to do it all over again Sunday, when the Golden Globes are passed out at the Beverly Hilton.

Check out tonight's red carpet action in our 2009 Critics' Choice Awards gallery:

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