- The Washington Times - Monday, February 23, 2009

UPDATED:

“Slumdog Millionaire” won the big prize and the heart of the 81st Academy Awards Sunday night, capturing Oscars for best picture, best director and seven others.

“This has been an incredible night,” said producer Christian Colson.

Sean Penn, 48, and Kate Winslet, 33, accepted their Oscars for best leading roles. Winslet won best actress in “The Reader” and Penn in “Milk” and the prize for best director went to Danny Boyle for “Slumdog Millionaire”.

“Thank you so much, my God,” Ms. Winslet said.

“It’s bloody wonderful,” Mr. Boyle said.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences tried to rebound from record low ratings at last year’s Oscars by revamping the award ceremony; out are comedians and theme montages, in is smooth Hugh Jackman and a show that mimicked the process of making a movie.

But the biggest early awards were for supporting performers and scripts, with the big moment coming when the late Heath Ledger, as expected, won the award for supporting actor for his role as the Joker in “The Dark Knight.”

In one of the star-studded presentations, Christopher Walken, Cuba Gooding Jr., Alan Arkin, Kevin Kline and Joel Grey all of whom had previously won the award presented the trophy to the father, mother and sister of Mr. Ledger, who died of an overdose last year.

“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,” his father, Kim Ledger, said in the trio’s acceptance speech.

Heath Ledger as the Joker in ‘The Dark Knight’ kept us all on edge, anxious to see what act of appalling mischief he might commit next. With this bravura performance Heath Ledger has left us an original and enduring legacy,” presenter Kevin Kline said.

No less star-studded was the first award of the night, as Eva Marie Saint, Whoopi Goldberg, Goldie Hawn, Anjelica Huston and Tilda Swinton presented the best supporting actress trophy an award they also had all won.

Introducing Amy Adams, nominated for playing a novice nun in “Doubt,” Miss Goldberg, who starred in “Sister Act,” said she knows how difficult playing a nun can be habits make your face look fatter than it is, and “your main love interest is ” gesturing up as if to heaven.

Penelope Cruz, acting almost entirely in her native Spanish in the bilingual Woody Allen film “Vicky Christina Barcelona,” became the third woman to be directed to a supporting actress win by Mr. Allen and just the sixth person to win an Oscar for a role principally in a foreign language.

“Has anybody ever fainted here? I might be the first one,” she said, before thanking Mr. Allen “for trusting me with this great role.”

She also played up the international element of the awards in an increasingly global film market by thanking Spanish directors “my friend” Pedro Almodovar, Bigas Luna and Fernando Trueba for giving her the roles that made an international star, and by giving the last part of her acceptance speech in Spanish, in which she paid tribute to “all the actors in the country.”

Both screenwriting Oscars went to contenders for best picture Dustin Lance Black took the award for his original screenplay of “Milk” while Simon Beaufoy won adapted script for “Slumdog Millionaire,” the first of several early awards for this year’s little movie that could.

Mr. Black, who is openly gay, used his speech to say that the film’s subject, gay activist Harvey Milk, “gave me hope that I could live my life openly as who I am, and maybe one day even fall in love and get married.”

He paused for a second to give the audience time to applaud before launching into a message for “all gay and lesbian children you are beautiful, wonderful creatures of value no matter what” churches and the state might say and one day “you will have equal rights federally across this great nation of ours.”

As expected, Pixar’s “Wall-E” won the best animated film the Disney-affiliated studio’s fourth victory in six years. When introducing the animated awards, in fact, presenter Jack Black said that every year, he takes his paycheck from doing voice acting in a Dreamworks animated film and goes to his bookie on Oscar night “and place the money on Pixar.”

“So sorry, [Jeffrey] Katzenberg, I don’t know why we let him out of the house,” co-presenter Jennifer Aniston “apologized” to the Dreamworks chief.

Accepting the award, “Wall-E” director Andrew Stanton thanked his school drama teacher “Phil Perry for casting me as Barnaby in ‘Hello, Dolly.’ Creative seeds are sown in the oddest places.”

When Japanese filmmaker Kunio Kato accepted the best animated short award for “La Maison en Petits Cubes,” he gave thanks through his weak English but got a big laugh with one of the best-known Japanese phrases to English speakers and fans of ‘80s rock band Styx “Domo arigato, Mister Roboto.”

In another expected result, “Man on Wire” took home best documentary. James Marsh and Simon Chinn, the film’s director and producer, respectively took to the stage to accept the award, and called the documentary’s subject daredevil Phillippe Petit up onto the stage to join them.

“The shortest speech in Oscar history: Yes,” exclaimed Mr. Petit, before adding that he’d like “to thank the Academy for believing in magic.” At that point he pulled a coin out of his pocket and made it disappear, then took one of the Oscar statues and balanced it on his chin.

“They didn’t deserve to win for that,” snarked presenter Bill Maher.

The technical awards were given in an order that mimicked the order of movie production from script to art direction to costume design to makeup and then to post-production categories as sound effects and editing. “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” did best in those categories the former winning for script, cinematography, editing and sound mixing, while the latter took home trophies for art direction, makeup and visual effects.

Other changes were designed to shorten the always-lengthy running time. One was the creation of a medley out of the three best song nominees instead of individual performances; that alteration cost the show Peter Gabriel’s participation.

“They’ve gone for a medley this year, of three minutes or four minutes,” the songwriter, whose “Down to Earth” from the movie “Wall-E” was nominated for best original song, told Oscar commentator Ryan Seacrest on the red carpet. “Each of the three songs are compressed. I just felt that I really was very happy to do something properly, but I didn’t feel that was going to give it a fair shot.”

Mr. Jackman received a standing ovation for his opening number, which featured a surprise guest spot from best actress nominee Anne Hathaway. It was the first of many shocks during the ceremony; organizers hoped that a beefed-up lineup of presenters and performance numbers would bring back the audiences who have fled over the years.

Steve Martin and Tina Fey did a smart and funny bit in front of the writing awards, and Ben Stiller did a wicked parody of former Oscar nominee Joaquin Phoenix’s recent appearance on “Late Night with David Letterman” when “helping” present the cinematography award, won by “Slumdog Millionaire.”

Even before Sunday night’s show, the academy made some awards known and produced controversy.

Jerry Lewis, the longtime spokesman and fundraiser for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, was given the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for his tireless efforts on behalf of the group. During his 43 years as host of the group’s Labor Day Telethon, the organization has taken in almost $2 billion.

“The telethon is the most effective philanthropic event of its kind,” said a statement by Gerald C. Weinberg, association president and chief executive officer. “So it’s appropriate that the man who makes it all possible has been singled out for his matchless compassion.”

Still, some weren’t thrilled with the academy’s selection.

Mr. Lewis got into hot water during the 2007 telethon when he made a joke using a homosexual slur. Though he apologized profusely, he tripped up again in 2008 when he used a similar term to describe cricket.

Hollywood insider Nikki Finke took to her popular blog “Deadline Hollywood Daily” to rail against the honor for Mr. Lewis.

“Despite Lewis’ laudatory 42 years of raising money for MDA,” she wrote, “his publicly demonstrated debasement of gays doesn’t make him a humanitarian in my eyes.”

Another, somewhat surprising group has arisen to protest Mr. Lewis’s win as well: Some with muscular dystrophy think that his treatment of those with the disease is patronizing.

Jerry Lewis and the telethon actively promote pity as a fundraising strategy,” noted the authors of a petition calling for rescinding the award. “Disabled people want respect and rights, not pity and charity.”

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