Oscar winners, ceremony aim for innovation

By Christy Lemire

Associated Press

LOS ANGELES— In a year when the top film at the Academy Awards, "Slumdog Millionaire," represented innovation and immediacy, the Oscar ceremony itself aimed for that same sort of freshness.

And for the most part, it succeeded.

"Slumdog," the story of a teenage orphan who rises from poverty in Mumbai to become the biggest winner ever on India’s version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," won eight of the 10 categories in which it was nominated, including best picture and best director for Danny Boyle.


"You have been so generous to us this evening and I want to thank you for that," the effusive Boyle said in accepting the prize, his first. Among the movie’s other awards were for adapted screenplay, cinematography, original song and score.

The gritty, high-energy film with an unknown cast became an unexpected juggernaut, dominating the awards season after barely making it to the screen. "Slumdog" nearly went straight to DVD when its original distributor, the art-house branch Warner Independent, got folded into Warner Bros. But Fox Searchlight, which has had critical and commercial success in previous years with "Juno" and "Little Miss Sunshine," picked it up — and Boyle thanked Warner Bros. for "having the great grace" to pass the film along.

Winners in the other top categories were equally predictable, including best actor Sean Penn for his moving turn as Harvey Milk in "Milk," best actress Kate Winslet as a Nazi concentration camp guard in "The Reader" and supporting actor Heath Ledger, who won posthumously for his maniacal performance as the Joker in the "The Dark Knight." Penelope Cruz won in the tight supporting-actress category for her fiery role in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona."

"I’d be lying if I said I haven’t made a version of this speech before," said Winslet, who finally won after five previous nominations. "I think I was probably 8 years old and staring into the bathroom mirror, and this would have been a shampoo bottle. Well, it’s not a shampoo bottle now."

Filmmakers Bill Condon and Laurence Mark ("Dreamgirls"), producing the Oscar telecast for the first time, also wanted to do something new, hoping to spice things up by tinkering with the ceremony’s often dull format.

Previous winners introduced this year’s nominees — Sophia Loren, Shirley MacLaine, Marion Cotillard, Nicole Kidman and Halle Berry, for example, shared the stage to sing the praises of the women up for best actress — and Winslet got hugs and kisses from them all as she joined their sorority.

Tina Fey and Steve Martin, meanwhile, had some teasing exchanges as they announced the nominees for original and adapted screenplay.

And the host, the charismatic Hugh Jackman, played on his background in musical theater rather than going for straight-up comedy like his predecessors such as Chris Rock and Jon Stewart.


Sometimes that played like gangbusters, as in his rousing opening number that tied together the best picture nominees in an admittedly low-budget way — yet another victim of the nation’s economic woes, he explained. He also worked the crowd in a way that called to mind his Tony-winning role as Peter Allen in "The Boy From Oz," including picking up best-actress nominee Anne Hathaway and carrying her to the stage to help him out on a "Frost/Nixon" duet. ("Why didn’t you burn the tapes?" he sang, assuming the David Frost role.)

Other segments, like an old-fashioned song-and-dance routine that included Beyonce and "High School Musical" stars Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens, felt like a bit of a reach. And one hit-and-miss clip found James Franco and Seth Rogen sitting on the couch in their "Pineapple Express" stoner roles, riffing on various movies from "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and "Mamma Mia!" to "Doubt" and "Milk" — in which Franco also has a supporting role. But it culminated amusingly with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski ("Schindler’s List," "Saving Private Ryan"), joining them for a laugh and a snooze while clutching his two Oscars.

The most-nominated film of the night, the epic "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," was up for 13 Oscars but won just three, all in technical categories: art direction, makeup and visual effects. The film’s star, Brad Pitt, lost in the best-actor race to Penn. Pitt’s high-profile partner Angelina Jolie, who was up for best actress in "Changeling."

As he took the stage to accept his prize for playing the slain gay-rights pioneer Milk, Penn told the crowd: "You commie, homo-loving sons of guns."

Meanwhile, the Batman saga "The Dark Knight," the second-highest grossing movie of all time behind "Titanic," came in with eight nominations and won two, for Ledger and for sound editing.

The late actor, who died last year of an accidental drug overdose at 28, has been the heavy favorite for a long time, and the victory was as emotional as expected. The crowd rose to its feet to applaud Ledger’s father, mother and sister, who accepted the statue on his behalf. Eventually, it will go to his 3-year-old daughter, Matilda.

"This award tonight would have humbly validated Heath’s quiet determination to be truly accepted by you all here," said his father, Kim Ledger, "his peers within an industry he so loved."

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