Onstage, Laboring to Brighten a Dim Picture

A look at the winners and memorable moments from this year's ceremony.
By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 23, 2009

HOLLYWOOD, Feb. 22 -- Jai ho, you Oscar slumdogs, which we think translates loosely as: Shout hallelujah, c'mon get happy!

But how happy? After all, the movie that won Best Picture at the 81st annual Academy Awards here Sunday night is supposed to be the "upbeat" one, and it's the one where orphans get acid spooned into their adorable eyes. (But at the end, they dance! Jai ho!)

The film of the night would be "Slumdog Millionaire," the triumphant come-from-behind story of a game show within a love story within class warfare. It now proudly owns eight Oscars, including one for director Danny Boyle.

"You have been so generous to us this evening," Boyle thanked the academy, adding a compliment to the show's producers. "I don't know what it looks like on television, everybody, but in the room it's bloody wonderful." (We'll get to that.)

Sean Penn won his second Oscar in five years for his role as gay-rights pioneer Harvey Milk in "Milk."

"You commie, homo-loving sons of guns," Penn told the academy, and the rest of Hollywood, and other commie, homo-loving sons of guns. (Present!) He went on to praise the election of President Obama, salute his fellow nominee Mickey Rourke, and strike out at gay marriage bans: "I think it's a good time for those who voted for the ban against gay marriage to sit and reflect on their great shame."

Kate Winslet -- Best Actress after so much trying, for "The Reader," a movie that befuddles nearly all who see it, in which she played a disturbed, lonely German who has an affair with a teenage boy and goes to prison for Nazi war crimes. (Phew! Tired from just typing that, short of breath, and so was Winslet.) She said she used to practice giving an Oscar speech into a shampoo bottle, when she was a little girl. "I feel fortunate to have made it all the way from there to here," she panted.

Backstage, Winslet said it was only just starting to sink in. "Oh, God," she said. She was so happy she even hugged one of her favorite British reporters when she recognized his voice, lobbing her a softball question. (Lines were crossed. Alert the journalism ethics institute.)

The newfangled retro peppiness of this year's broadcast -- Busby Berkeley mash-ups and all -- ground to a brief halt for the moment everyone predicted more than a year ago: Best Supporting Actor was awarded to the late Heath Ledger for his mesmerizingly psychotic turn as the Joker in "The Dark Knight." People sat stone still. Ledger's mother, father and sister took the stage. Kim Ledger said it was the ultimate tribute to his son's "quiet determination to be truly accepted by you, his peers, within an industry he truly loved."

"I think he would be quietly pleased," his mother, Sally Ledger Bell, told reporters backstage.

"Great, everyone's crying and now I have to go on," said Bill Maher, introducing the award for Best Documentary.

(Oh, he's always a bit of a smacked ass, isn't he? That doc award went to "Man on Wire," a poetic look at French tightrope artist Philippe Petit's 1974 walk between the World Trade Center towers. To leaven things, the eternally weird Petit bounded to the stage with the film's makers, and balanced the statuette on his chin -- nice trick! Maybe he should direct next year's show?)

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