'Slumdog' Is Best in Show

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

HOLLYWOOD, Feb. 22 -- "Slumdog Millionaire," an unlikely box office hit about a Mumbai street kid's date with destiny on an American-style TV quiz show, won Best Picture and seven other Academy Awards on a night when the U.S. movie industry embraced its role in an increasingly global marketplace.

In addition to the "Slumdog" juggernaut -- which brought Oscars for its British director, Danny Boyle, and British and Indian crew members alike -- prizes went to the late Australian actor Heath Ledger and Spanish actress Penélope Cruz, who delivered the first of the night's many heavily accented acceptance speeches.

"This ceremony was a moment of unity for the world because art, in any form, is and has been and will always be our universal language," said the Best Supporting Actress winner for "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" -- before switching over to speak in Spanish.

Kate Winslet, a British actress who this year played a frustrated American suburban housewife in "Revolutionary Road," won Best Actress for playing a mysterious German woman who seduces a teenager in "The Reader." California's own Sean Penn won his second Best Actor trophy for his role as slain gay rights activist Harvey Milk in "Milk."

The emotional heart of the night came with the prize to Ledger for his role as Batman's nemesis the Joker in "The Dark Knight" (2008's box office champ and the second-highest-grossing movie of all time, which also won the prize for Sound Editing). Ledger, whose role as a gay cowboy in 2005's "Brokeback Mountain" vaulted him into the top ranks of actors, died at 28 last year of an accidental overdose of prescription drugs. His Oscar was accepted by his family.

The actor's sister, Kate Ledger, told reporters later about her brother's excitement about the role. "I told him, 'I have a feeling this is it for you, you're going to get a nomination for this.' He just looked at me and smiled."

It was a more muted evening for the Hollywood studios' other big contribution to the prize derby this year. Few other movies in recent history have been as carefully crafted to win hearts, minds and dollars as the "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," a big-budget studio film packed to the gills with bankable stars, heartwarming humanism, sci-fi suspense and mind-blowing special effects that convincingly transformed Brad Pitt from an 80-year-old to a teenager in reverse.

But "Button," duly recognized with a near-record 13 Oscar nominations, ended up winning only three technical prizes -- the fewest ever for a movie with so many nods.

In recent years Hollywood has increasingly embraced foreign actors -- last year's acting winners were all European -- while increasingly relying on revenue from foreign shores.

"Slumdog" boosters hailed its win as a blow for the struggling but influential independent film industry. The movie, made for $15 million, has long swaths of foreign dialogue and no American stars; last summer, producers were still struggling to find a distributor willing to put it in U.S. theaters.

"Button," on the other hand, was championed from early on by studio chiefs at Paramount. They started with a provocative F. Scott Fitzgerald story about a man who ages backward, reworked for the screen by the writer behind feel-good blockbuster "Forrest Gump." They hired an edgy critics'-darling director, David Fincher, and cast box office god Pitt opposite Oscar winner Cate Blanchett. They topped it all off with the best CGI money can buy, plus the consciousness-raising backdrop of Hurricane Katrina.

The result: a movie that millions went to see but few seem to love. And while its box office receipts certainly look impressive -- $245 million worldwide -- many in Hollywood have assessed it a flop, considering its cost: an estimated $150 million to make and nearly as much again to market, the Los Angeles Times revealed last month, citing sources close to the project.

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