Meryl Streep knew what you were thinking Sunday when they called her name at the 84th annual Academy Awards:

“ ‘Awwww, come on, her again?!?’ ” she joked, accepting a historic third career Oscar for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady.” (Only three other actors, Jack Nicholson and the late Walter Brennan and Ingrid Bergman have won three Oscars; only one, the late Katharine Hepburn, has won four.) It was a classic Streepian moment — wittily self-deprecating and self-aware — and, for all her long track record of vacuuming up awards, one of the bigger surprises of a mostly unsurprising night.

The Artist” swept the competition, winning five awards, including best picture, best directing for Michel Hazanavicius, and best actor for Jean Dujardin. It may be the quirkiest feature in years to find favor with the showbiz establishment here — black-and-white, French, and did we mention it’s a silent movie? But the charming tribute to Hollywood’s early days had scooped up so many other awards this year it was considered a lock for the Oscar.

Octavia Spencer was named best supporting actress for “The Help,” in which she played a sassy southern maid who turned “chocolate” pie into a revenge piece de resistance. Christopher Plummer — 82 years old and still churning out movies at the rate of his “Sound of Music” heyday — won best supporting actor, for his role in “Beginners” as a dying man who comes out of the closet at age 75.

If it’s become an Oscar-night cliché to reward previously overlooked seniors, and yet another Oscar-night cliché to honor straight actors who play gay — oh, and don’t even get us started on the vote-clinching power of a great death scene — Plummer’s trifecta-style win nonetheless felt fresh.

“You’re only two years older than me, darling,” he cooed to his golden trophy, after becoming the oldest thespian to win a competitive prize. “Where have you been all my life?” Backstage, he expressed disbelief to reporters that he is now the oldest thespian to win a competitive Oscar. (Jessica Tandy and George Burns were a mere 80.)

“I don’t believe that for a second. I think that Charlie Chaplin, even though it was an honorary Oscar – wasn’t he 83?” Nope, sir, honoraries don’t count today. “It feels pretty good anyway,” he said.

Spencer, for her part, wept touchingly on stage — even though she, too, was heavily favored to win.

Also winning five Oscars — cinematography, art direction, sound editing, sound mixing and visual effects — was “Hugo,” Martin Scorsese’s 3D drama about a Parisian orphan who befriends movie pioneer Georges Melies. More proof of Hollywood’s obsession with its golden era? (See also best actress nominee Michelle Williams’s portrayal of Marilyn Monroe).

Yet “The Artist” and its story of a silent-screen star struggling to stay relevant in those new-fangled “talkies” — well, let’s just say it struck a chord with an industry struggling again with game-changers, from Internet downloading to the global marketplace. For them, “The Artist” provided an inspiring message (we will survive!), a knowing wink (old-school movie-making ruled!), and plethora of familiar American faces (John Goodman, James Cromwell) in roles alongside the little-known French leads. Bonus: At a mere hour and 40 minutes, it’s the shortest best picture winner in decades.

And to prove it’s not too bound up in nostalgia, the academy also rewarded Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” — a time-travel comedy that lambastes artists for romanticizing the past — with the prize for best original screenplay. For his 15th writing nomination and record-breaking third win in the category, the elusive Mr. Allen upheld tradition by not showing up for the umpteenth time. Best adapted screenplay was the one prize won by “The Descendants,” the acclaimed drama, starring George Clooney, about a Hawaii family grappling with death and inheritance.

A Separation” was named best foreign film, the first movie from Iran to win that prize. A kitchen-sink drama about the cascade of tragedies and moral quandaries that envelop a middle-class family after a breakup, it was also the only foreign movie nominated to compete alongside U.S. offerings in the screenwriting category.

Director Asghar Farhadi made some of the few mildly political comments of the night in accepting the prize for a notably unpolitical movie, thanking his countrymen.

“At the time when talk of war, intimidation and aggression is exchanged between politicians, the name of their country, Iran, is spoken here through her glorious culture,” he said, “her rich and ancient culture that has been hidden under the heavy dust of politics.”

Haven’t seen “A Separation” yet? You're not alone. Few of this year’s Oscar nominees, foreign or domestic, were among 2011’s box-office champs, a constant source of tension for the academy.

Varied efforts to seduce the average popcorn-buyer — the expansion of the best picture nominees from an elite five to a populist maximum of 10, last year’s hiring of youngsters James Franco and Anne Hathaway as hosts — have done little to boost sagging ratings.

A Los Angeles Times investigation into the demographics of the Academy — turns out the 5,765 voting members are largely white, male and some years past their moviemaking prime — ramped up the long-standing criticism that it’s out of touch with both the creative vanguard and multiplex tastes.

One of the few big crowd-pleasers represented Sunday was best animated feature “Rango,” the story of a loquacious chameleon (voiced by Johnny Depp in his cartoon debut) making his way in the Wild West. Director Gore Verbinski explained its wide-ranging appeal: “It was certainly created by a bunch of grownups acting like children.”

The most lucrative movie of 2011 was “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2,” but it failed Sunday to win any of the three technical awards it was nominated for. The highest-grossing film series of all time ($7.7 billion worldwide) was nominated for 12 Oscars over the past decade but never won.

Even die-hard fans of the annual broadcast have found themselves bemoaning its desperate predictability. The ever-growing sprawl of movie awards in the weeks ahead of the Oscars — the Globes, the SAGs, the BAFTAs, all with outcomes eerily similar to the academy’s — have sapped the show of much of its suspense, even while making it much easier to win your office pool.

For those fans, the show offered a few little gifts of surprise. The creators of “Undefeated,” the inner-city high school football chronicle named best documentary, found its acceptance speech bleeped out after becoming the second winner in consecutive years to drop an f-bomb (see Melissa Leo’s best supporting actress win in 2011).

“I’d actually like to apologize for that. Not the classiest thing in the world,” TJ Martin told reporters backstage. “However, it did come from the heart.”

Whereas the editing team behind “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” found itself naturally speechless at the podium.

“We weren’t expecting this,” stammered Angus Wall, and it’s true — he and partner Kirk Baxter won last year, for “The Social Network,” and this year “Hugo” or “The Artist” were favored in their category. Both of them at a loss, Baxter, like a good editor, signaled to his partner to cut it short: “Um, thank you!” said Wall.

Argetsinger reported from Washington.