Halle Berry became the first African-American to win the Best Actress Oscar and Denzel Washington followed Sidney Poitier as only the second black to win the Best Actor award.
A Beautiful Mind took home the Best Picture prize and several of the most coveted awards, including honors for director, supporting actress and adapted screenplay.
But in an evening where Poitier received a special honorary Oscar, the achievements of black actors highlighted the 74th Academy Awards.
Berry burst into tears as she accepted her award for her daring role as the widow of a death-row inmate who strikes up an unlikely relationship with her husband's executioner.
"This moment is so much bigger than me," said Berry, 35. "This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll … It's for every nameless, faceless woman of color who now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened."
Berry's acceptance speech ran about three minutes: "It's been 74 years, I've got to take this time," she said, referring to the number of years that the Oscars have been presented.
The Best Actress race also featured Nicole Kidman's turn as a dying nightclub singer in Moulin Rouge; Judi Dench as British writer Iris Murdoch in Iris; Sissy Spacek as a bitter, grieving mother in In the Bedroom; and Renee Zellweger, who played the lovelorn Londoner in Bridget Jones's Diary.
Washington: ‘I’ll Always Be Chasing You, Sidney’
Usually known for playing good guys, Washington won for his portrayal as a corrupt cop in Training Day. He turned his acceptance speech into a tribute to Poitier. "I'll always be chasing you, Sidney," he said. "I'll always be following in your footsteps."
Poitier, who won his Oscar in 1963 for Lilies of the Field, received special honors earlier in the evening.
"Before Sidney, African-American actors had to take supporting roles that were easy to cut out in certain parts of the country," Washington said. "But you couldn't cut Sidney Poitier out of a Sidney Poitier picture."
"I arrived in Hollywood at the age of 22, at a time that was different than today's," Poitier recalled. "[It was] a time in which the odds against me standing here tonight 53 years later would not have fallen in my favor," he said. "Back then no route had been established for where I was hoping to go."
Only 26 black actors have been nominated for Academy Awards. Before tonight, only six had won — including Washington, who won a Supporting Actor award for Glory in 1989.
A Feathered Whoopi Enters
Whoopi Goldberg, hosting her fourth Oscar show, made a grand entrance from the ceiling. Decked out in a peacock-like feathered outfit with a gold top hat, she was lowered on a trapeze to the theater floor in a spoof of Moulin Rouge.
"I am the original sexy beast," she said.
Goldberg had been criticized for past Oscar shows for some of her risque jokes and had sworn she would never do another show. But after Sept. 11, she changed her mind.
While the show did strike a serious tone at times, Goldberg kept things moving along, and still found the opportunity to get a bit racy. "Oscar is the only 74-year-old man in Hollywood who doesn't need Viagra to last three hours," she joked.
Still, there were several tributes to those who suffered in the Sept. 11 attacks. Tom Cruise introduced the first of several taped segments commemorating America's love affair with the silver screen, asking if movies have lost their relevance in a time of war.
"Should we celebrate the joy and magic the movies bring?" he asked. "Dare I say it? 'More than ever.'"
Beautiful Mind, Ugly Competition
Before Washington's big win, Russell Crowe had seemed to be poised to join Spencer Tracy and Tom Hanks as the only actors to win consecutive Best Actor Oscars. He had earned acclaim for his turn as schizophrenic mathematician John Nash in A Beautiful Mind.
But his buzz took a beating when he publicly berated the producer of the British Film Academy Awards ceremony for cutting his acceptance speech from the broadcast. The fact that the film did so well in so many other categories suggests that Crowe has lost some favor among his peers.
The cast of A Beautiful Mind began celebrating almost from the beginning of the night, when Jennifer Connelly won Best Supporting Actress honors for her portrayal of Nash's long-suffering wife, Alicia.
"By some beautiful twist of fate I've landed in this vocation that demands that I feel and helps me to learn," said the 31-year-old actress, who made her debut in 1984's Once Upon a Time in America..
"No film has moved or taught me more than A Beautiful Mind."
Connelly also thanked Alicia Nash, whom she descrbed as "a true champion of love."
Another first-time winner was Beautiful director Ron Howard, who had helmed several Hollywood blockbusters, including Apollo 13 and Cocoon.
In one of the biggest surprises of the evening, Jim Broadbent won the best supporting actor Oscar for his role as the husband of novelist Iris Murdoch in Iris. Another British actor, Ian McKellen, had been heavily favored for his work as the wizard Gandalf in Lord of the Rings. McKellen was the only actor from the fantasy blockbuster to earn a nomination.
Stars Return to Glamour
Earlier, on the red carpet, buffed and groomed stars walked on fashion's biggest stage.
"It's even more incredible than I could ever imagine," said Berry, in a wine-colored gown festooned with flowers.
Connelly entered in a champagne-colored strapless gown with matching scarf. British actress Helen Mirren strolled down the red carpet in a white Giorgio Armani gown.
In another notable entrance, Mulholland Drive actress Laura Elena Harring sported a diamond necklace, reportedly valued at $27 million, along with diamond-studded high heels valued at $1 million. Kidman wore a $4 million diamond necklace that she helped design.
"I'm not quite as hysterical as I was last year," said Julia Roberts, last year's Best Actress winner, who chose a black Armani gown with side slits. "I have to pass my crown … My reign is over."
Woody Shows Up
In his trademark horn-rimmed glasses, Woody Allen made his first Oscar appearance. He introduced a film homage to New York and encouraged filmmakers to keep making movies there, in spite of Sept. 11.
Notorious for shunning award shows, Allen joked that he thought the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences had called to repossess his trophies. "I panicked because the pawn shop has been out of business for ages," he said. "I had no way of retrieving anything."
Allen stood before a backdrop of the New York City skyline with the World Trade Center towers conspicuously missing and introduced the tribute, made by Nora Ephron. It began with the opening of Allen's Manhattan and included clips from Taxi Driver, The Godfather, Tootsie, On the Waterfront and The French Connection.
Later, in introducing the annual retrospective of the Hollywood notables who died in the past year, Kevin Spacey asked everyone to rise for a moment of silence "for every single American hero who gave his or her life on Sept. 11."
ABCNEWS Radio's Dave Alpert, Bill Diehl and Heidi Oringer in Los Angeles and ABCNEWS.com's Buck Wolf in New York contributed to this report.