Feb. 23, 2009 -- At a time when the rest of the country is cutting back, this year's Academy Awards were all about excess.
The revamped extravaganza was a result of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' effort to boost ratings for the Oscar broadcast, which hit an all-time low last year.
That included Broadway-worthy song-and-dance interludes. Star-studded presentations. Mini-films produced to introduce awards. Some speculated 2009's Academy Awards might be dressed down, but as we watched Hollywood's biggest self-celebration of the year, one message reigned: Forget the tough times and indulge in the fantasy of the movie industry.
But the presentation had its flaws.
Host Hugh Jackman kicked off the night with a lengthy musical number referencing the five best picture nominees. Compared to the chuckle-enducing monologues of past comedic hosts like Jon Stewart and David Letterman, it came off as more than a little over the top. The Oscars-as-musical treatment didn't work when Rob Lowe tried it in 1989; and it didn't work last night.
When Jackman wasn't soft-shoeing across the stage solo, the night's musical interludes sounded much like an inept DJ's crafting a remix. Beyonce Knowles, in between high-kicking her way through "The Musical Is Back," awkwardly broke into her now-ubiquitous rendition of Etta James' "At Last." Producers tried to unite Bollywood and Hollywood during an AR Rahman-John Legend medley, but the effect, especially at the end of the number, was of two separate songs blaring at the same time, full blast.
And then there were the ego-stroking sessions that preceded the four major acting awards. Presenting the Oscars for best supporting actor/actress and best actor/actress, five past winners from each category took the stage to remind each of this year's nominees just how wonderful and important they were, no matter if they won the award or not. The split screens of the fawning presenters and the nominees was awkward in its best moments, and in its worst felt a bit like watching a cult initiation.
The telecast's producers did manage to keep the show current by acknowledging one of the movie industry's more bizarre stories of late: Oscar-nominated actor Joaquin Phoenix's decision to abandon Hollywood for the rap world and adopt an out-of-sorts persona in the process. In one of the night's funniest moments, Ben Stiller donned dark glasses and a shaggy beard while presenting the Oscar for best cinematography with Natalie Portman, parodying Phoenix's recent appearance on Letterman's "Late Show" in which he removed a piece of gum from his mouth and stuck it to the host's desk.
Preliminary figures show the producers' efforts worked: according to Nielsen Media Research, viewership went up six percent over last year's audience of 32 million. Still, the telecast is likely to be among the three least-watched Oscars ever.
Despite the early hiccups and congratulatory presentations to the nominated actors, the night's winners kept the show moving with brief but sincere acceptance speeches.
After winning the hearts of moviegoers around world, "Slumdog Millionaire," the buoyantly hopeful romance set amid the poverty of Mumbai, India, won the Academy Award for best picture, capping a night of wins that also included best director Oscar for Danny Boyle.
With eight Oscars, "Slumdog" took home the most statuettes of any movie at the 81st Academy Awards held Sunday at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles.
Sean Penn took home his second best actor Oscar, winning for his portrayal of slain San Francisco politician and gay rights activist Harvey Milk in "Milk."
Riffing on Hollywood's perceived political leanings, Penn's first words upon accepting the Oscar were: "You commie, homo-loving sons of guns."
Penn's win was maybe the only real upset of the evening, beating out Mickey Rourke, who had bested Penn at the Golden Globes last month for his titular role in "The Wrestler."
Kate Winslet won best actress for playing a Nazi concentration camp guard in the "The Reader."
Winslet, who had been nominated five previous times, said: "I'd be lying if I said I haven't made a version of this speech before. I think I was probably 8 years old and staring into the bathroom mirror, and this would have been a shampoo bottle, " she said, indicating her statuette. "Well, it's not a shampoo bottle now."
Heath Ledger was posthumously awarded the best supporting actor Oscar for his role as the Joker in the "Dark Knight."
Ledger died Jan. 22, 2008, following an accidental drug overdose in his New York apartment. Ledger's parents and sister accepted the Oscar on their son's behalf and said it would be given to his 3-year-old daughter, Matilda.
In accepting the award, Ledger's father, Kim Ledger, called the role "this crazy Joker character." Some have speculated that delving into the dark role -- an insane criminal clown -- led Ledger to become depressed.
Ledger, who was 28 when he died, joins 1976 best-actor winner Peter Finch of "Network" as the only other performer to win an Oscar after his death.
Penelope Cruz won the best supporting actress award for "Vicky Christina Barcelona," and "Wall-E," the morality tale cleverly disguised as romance about robots, won for best animated feature.
Cruz took home the first Oscar statuette awarded at this evening's Academy Awards for her role as a mentally unstable Spanish woman in Woody Allen's film about a volatile three-way relationship.
"Thank you, Woody, for trusting me with this beautiful character," said Cruz, a first-time Oscar winner who starred alongside fellow Spaniard Javier Bardem.
Full List of Academy Award Winners
The awards followed an opening musical number by host Hugh Jackman meant to spoof the nominated films. Hamming it up to Broadway-style show tunes, Jackman sang about the films in front of recession-inspired set pieces made from old pizza boxes and strips of foil.
The following is the complete list of Academy Award winners
Motion Picture: "Slumdog Millionaire."
Actor: Sean Penn, "Milk."
Actress: Kate Winslet, "The Reader."
Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger, "The Dark Knight."
Supporting Actress: Penelope Cruz, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona."
Director: Danny Boyle, "Slumdog Millionaire."
Foreign Film: "Departures," Japan.
Adapted Screenplay: Simon Beaufoy, "Slumdog Millionaire."
Original Screenplay: Dustin Lance Black, "Milk."
Animated Feature Film: "Wall-E."
Art Direction: "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."
Cinematography: "Slumdog Millionaire."
Sound Mixing: "Slumdog Millionaire."
Sound Editing: "The Dark Knight."
Original Score: "Slumdog Millionaire," A.R. Rahman.
Original Song: "Jai Ho" from "Slumdog Millionaire," A.R. Rahman and Gulzar.
Costume: "The Duchess."
Documentary Feature: "Man on Wire."
Documentary (short subject): "Smile Pinki."
Film Editing: "Slumdog Millionaire."
Makeup: "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."
Animated Short Film: "La Maison en Petits Cubes."
Live Action Short Film: "Spielzeugland (Toyland)."
Visual Effects: "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."