Oscar Shockers: Polanski, Brody Unlikely Winners

Oscar Night had all the unlikely twists and turns of a Hollywood-manufactured plot — with a fugitive taking best director and a relative unknown crowned best actor.

Fears that the show would be put off by the war, in the end, made the very existence of the show even more unlikely. But Oscar prevailed.

"Well, I'm glad they cut back on all the glitz," said Steve Martin in his opening monologue. "You probably noticed there was no fancy red carpet tonight. That'll send them a message."

To be sure, filmmaker Michael Moore brought the anti-war protests to the podium, blasting President Bush as a "fictitious president" who is sending the country to war for "fictitious reasons." Others expressed concern for U.S. troops and hopes for a quick resolution.

But even leaving politics aside, this year's Academy Awards proved to be the most surprising in recent years.

Let's take a look: 1. Fugitive Wins Best Director — Roman Polanski, who cannot set foot in the United States without going to jail — won the Academy Award for best director for the Holocaust drama The Pianist.

Polanski fled the United States for France in 1978 as he was about to be sentenced to prison for having sex with a 13-year-old girl.

Backstage, Pianist screenwriter Ronald Harwood bristled when reporters raised the controversy. "I will discuss his work as a director of a film and no other aspect of his life tonight. … I have nothing to say about it."

2. Adrian Brody Beats Oscar Legends — To appreciate Adrian Brody winning best actor, consider the competition. Jack Nicholson came into the evening with three Oscars. Michael Caine had won two, and Daniel Day-Lewis and Nicholas Cage one each. Each of these veteran actors are perennial nominees.

Before this year, Brody had never been nominated for a major award — and his film, The Pianist, grossed a modest $18 million domestically, less than each of the other nominees.

With a win, Nicholson would have tied Katherine Hepburn as the actor with the most Oscars. That's instant, feel-good history — an Oscar moment in the making that Hollywood would just love to relish. But it was not to be.

Brody — who played a Polish Jew hiding from Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto — seemed so stunned he didn't know what to say. But he rallied to make the most heartfelt statement of the evening.

The 29-year-old New Yorker had just begun to gather his thoughts when the band cued up, to drown him off the stage. But he stood there and demanded more time, just like a true star. The music stopped and he continued.

"My experience making this film made me very aware of the sadness and the dehumanization of people in times of war, and the repercussions of war. And whether you believe in God or Allah, may he watch over you, and let's pray for a peaceful and swift resolution," he said, sending a shout-out to a friend in the U.S. military serving in Kuwait.

It was at that moment that America knew the right man won.

3. Spirited Away Tops Box Office Monsters — The Elvis-loving space alien in Lilo & Stitch and Ray Romano's Wooly Mammoth in Ice Age were box office monsters, each grossing more than $100 million. But the award for animated feature film went to the the Japanese fantasy Spirited Away, which had a limited U.S. release last fall and ringing up a mere $5.5 million.

However, writer-director Hayao Miyazaki, who did not attend the awards because he is working on a new film, said he cannot feel overjoyed, "given the unfortunate turn of events in the world today."

4. Gangs of New York Shut Out — This might not have been Martin Scorsese's best film, but it seemed to be his year. The six-time nominee had never won, and he deserves something for Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Mean Streets, Raging Bull and other worthy contributions.

His real competition seemed to be coming from Rob Marshall, the force behind the great Chicago box office fire of 2003. But he lost out to Polanski.

Well, Oscar has overlooked other greats, and Scorsese's time may yet come. There's always a lifetime achievement award, if nothing else. Perhaps he could gather some support from Peter O'Toole's acceptance speech.

"I have my very own Oscar now to be with me 'til death us do part," said O'Toole, himself a seven-time nominee, upon accepting his lifetime achievement honor. "I wish the academy to know I am delighted as I am honored."

Gangs of New York went into the Oscars with 10 nominations, second only to Chicago, and the mob came away empty-handed. As journalists are apt to say, it was another setback to organized crime. Perhaps someone didn't pay the vig. Though some voters, Scorsese among them, had criticized Miramax for politicking a little too hard to drive the film to victory.

5. The Musical Comeback — Everybody expected Chicago to win best picture. But Catherine Zeta-Jones taking best supporting actress only reconfirms a newfound respect for song and dance.

Oscar has a tendency in recent years to support more weighty performances. But Zeta-Jones beat out Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep, two of Hollywood's most respected actresses, both of whom turned in weighty, award-me performances in The Hours and Adaptation.

Some might argue that a post-Sept. 11 America was aching for escapist fantasy. But how, then, can you explain the success of Nazi-era epic The Pianist? Still, we might brace ourselves for a flood of musicals from producers with wandering tap shoes and tin ears.