Oscar went international with a vengeance on Sunday night, as the underclass-boy-makes-good fable Slumdog Millionaire took home eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Director (Danny Boyle) and Adapted Screenplay (Simon Beaufoy). In addition, three of the four acting prizes went to foreigners. For England's Kate Winslet, her sixth Oscar nomination was the charm after being named Best Actress for her role as a concentration camp guard in The Reader. Spanish enchantress Penélope Cruz won Best Supporting Actress for her fiery painter in Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona, making her the first Spanish actress to win an acting Oscar. And in the ceremony's most emotionally honest moment, the mother, father and sister of the late Australian star Heath Ledger accepted his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in The Dark Knight. "We have been truly overwhelmed by the honor and respect being bestowed upon him with this award," his mother said. (See pictures of Ledger.)
In the 3½-hr. show, hosted by Australia star Hugh Jackman the first non-American (and non-comedian) to emcee the event in 22 years, and the first-ever Aussie the one glamour award won by an American was Best Actor; it went to Sean Penn, who played gay-rights activist Harvey Milk in the biopic Milk. This was the one half-surprise in an evening of few big upsets. The oddsmakers had Penn tabbed as a slight underdog to Golden Globe winner Mickey Rourke, whose performance in The Wrestler had all the earmarks of a sentimental Hollywood comeback. (See pictures of Rourke.)
Viewed as a whole, the top awards spanned genres that represent commercial moviemaking as it is, was and would like to be. The "is": The Dark Knight, which has earned more than a billion dollars at the worldwide box office (in the process becoming the second highest grosser in film history, after Titanic), and which represents a big-budget action picture as only Hollywood can make them. The "would like to be": the message films Milk and The Reader, which hammer home Hollywood's liberal views on gays and its unslakable fascination with the Holocaust. And the "was": Slumdog. With its skimpy budget ($14 million) and mongrel pedigree, it might seem like the odd dog out; but the movie is really classic Hollywood not just in its inspirational story of a poor kid pursuing an impossible dream, but in its goal of keeping a mass audience entertained.
If Hollywood nativists are rankled that the top prize and headlines went to a foreign movie, the feeling may be similar on the Indian subcontinent, where Slumdog's box office take hasn't even approached that of any robust local film. As pleased as they might be about the picture's international éclat, the folks in Mumbai also realize that the first "Bollywood" production to make a major impact at the Academy was written, produced and directed by Englishmen subjects of the old Raj. In the 1980s, Gandhi, another film about Indians and made by colonialists, took Best Picture. This time the entire cast was Indian or of Indian heritage; none of them had made an English-language feature film before; and three of the Oscar-winners were Indian: superstar composer A.R. Rahman, the renowned lyricist Gulzar and one of the sound mixers, Resul Pookutty. Rahman remembered his roots by hailing "all the people from Mumbai and the essence of the film, which is about optimism and the power of hope and our lives." (Watch director Boyle answer readers' questions.)
The biggest upset in the specialty categories was the Best Foreign Language Film win for the Japanese Departures, about an out-of-work musician who takes a job preparing corpses at a funeral home. It emerged victorious over, among others, the French school drama and Palme d'Or winner The Class (Entre les Murs) and the odds-on-favorite, Waltz with Bashir, the Israeli animated documentary. Both films had earned critical raves in the States. Nobody, though, was startled that the Oscar for Best Animated Feature went to WALL-E, or that Man on Wire was voted Best Documentary Feature. And The Curious Case of Benjamin Button converted just three of its 13 nominations all in the technical fields.
Hoping to zazz up what has been a predictable show with precipitously declining ratings in the U.S. in recent years, the Academy gave the job to producers Bill Condon and Larry Mark, the men behind the Oscar-winning movie Dreamgirls. They commissioned Aussie director Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge!) to confect an elaborate production number proclaiming the Musical Is Back. They also trotted out a retinue of Oscar-winning royalty Sophia Loren, Shirley MacLaine, Robert De Niro and Anthony Hopkins to give individual tributes to the nominees in the acting categories; the ploy was sweet at first but ultimately laborious, as the honorees squirmed in their closeups at the fulsome praise lavished on them. (See pictures of the best Oscar dresses.)
Some viewers eagerly anticipate squirming; that's the fun of live TV. On Sunday night the big chances for it rested upon Rourke his acceptance speech the night before at the Independent Spirit Awards was five minutes of wondrously ribald thank-yous and genial insults and Jerry Lewis, the legendary, infamous clown, now 82, who would receive an honorary award. Would the long-ago star-director of imaginative, raucous comedies prance out and shout "Mel-vin!"? Would he, bearing in mind how he's been scorned by mainstream U.S. critics but revered in the pages of Cahiers du Cinema, give his acceptance speech entirely in French? Would he lecture the Academy because it cited him for his humanitarian efforts and not his comic genius?
Alas, non. A subdued Lewis spoke only briefly, in a grateful and serious, almost stricken tone. Veteran Oscar watchers hoped in vain to glimpse the Jerry who, as the Academy Awards host 50 years ago, cavorted and mugged for nearly 20 minutes when he was told the show had run short. This year, the Oscar show ended right on time. But the odds are that, 50 years from now, no one will remember much about it except that the underdog Slumdog won.