"The Artist," the black-and-white silent film about Hollywood's rocky transition to the "talkies," took the biggest honors at the 84th Academy Awards on Sunday night, including best picture, director and lead actor.
It was a night filled with firsts — and an especially good night for the French.
"The Artist" was the first silent film to nab best picture honors since the first Academy Awards were held in 1929, when "Wings" took the top prize. And for the first time in Academy Awards history, a French actor (Jean Dujardin) and a French filmmaker (Michel Hazanavicius) took the academy's top acting and directing awards.
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"I love your country!" said Dujardin as he accepted the award for playing a famous silent film star whose career hits the skids when talkies take over.
Dujardin and Hazanavicius are household names in France but were unknown to American audiences until "The Artist" opened in theaters in the United States late last year and began sweeping up during the awards season. (On Saturday, both men won in their respective categories at the Film Independent Spirit Awards.)
"The Artist" went into the ceremony held at the Hollywood & Highland Center and broadcast live on ABC with 10 nominations. It won five, including costume design and original score. Conventional wisdom had pitted it against "Hugo," Martin Scorsese's valentine to cinema, which scored 11 nominations. It also took five awards, all in technical categories: cinematography, art direction, sound editing, sound mixing and visual effects.
Meryl Streep won best actress — and a standing ovation — for her uncanny portrayal of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady."
Streep has been nominated 17 times, more than any other performer. But she's won only three Oscars, and the last time was 29 years ago for lead actress in "Sophie's Choice." Streep looked shocked when her named was called, especially because Viola Davis was considered the front-runner for "The Help." Davis walked over and hugged Streep before the latter headed up to accept her Oscar. "The Iron Lady" also won for makeup for Mark Coulier and J. Roy Helland.
In another win for the history books, Christopher Plummer, 82, became the oldest person to win an acting Oscar. He won supporting actor for playing a widower who comes out of the closet in "Beginners."
"You're only two years older than me, darling; where have you been all my life?" the debonaire Plummer said as he held aloft the statuette. He joked that he has spent his life rehearsing his acceptance speech. "I'm so proud to be in your company," he said to his fellow nominees. Plummer's win seemed preordained: He had dominated this awards season in the category.
Octavia Spencer won supporting actress for playing a sassy maid who takes delicious revenge in the 1960s-era drama "The Help."
"Thank you, world!" said Spencer, who was crying and shaking. The movie based upon the bestselling novel about the lives of black domestics in the pre-Civil Rights-era South has turned Spencer from character actress into a star since she has won the lion's share of awards this season. She was so overcome she had to be helped onstage by the film's writer-director, Tate Taylor, to a long and boisterous ovation.
Angelina Jolie wasn't a nominee, but she still caused a stir, coming perilously close to flashing the audience when she strutted onstage in a black gown with a thigh-high slit. As it that wasn't enough, she leaned back into a pose that exposed that same slender thigh, leaving little for the imagination and drawing a collective gasp from the audience.
She was there to hand out two Oscars. One was for adapted screenplay, to Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon & Jim Rash for "The Descendants." The other went to Woody Allen. It marked his fourth Academy Award, and third for original screenplay, for his romantic comedy "Midnight in Paris." It was his first Oscar in 25 years, when he won in this category for 1986's "Hannah and Her Sisters." Of course, the notoriously awards shy Allen was not present Sunday.
In other awards, filmmakers Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin and producer Rich Middlemas took the trophy for the football documentary "Undefeated," and director Gore Verbinski won animated picture for "Rango." Film editing went to Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall for "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." Iran's heartbreaking family drama "A Separation" won foreign language film, the first time a film from that country nabbed the honor. The award was accepted by writer-director Asghar Farhadi.
Bret McKenzie won original song for "Man or Muppet" from "The Muppets." Live action short went to Terry George and his daughter Oorlagh George for "The Shore." The honor for documentary short went to Daniel Junge and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy for "Saving Face," and the award for animated short went to William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg for "The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore."
As for "Hugo," Robert Richardson won for cinematography, the husband-and-wife team of production designer Dante Ferretti and set decorator Francesca Lo Schiavo won for art direction, Philip Stockton and Eugene Gearty won for sound editing, Tom Fleischman and John Midgley won for sound mixing, and for Rob Legato, Joss Williams, Ben Grossmann and Alex Henning won for visual effects.
For "The Artist," Ludovic Bource won for original score, and Mark Bridges won for costume design.
The night kicked off with Billy Crystal returning as host for the ninth time after far too long an absence.
Crystal hasn't hosted since 2004 — and he wasn't supposed to host this year. It was supposed to be Eddie Murphy. But Murphy quit, following producer-director Brett Ratner out the door. Ratner had been tapped to produce the Oscars along with Don Mischer but Ratner was ousted after he used a gay slur.
The show opener played off this riff, starting with a mock torture scene in which Crystal was forced to take on the role as host. That catapulted him into scenes from some of the top nominated movies of the year — and a lip lock with George Clooney and a chance meeting with Tom Cruise. That followed with a song-and-dance medley poking gentle fun of all the best picture nominees — as well as a jab at the show itself: Nothing takes the sting out of these tough economic times like watching a bunch of millionaires giving golden statues to each other, he said.
Only one other person has hosted Hollywood's biggest night more time than Crystal — Bob Hope. Hope did it 18 times, so Crystal has a ways to go to break that record.