The effects-driven Roman spectacle "Gladiator" slew the crouching tiger and a trio of other celluloid adversaries Sunday evening, winning five Oscars, including best picture, at the 73rd Academy Awards.
In an evening of stunning surprises, none was bigger than double nominee Steven Soderbergh's win for best director for "Traffic." It marked only the fifth time that a director who was not honored by his peers in the Directors Guild of America grabbed the Academy Award.
Going into the event, Taiwan-born director Ang Lee was considered the favorite in the category, having won the DGA's award earlier this month for his Chinese martial arts fantasy "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." Many felt that bespectacled Soderbergh, 38, who also was nominated for directing the best-picture nominee "Erin Brockovich," would cancel himself out by splitting the academy's vote.
No one film dominated the evening's proceedings, which took place at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles in a 3½-hour ceremony telecast live by ABC and seen by an estimated worldwide audience of 800 million. After the five awards won by "Gladiator," "Traffic" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" tied with four.
Besides director, "Traffic" picked up Oscars for adapted screenplay, Del Toro's acting and editing.
"Crouching Tiger" was named best foreign-language film and won for cinematography, art direction and original score.
Because of the wide-open nature of this year's Oscar race, Hollywood studios had waged multimillion-dollar, political-style campaigns on behalf of their nominees, all in an attempt to grab the attention of academy voters. Some put the figure for advertising and publicity as high as $60 million.
With its artful use of computer wizardry and special effects, "Gladiator" resurrected a genre that saw its heyday more than 40 years ago with such films as "Ben-Hur" and "Spartacus." In addition to best picture and actor, the film collected Oscars for costume design, visual effects and sound.
No one appeared more flabbergasted than Crowe, who seemed dazed when he heard his name announced by Hilary Swank, last year's best-actress winner.
As he stood on stage, occasionally rubbing his forehead nervously, Crowe, who played the heroic general-turned-slave Maximus in the box-office hit, gave thanks to his grandfather, an uncle and his parents, whom he said, "I don't thank enough."
Then the 36-year-old New Zealand-born actor made reference to youngsters who, like himself, might think winning an Oscar seems "vaguely ludicrous and completely unattainable."
Holding the golden statuette as he did his heavy sword in the movie, Crowe remarked: "This moment is directly connected to those childhood imaginings, and anybody who's on the downside of advantage and relying purely on courage, it's possible."
While most observers predicted Roberts, 33, would take home her first Oscar for "Erin Brockovich," the actress was visibly moved and almost gleeful as she held her Oscar and waved to fans in the balcony.
Flashing her megawatt smile, Roberts exclaimed: "I love the world! I'm so happy! Thank you!"
But though she seemed to thank everyone she ever worked with, Roberts did forget to thank the person who inspired the movie -- the real-life legal researcher Erin Brockovich. Backstage, the actress apologized for "shamefully" omitting her alter ego.
Roberts, in many ways, is finally enjoying the critical acclaim that has eluded her, despite her unrivaled dominance of worldwide box office among all other actresses.
Under the steady guidance of director Soderbergh, Roberts was able to stretch her talents beyond the romantic comedy genre that has dominated her career for the last decade, since she became a star in "Pretty Woman."
Decked out in spiked heels, form-fitting miniskirts and displaying ample cleavage, Roberts seemed to embody the real Brockovich.
In one of the evening's early upsets, dark horse Harden beat out such pre-Oscar favorites as Kate Hudson and Dame Judi Dench with her performance as the painter Lee Krasner, the strong-willed wife and fierce protector of tormented abstract Expressionist painter Jackson Pollock in "Pollock."
With a jubilant Ed Harris -- her director and nominated co-star raising his arms in victory in the audience -- the gracious 41-year-old Harden said: "What a thrill. Ed Harris, thank you for inviting me to share your passion. You are a brave director and even a braver actor and I love you."
Del Toro's win as the conflicted Mexican police detective fighting a drug cartel in the gritty thriller "Traffic" was not as surprising, but many saw British actor Albert Finney of "Erin Brockovich" as the favorite going into the evening.
Del Toro, 34, used his moment in the spotlight to thank the residents of Nogalas, Ariz., and Nogalas, Mexico, the two locations where he spent much of his time filming "Traffic." Backstage, he expanded on why he mentioned them. "As an actor, the location is so important and the people were so humble, so beautiful that it really made it easy for me to get into it. And I think it helped all the actors and I think it helped the film. That's what I meant."
One of the evening's sentimental favorites, pop music icon Bob Dylan, won the best-song Oscar for "Things Have Changed," the tune he wrote for the black comedy "Wonder Boys."
"Oh good God, this is amazing," said Dylan, more animated than usual after he performed the song live by satellite on the Oscar telecast from Sydney, Australia.
The show began on a galactic note, as astronauts aboard the international space station Alpha sent their greetings via television from 235 miles above the Earth -- a cutout of host Steve Martin standing beside them.
Martin, the "wild and crazy" comedian who once trolled for laughs with a fake arrow though his head, delivered a dry but cutting monologue that left Crowe looking like he just lost to the lions when Martin cracked that even though best-actress nominee Ellen Burstyn had gained 30 pounds and looked 20 years older for her role in "Requiem for a Dream," she would still be "hit on" by the actor, who recently had a well-publicized fling with actress Meg Ryan.
Later in the telecast, Martin again needled Crowe, announcing that the FBI had announced the kingpin of a much-publicized kidnapping plot against the actor -- it was fellow nominee Tom Hanks. Without missing a beat, Hanks bowed his head in shame and embarrassment and whispered, "I'm sorry" to Crowe as the audience howled with laughter.
In the writing categories, Stephen Gaghan, who has made public his one-time drug addiction, won the Oscar for adapted screenplay for "Traffic" while writer-director Cameron Crowe was a surprise winner in the original screenplay category for "Almost Famous," his semi-autobiographical comedy about his experiences as a teen-age writer for "Rolling Stone" in the 1970s.
"This movie was a love letter to music and my family," Crowe said.
Meeting the press backstage, Gaghan recalled the demons that possessed him before he turned his life around.
"I was killing myself in the most cowardly way imaginable. ... One day I just hit the wall and I reached out my hand and I said, 'I need help' and help was there in so many forms. And these people taught me an entirely new way of living. I cannot tell you how much better it is."
This year's recipient of the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award was veteran Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis, who recently produced "Hannibal" and previously won Oscars for the classic Fellini films "La Strada" and "Nights of Cabiria."
He had a message for the Hollywood studios: "Don't be afraid of young talent. New minds, young minds are the future of tomorrow's films. And remember, even Thalberg himself was only 23 years old when he ran MGM."
An honorary Oscar was also bestowed upon 86-year-old British cinematographer and director Jack Cardiff, whose career behind the camera spans nearly 70 years. He was responsible for such early inventive Technicolor films as "Black Narcissus," for which he won the Oscar, and "The Red Shoes" and "Stairway to Heaven."
Julie Andrews presented the evening's final honorary award to screenwriter and producer Ernest Lehman, who penned such films as "Sweet Smell of Success," "North by Northwest" and "The Sound of Music."
"We have suffered anonymity far too long," the 85-year-old Lehman said of fellow screenwriters. "A film production begins and ends with the screenplay."
As usual, the red carpet arrivals drew "oohs" and "aahs" from fans as actresses decked out in designer originals from Valentino to Chanel posed for the paparazzi and various television entertainment reporters.
But perhaps the most outrageous outfit of the night was the stuffed swan -- its head curled around her neck -- draping Icelandic pop star Bjork, who was there to perform "I've Seen it All," the best song from "Dancer in the Dark" that she co-wrote.