On an evening suffused with nostalgia, "The Artist," a nearly wordless, black-and-white romance celebrating Hollywood's formative era, won five Academy Awards, including best picture, on Sunday night. The French production also took home directing honors for Michel Hazanavicius, the lead actor award for Jean Dujardin and trophies for costume design and score.
Producer Thomas Langmann dedicated his best picture Oscar to his filmmaker father, who died in 2009. "Thank you from the bottom of my heart ... not only because we have received tonight a prize any filmmaker would dream to receive," he said, "but because you are offering me the opportunity to pay tribute to the member of this academy who I miss so much, Claude Berri."
The night's biggest surprise came in the best actress race, which Meryl Streep, 62, won for portraying Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady." Many Oscar-watchers had expected that trophy would go to Viola Davis from "The Help." It was the third Oscar victory for Streep — she won in 1980 for "Kramer vs. Kramer" and in 1983 for "Sophie's Choice," and has been nominated 12 times since then, but had not taken home a statuette.
"Oh, come on," Streep said of the standing ovation she received. "When they called my name, I had this feeling I could hear half of America say, 'Oh, no, not her again,' " Streep said. "But whatever."
Davis' "Help" castmate Octavia Spencer took home the best supporting actress statuette for her role as Minnie Jackson. She too received a standing ovation, and she thanked longtime friend and "The Help" author Kathryn Stockett, who imagined Spencer in the role when she wrote the novel. "Thank you for putting me with the hottest guy in the room," Spencer said, looking at her statuette.
The wins for "The Artist" marked a fitting if unsurprising conclusion to a ceremony that paid homage to the history of show business. The more-than-three-hour broadcast was filled with skits and reminiscences about movie memories. The theater at Hollywood & Highland Center was fashioned as an old-styled movie house; costumed ushers handed out popcorn to the black-tied audience and a montage highlighted some of the best movies of the last several decades.
The five wins for "The Artist" put it in a tie for the most triumphs with Martin Scorsese's 3-D family film "Hugo," another valentine to cinema's early days. But all the wins for "Hugo," whose story revolves around an orphan and the pioneering director Georges Méliès, came in technical categories.
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Dujardin defeated George Clooney from "The Descendants" and Brad Pitt from "Moneyball" in the lead actor category, and in keeping with the night's theme of nostalgia, the French actor made reference to the first host of the Academy Awards.
"In 1929 it wasn't Billy Crystal but Douglas Fairbanks who hosted the Oscars," Dujardin said. "It cost $5 to attend and it lasted 15 minutes."
That 1929 ceremony was the last time the academy had honored a silent film as best picture, when the group named the World War I fighter pilot tale "Wings," as best picture. (The first ceremony honored films from both 1927 and 1928.)
Beyond the overarching theme of nostalgia, race and age played a large role throughout the night with Crystal making sometimes awkward jokes about both.
After Spencer received her award, Crystal quipped: "After I saw 'The Help,' I wanted to hug the first black woman I saw, which in Beverly Hills is about a 45-minute drive."
At 82, Christopher Plummer became the oldest performer ever to win an acting Oscar, taking the supporting actor honor for playing an elderly man who comes out as gay following his wife's death in the film "Beginners." "You're only two years older than me, darling," the veteran actor said, holding up his statuette. "Where have you been all my life?"
Like Streep, Woody Allen ended a long Oscar drought. The 76-year-old writer-director took home his first Academy Award in more than 20 years for his original script for "Midnight in Paris," but not even his fourth win could lure the filmmaker to the show. "I tried for a little bit to get him to come, but he thinks it's all..." said Tom Bernard, whose Sony Pictures Classics distributed Allen's time-traveling comedy. "He thinks the best movie of the year is 'A Separation,' " Bernard added of the Iranian drama that was named top foreign language film.
"The Descendants" writers Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash won best adapted screenplay for bringing Kaui Hart Hemmings' novel about a Hawaiian man's collapsing personal life to the screen.
While much of the night was predictable, several early awards went to unexpected recipients.
The editor prize was a shock when Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" beat out the editors of "The Artist." Only three times in the last decade has the film that won the editing honor lost the best picture contest; "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" was not even among the nine best picture nominees.
"The Artist" did take home the costume design prize for Mark Bridges' 1920s tuxedos, suits, gowns and flapper dresses. The film's composer, Ludovic Bource, won the Academy Award for original score, despite having no formal training in the discipline. "All the work I did on 'The Artist' was a declaration of love for American work and cinema," Bource said backstage through an interpreter.
Scorsese's "Hugo," which entered the ceremony with 11 nominations — the most of any film — won five technical awards.
In a mild surprise, the film adaptation of Brian Selznick's book "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" won the night's first award, for cinematography, with Robert Richardson beating out Guillaume Schiffman ("The Artist") and Emmanuel Lubezki ("The Tree of Life").
"Hugo" also won for art direction, sound mixing, sound editing and visual effects — triumphing over the favored "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2" and "Rise of the Planet of the Apes."
For best feature animation, Gore Verbinski's "Rango," starring Johnny Depp, topped two DreamWorks Animation films— "Kung Fu Panda 2" and "Puss in Boots"—and two independently financed movies. "It helps when you're friends with Johnny Depp," explained Verbinski, backstage after winning the Oscar, of his lead "Rango" voice.
"Undefeated," a look at an underdog high school football coach in Tennessee, was honored for documentary feature. "The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore" won for best animated short film. "Saving Face," which tracks the quest for justice and medical care from Pakistani women whose faces have been disfigured by acid attacks, won in the documentary short category.
The prize in the live-action short category went to "The Shore," by "Hotel Rwanda" screenwriter Terry George, which recounts a father's return to Ireland as he mends a damaged childhood friendship.
Crystal stepped in as a replacement host in November, after comedian Eddie Murphy left the emcee job when producer Brett Ratner stepped aside after making an anti-gay remark and talking in detail about his sex life on a radio show.
Times staff writer Deborah Vankin contributed to this report