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Oscar: "This is my final answer," as "Slumdog" sweeps with eight

The slumdog didn’t stop at winning a million, but zoomed straight on up to Oscar gold Sunday night: “Slumdog Millionaire,” perhaps the most literal rags-to-riches story ever told, swept the night, winning the Academy Award as the best picture of 2008, and seven more Oscars.

Proud and elated Indians in the audience formed a parade to the podium, as producer Christian Colson and Danny Boyle, who also won best director, called them onstage. There was a radiant, smiling closeup of Ayush Mahesh Khedekar, who played the film’s hero at his youngest.

The win came at the end of the most entertaining and innovative Oscarcast I’ve seen, which put the orchestra upstage, moved the front rows close and did it all under a glittering arch inspired by the old Coconut Grove, where the first Oscars were held. Host Hugh Jackman joked, sang and danced through his emcee duties and moved up several levels in global stardom.

Sean Penn won as best actor for “Milk,” the story of the nation’s first openly gay man elected as a public official. “For those who saw the signs of hatred as our cars drove in tonight,” he said, referring to anti-gay protesters outside the Kodak Theatre, “I think this is a good time for them to reflect on their shame.” The category was widely thought to be a showdown between Penn and Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler.” Penn closed by saying: “Mickey Rourke rises again, and he’s my brother.”

Kate Winslet’s victory as best actress for “The Reader” was joyfully hailed by the audience; it came after five earlier nominations. “I would be lying,” she said, “if I didn’t admit I gave my first version of this speech when I was 8 years old, standing in front of the mirror with a shampoo bottle.” She asked her dad to whistle so she could wave to her parents from the stage.

Best supporting actor went, as widely expected, to the late Heath Ledger, for his astonishing work as the Joker in “The Dark Knight.” His father, mother and sister accepted on his behalf. There were tears in the eyes of many audience members. “The Dark Knight” won one other Oscar, for sound editing, but was additionally consoled recently by passing the $1 billion mark at the box office.

Penelope Cruz was named best supporting actress for her role as a woman who schemes to keep her man in Woody Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” Growing up in Spain, she said, she thought the Oscar ceremony “was a moment of unity for the world because art, in any form, is and has been and will always be our universal language.”

Her award came as the academy unveiled a heartwarming new format to present the acting nominees: Five of the former winners in each category singled out the nominees for praise — much better than just reading out their names — and the reaction shots of the nominees in the first row were touching. The star power onstage was dazzling. This new approach was a masterstroke.

Those presentations, Hugh Jackman’s virtuoso opening act and the device of a script typing itself to introduce presenters Steve Martin and Tina Fey for the screenwriting categories achieved something no previous show has ever done. I found myself actually expecting to have a great time, and wondering what other devices had been invited to introduce categories.

The original screenplay Oscar went to Dustin Lance Black for “Milk,” who said the film’s subject “might want me to say to all of the gay and lesbian kids out there tonight, who have been told that they are ‘less than’ by their churches, by the government or by their families, that you are beautiful, wonderful creatures of value.”

Adapted screenplay was awarded to Simon Beaufoy for “Slumdog Millionaire,,” the first of its eventual eight wins. He adapted from the international best-selling novel Q and A by Vikas Swarup, who has been an Indian diplomat in England, the United States and South Africa.

Wall-E,” about a lovable robot trash collector, was another widely predicted winner, for animated feature. That category was introduced as WALL-E itself found and viewed a video of the nominees in a trash heap. Its director, Andrew Stanton, followed an ancient Oscar tradition by thanking “my high school drama teacher Phil Perry for 28 years ago casting me as Barnaby in ‘Hello, Dolly!’ ”

French wire walker Philippe Petit was onstage to accept the Oscar for “Man on Wire,” the documentary about his walk between the World Trade Towers. He promised the shortest speech in Oscar history (“Yes!”) and then kept right on talking, made a coin disappear and balanced the Oscar on his chin.

Comedy icon Jerry Lewis drew a standing ovation for his Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. He looked his age (82) and sounded slightly winded, but after his 20-year ordeal of health troubles, he was still filled with spirit, and still with the “Bellboy” haircut.

Japan’s “Departures” was the somewhat surprising winner of the foreign film category. Unseen in the United States, except at the 2008 Hawaii Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award, it tells the story of an unemployed cellist who finds work as a funeral expediter and counselor. Credit for the award is perhaps due to an academy reform requiring all voters to have seen every film in the category.

Queen Latifah elevated the annual “In Memoriam” segment with a tender rendition of “I’ll Be Seeing You.” It ended with perfectly chosen dialogue by Paul Newman. The late Gene Siskel was not included 10 years ago (Whoopi Goldberg ad-libbed his name) because all the departed were required to be academy members. This year, in a surprising departure from policy, the montage included beloved film critic and artist Manny Farber. I wrote about him here.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” at one point a top contender for best film, received awards only in the technical categories, including art direction, makeup and visual effects. “The Duchess,” a gorgeous period picture starring Keira Knightley, won for costume design.

Sunday, writing about the Indie Spirits Awards, I mentioned its goof on Joaquin Phoenix’s “Letterman” appearance and said that was something you’d never see at the Oscars. This reinvented show proved me wrong, as a bearded Ben Stiller came out with Natalie Portman and mumbled his lines.

“Slumdog,” which also won Oscars for cinematography, sound mixing and editing, was a popular winner. A project passed over by many major studios, it won the hearts of moviegoers and was a good winner in industry terms because infrequent moviegoers will now see it and be rewarded by an uplifting experience.

In the streets of Mumbai, where there had been public prayer vigils on behalf of the film, there was rejoicing. The young Indian actors who starred in the film’s early scenes were in the audience after starring earlier in their red carpet arrivals. “This is history being handed over to me,” said Resul Pookutty, the “Slumdog” winner for sound mixing, dedicating the award to India, home of Bollywood, the world’s largest film industry. “You beautify the sky,” Boyle said, thanking his Mumbai collaborators.

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