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Precious cargo

HOLLYWOOD -- There's joy in Middle-earth tonight. "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" led the 76th annual Academy Awards with a record-tying 11 Oscars, including best picture and director. Vanquishing all opposition like the forces of Sauron, it won every category for which it was was nominated.

"It's a clean sweep!" exclaimed director Steven Spielberg as he looked inside the final envelope. "LOTR" tied with "Titanic" (1997) and "Ben-Hur" (1959) among all-time Oscar champions. It also became only the third movie to sweep every category in which it was nominated, after "Gigi'' (1958) and ''The Last Emperor'' (1987), which both went nine for nine.

"I'm so honored and relieved that the members of the academy that have supported us have seen past the trolls and the wizards and the Hobbits in recognizing fantasy this year,'' said director Peter Jackson. "LOTR" was also the first fantasy film to take the top prize.

Ebert: Precious cargo

Zwecker: A wide range of emotions in fashion

Rosenthal: Delay or not, Crystal was so five minutes ago 

Wiser: On their way in, stars do some E! commerce

The crowning chapter of the billion-dollar blockbuster trilogy was expected to win, and did, but most of its awards came in the technical categories, as Oscar host Billy Crystal quipped, "It's now official. There is no one left in New Zealand to thank."

In accepting the top prize, Peter Jackson tweaked Crystal's earlier remark by thanking even "the city councils of New Zealand," and added that Crystal "is welcome to come and make a film in New Zealand any time he wants."

The Closest Race

What was seen as the night's closest race, for best actor, was won by Sean Penn -- his first award after four nominations. The category was considered a toss-up between Penn and Bill Murray of "Lost in Translation."

Penn played a vengeful father in "Mystic River," which led in nominations in the major categories. Penn's speech, apart from a mild aside about weapons of mass destruction, was subdued and touching: "I really thank Clint Eastwood, professionally and humanly, for coming into my life."

The actor, often embroiled in controversy, thanked his wife, actress Robin Wright Penn, for "helping me on this roller-coaster ride I'm beginning into enjoy."

Charlize Theron, considered the closest thing to a sure thing after "LOTR," won as best actress for her searing performance as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Patty Jenkins' "Monster." It was a risky low-budget film by a first-time director, and Theron's physical transformation, using weight gain and specialized makeup, could have gone wrong -- but instead was completely convincing, as the beautiful actress from South Africa disappeared into the life of an abused and violent woman.

Among the many collaborators Theron mentioned, she gave a special thanks to makeup artist Toni G, "for transforming me," and added, "I know everyone in New Zealand has been thanked, so I want to thank everyone in South Africa, my homeland." She ended on the brink of tears, thanking "my mom, who sacrificed so much for me to live here."

Two more favorites, Tim Robbins and Renee Zellweger, won in the supporting actor categories.

Robbins, who won as expected, had made political comments on previous Oscar appearances, but this time simply ended with an appeal to victims of childhood abuse such as the character he plays in "Mystic River": "There is no shame in seeking help."

Zellweger won for "Cold Mountain," her third nomination, where she played a feisty frontier woman who steps in to help Nicole Kidman run a farm while all the men are off at war.

Zellweger's acceptance speech vibrated with her quick-talking, exuberant charm and then turned a little tearful as she thanked "my immigrant mom and dad -- thank you for never saying don't try."

Although "LOTR" piled up 11 Oscars, it was as if the film was such a complex achievement of special effects that the human elements got taken for granted. The result was that the middle of the telecast dragged somewhat as one platoon of "LOTR" technical artists after another marched onstage to thank director Jackson and long lists of their colleagues.

The "LOTR" lock on the craft awards was broken by Richard King's sound editing win for "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World." In addition, the cinematography prize went to Russell Boyd for his spectacular work on "Master and Commander," in a category in which "LOTR" was not nominated.

"LOTR" also won for adapted screenplay, for its conversion of the J.R.R. Tolkien classics into the epic trilogy. Authors Philippa Boyens and Jackson joined Fran Walsh (who also shared the best song Oscar with Howard Shore).

Sofia Coppola, who had just been onstage to present the Oscar for adapted screenplay, won for best original screenplay for "Lost in Translation." That made her family the second three-generation Oscar-winning family in history, after Walter, John and Anjelica Huston.

Her grandfather Carmine Coppola won for best musical score, her father Francis Ford Coppola is a multiple winner, and now Sofia joins what Francis calls "the family business."

The foreign-language film prize went to Canada's "The Barbarian Invasions," directed by Denys Arcand, a sad yet funny story of a raffish intellectual surrounded at his deathbed by his friends.

No surprise when "Finding Nemo," one of the year's top grossers, won as best animated film. But there was underlying tension, because everyone knew that the "Nemo" producing studio, Pixar, had recently ended its longtime association with Disney.

Although speeches by the presenters were advertised as being funnier this year, most of them, as usual, were boilerplate. There were exceptions: Robin Williams with his trademark linguistic mayhem, and Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson discussing Stiller's choice of a sweater instead of evening wear.

Two of the funniest men in Hollywood history were honored: 18-time Oscar host Bob Hope, recalled by Tom Hanks with a montage of emceeing appearances, and director Blake Edwards.

The Edwards segment was a comic and emotional high point of the broadcast.

Jim Carrey introduced the tribute, recalling that he went through "a long Cato phase" after seeing the director's "A Shot in the Dark" (1964). He recalled Edwards' dramatic films such as "Days of Wine and Roses" (1962) and "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (1961) and added, "Everything else made us laugh like hell."

The montage of comic Edwards moments, many starring Peter Sellers, proved him correct.

Edwards' entrance was a show-stopper: Now somewhat slowed by age and illness, he used a battery-powered wheelchair to race across the stage and crash through a wall, tottering back onstage with Carrey's help, covered with plaster dust and muttering, "Don't touch my Oscar."

After a standing ovation, his acceptance speech, instead of a long list of names, consisted of anecdotes about funny little things that happened on his sets. It was a magic moment of humor and emotion. Thanking his "friends and foes," he added, "I couldn't have done it without the foes."

Also touching: A special tribute to the late Katharine Hepburn by Julia Roberts, who recalled the actress' feisty, independent side. (The pants-wearing Hepburn, once asked by Barbara Walters if she even owned a skirt, replied, "I have one, Miss Walters. I'll wear it to your funeral.") The montage of clips from her films was a reminder of one of the longest and most versatile careers in the movies.

Then came another tribute, delivered by academy president Frank Pierson, to the late Gregory Peck, "a man of decency." The clips of course included moments from his most famous performance, as Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1962).

The Peck segment led into the annual montage honoring those in the Hollywood community who passed away during the year, from Art Carney, Buddy Hackett, Elia Kazan, Robert Stack, Alan Bates, Gregory Hines, Donald O'Connor, Ann Miller and Buddy Ebsen to (some wondered if she would be included) "Hitler's favorite filmmaker," Leni Riefenstahl.

Best documentary went to "The Fog of War," about the thoughts and memories of 85-year-old Robert McNamara. The "architect of Vietnam" was in a confessional and revelatory mood during the astonishing conversations of the film.

Director Errol Morris, often considered the leading documentarian of his generation, had never been nominated before, despite such major candidates as "The Thin Blue Line" (1988). In accepting, he was nothing if not frank: "I'd like to thank the academy for finally recognizing my films! I thought it would never happen!"

Morris added the evening's first overtly political comment: "Forty years ago this country went down a rabbit hole in Vietnam. I fear we're going down a rabbit hole again."

"I can't wait for his tax audit," ad-libbed Crystal.

High points of the musical performances: "Scarlet Tide," from "Cold Mountain," sung with solemn simplicity by Alison Krauss with composers Elvis Costello and T Bone Burnett as accompanists. And then Annie Lennox continuing the introspective mood with the ballad "Into the West," from "Lord of the Rings," which won.

Jack Black and Will Ferrell, giving the Oscar for best song, revealed that there are actually lyrics for that song the orchestra plays to hurry winners off stand, and they sang them: "No need to thank your parakeets ... You're boring."

Some might have wondered if that could be said for the telecast itself this year.

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