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"The Artist" and "Hugo": A very French Oscars

It was like an episode from "The Twilight Zone." The Academy Award for best picture went to a silent film in black and white. The unstoppable "The Artist," which had nothing going for it but boundless joy, defeated big-budgeted competitors loaded with expensive stars because … well, because it was so darned much fun. Its victory will send Hollywood back to its think-tanks.

"The Artist" and "Hugo" tied by winning five Oscars apiece, but "The Artist" won for the top categories of best film, actor and director, while "Hugo" cleaned up in the technical categories — appropriate for a movie that depended heavily on special effects and awesome visuals.

Both films evoke Hollywood's past. Michel Haza­navicius' "The Artist," a loose retelling of "Singin' in the Rain," was about the transition from silent to sound. Martin Scorsese's "Hugo," a lavish family fantasy about a young orphan who lives in a railroad station and ends up rescuing the work of the French inventor of the cinema, Georges Melies.

In the night's biggest upset, Meryl Streep picked up her third Oscar, winning best actress for her portrayal of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady." "When they called my name, I could hear half of America going, 'Oh, no — her again,' " said Streep, perhaps acknowledging the front runner had been Viola Davis for "The Help." Then she teared up while singling out for thanks her husband, sculptor Don Gummer, and "my other partner," the makeup/hair artist J. Roy Helland. He also won an Oscar for "The Iron Lady," and Streep noted they had started together on Broadway, and he'd done the hair and makeup on every single one of her films.

Best actor winner Jean Dujardin exclaimed: "I love your country," adding, "so many of you here tonight have inspired me." He also singled out the first Oscar host, silent-film star Douglas Fairbanks, for inspiring his performance in "The Artist."

The show unfolded as top-heavy with wins for "Hugo," which at one point led "The Artist" by five to one. Cinematographer Robert Richardson, who won his third Oscar for "Hugo," after previous wins for "JFK" and Scorsese's "The Aviator," summed up the telecast's early mood: "Marty, you're a genius as usual."

After years of plummeting ratings for boring Oscarcasts, this year's show was an unqualified improvement. The whole show seemed to hark back to Hollywood's golden age, in a theater dressed to resemble a traditional movie palace. Producers Brian Grazer and Don Mischer were brought in after original producer Brett Ratner was dropped after making a derogatory comment about gays. It seemed clear from the top that they were an inspired choice. The fast-paced show was enriched by classic film clips and testimony by stars talking about how the movies inspired them.

The pressure was on host Billy Crystal to come up with something great as the pinch-hitting emcee for Eddie Murphy — and he did, recruiting scenes, effects and stars from many of this year's nominated films. Then he added a song-and-dance number, a salute perhaps to "The Artist," incorporating the titles of all the best picture nominee. After last year's sleepwalking emcees Anne Hathaway and James Franco, Crystal was a shot in the arm, continuing with prepared sketches and zingers all evening. As probably the most popular Oscar emcee, he astonished the audience by topping himself.

A roar went up when Octavia Spencer's name was revealed as the supporting actress winner for "The Help." In tears at the podium, she began to thank people, and then, urged to wrap up, said, "I'm sorry. I'm freaking out." But she was clearly on the edge of saying what was really in her heart.

Spencer played one of the maids in an Alabama town whose experiences inform a best-seller by a local white woman. The film was disparaged by some African-American viewers for providing yet another screen portrait of blacks as domestics. But the characters involved, played by Spencer and Viola Davis, dramatized the hidden side of that stereotype.

The most-predicted win probably went to Christopher Plummer, supporting actor for "Beginners." At 82, the oldest winner in Oscar history, he observed: "You're only two years older than me, darling. Where have you been all my life?" He was greeted with a standing ovation, no surprise, because earlier he joked with a red carpet interviewer that if he didn't get a standing O, he would demand one.

The animated film Oscar went to "Rango," a high-energy comedy set in the Old West and toying with a playbook of Western cliches. It was the first animated film by Gore Verbinski, who directed Johnny Depp in the first three of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies. One of the film's distinctions was that, at a time when most animated films are shot in 3-D, it was unapologetically in 2-D.

The best documentary was "Undefeated," directed by Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin, the inspiring story of Bill Courtney, a high school football coach in North Memphis, Tenn. Unpaid, volunteering his time, he concerns himself not just with football but with the lives of his students. The film opens Friday in Chicago.

Woody Allen, who writes almost all of his own films, won for original screenplay for "Midnight in Paris," his entertaining fantasy about a modern writer magically transported back in time to the Paris of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. Allen has been nominated for 23 Oscars, but as expected, did not attend. The only Academy Award ceremony he has attended was in 2002, to urge the industry to continue filming in New York City after 9/11.

Best original song went Bret McKenzie's "Man or Muppet," from "The Muppets." Not one of the greatest songs in Oscar history, but its only competition in the underpopulated category was "Real in Rio," from the animated comedy "Rio." In his acceptance speech, McKenzie said: ""I was genuinely starstruck when I met Kermit the Frog. Like many stars here tonight, he's a lot shorter in real life." Then he added: "I'd like to thank Disney for still making movies with songs."

Every year, the Oscarcast seems to choose a go-to guy for dependable reaction shots. For years, that was Jack Nicholson. Last year, it was George Clooney. This year, the reactions mostly came from Scorsese, who was seated on the aisle and provided an early punch line for Crystal's song-and-dance routine. Two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks also provided comedy relief in his presentation speech when he introduced a Mickey Rooney lookalike as a veteran seat-filler.

Having decided to ditch the traditional production numbers for the nominated best songs, Grazer and Mischer substituted a production number to end them all: a Cary Grant in "North by Northwest"-inspired performance by Cirque du Soleil, which occupies the former Kodak Pavilion most of the year.

Monday morning's breakfast topic: How do we do the Hollywood remake of a silent film where everyone spoke English, and all but two of the actors were Americans?

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