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'Crash'-ing a joyous Oscar party

Oscar's lead performers of the year: Philip Seymour Hoffman ("Capote") and Reese Witherspoon ("Walk the Line").

LOS ANGELES - "Crash," a film about the complexities of racism in the American melting pot, was named the year's best picture here Sunday at the 78th Academy Awards. It tells interlocking stories about many of America's ethnic groups, and cops and criminals, the rich and the poor, the powerful and powerless, all involved in racism. The film's circular structure shows how a victim on one day could be a victimizer on another, and doesn't let anyone off the hook.

In an evening when no single film dominated, four films took three Oscars apiece: "Crash," "Brokeback Mountain," "King Kong" and "Memoirs of a Geisha." The win for "Crash" was a surprise to the Oscar audience (though I predicted it). "Brokeback Mountain" was thought to be the favorite going into the ceremony. It won other major awards, including one for its director, Ang Lee. The two films both won writing Oscars, "Crash" for original screenplay, "Brokeback Mountain" for adaptation. Although actor Don Cheadle, one of the producers of "Crash," was not among those onstage to collect the Oscar, the award was a personal victory, because he was instrumental in assembling the large cast of stars who worked for far less than their usual salaries in a labor of love. The win also extended the winning streak of its writer-director Paul Haggis, who wrote the nominated screenplay for last year's best film, "Million Dollar Baby." His success comes after a long career as a writer for TV and films. When he won the Independent Spirit Award on Saturday for "best first film" as a director, the 52-year-old acknowledged "the other boys and girls" who were nominated for their first efforts.

In an evening that saw upsets and surprises, two of the victories were widely expected: Philip Seymour Hoffman, named best actor for "Capote," and Reese Witherspoon, best actress for "Walk the Line." Hoffman led up to the Oscars by winning every other acting award in sight, and when he won at the Independent Spirit Awards, he said, "I've been given enough." But the big prize was still ahead. "I'm overwhelmed," he told the academy audience. Thanking his friends, he quoted Van Morrison's lyrics: "I love, I love, I love." He thanked his mother: "She brought up four kids alone. She took me to my first play, she stayed up with me and watched the NCAA Final Four - we're at the party, ma!" Hoffman's reputation has been made as a superb character actor, playing varieties of strange characters in films like "Boogie Nights," "Magnolia" and "Happiness." His starring role as author Truman Capote was all the more impressive because he didn't look much like the famous Capote and yet was able to occupy the character fully. Witherspoon was a wildly popular winner for the audience at the Kodak Theatre. Her screen career began in 1991 with perhaps the sweetest first kiss in movie history, in "The Man in the Moon." The 29-year-old has been a charmer ever since, in films like "Election," "Legally Blonde" and "Vanity Fair," but in "Walk the Line," she found serious notes and a new dramatic range in her performance as country singer June Carter Cash. "Oh, my goodness!" she said. "Never thought I'd be here in my entire life, growing up in Tennessee!" Her co-star and co-nominee Joaquin Phoenix looked on proudly as she singled him out ("He put his heart and soul into this performance") and musician T-Bone Burnett ("who helped me realize my lifelong dream of being a country and Western singer!"). And she teared up as she acknowledged her family, saying she saw a lot of the qualities of her grandmother in the character of June Carter Cash. She quoted the legendary singer: "I'm just tryin' to matter," and said that was her own goal in life. It was an extraordinary Oscarcast for several reasons. Not just for the quality of the winners, not just for Jon Stewart's triumph as emcee, but for the legendary director Robert Altman's startling revelation that he had a heart transplant more than 10 years ago. In an industry where rumors of bad health can end careers, it was a statement of unusual courage, typical of Altman. The overall tone of the Oscarcast was - well, the word is joyous. Perhaps keyed by Stewart's own high spirits and the infectious grins inspired by George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Ben Stiller, Lily Tomlin, Three 6 Mafia and Dolly Parton, the evening was warm and upbeat, and more relaxed than many Oscarcasts. There were a lot of questions about the choice of Stewart as emcee, and he answered them all almost immediately, with an opening monologue that was on target, topical and funny. After scenes of other hosts, from Billy Crystal to David Letterman, turning down the job, Stewart walked on the stage as if it was his second home. His biggest laugh, referring to the singer Bjork and her famous dress designed like a swan: "Bjork couldn't be here this year. She was trying on her Oscar dress, and Dick Cheney shot her." Another good line, about the film George Clooney directed, co-wrote and appeared in: "'Good Night, and Good Luck' was not just Mr. Murrow's sign-off, but how Mr. Clooney ends all of his dates." Throughout the show, Stewart's one-liners and zingers were perfectly timed and almost always on target. After one of the packages of classic clips: "I can't wait for the tribute to Oscar's greatest montages!" After all of the speculation about the selection of Stewart as a host, his performance deserves perhaps the highest tribute: He was as relaxed, amusing and at home as Johnny Carson. The assignment is his again in future years, and in one night he positioned himself as the likely heir of a major late-night network talk slot. In the night's first big prize, George Clooney won as best supporting actor for his CIA agent in "Syriana," a film where none of the characters fully understood the situation and his agent never knew what role he was really playing for the agency. His Oscar might also have been in recognition of his role in the best picture nominee "Good Night, and Good Luck," the story of the battle between broadcaster Edward R. Murrow and Sen. Joseph McCarthy. He directed, co-wrote and co-starred in that film. The Oscar came after a year in which both films solidified his reputation as a serious film artist. "Unless we all played the same role, I don't know how you can compare these performances," he said of his other nominees, joking that the Oscar would forever change how he is referred to: Now he'll be an Oscar winner "in addition to being the sexist man alive in 1997, and a former Batman." As he gave praise to the academy for its attention to social issues over the years, Clooney was notable in his acceptance speech for avoiding all the usual boring lists of thank-yous to agents, writers, co-producers and so on. His speech was an Oscar rarity: actually interesting. Rachel Weisz won for best supporting actress for "The Constant Gardener," playing a woman who is murdered in Africa after learning of a conspiracy to test dangerous drugs on unsuspecting victims. The film, based on a novel by John Le Carre, drew admiring reviews, and Weisz's performance made a deep impression, even though it exists mostly in flashbacks as her husband (Ralph Fiennes) tries to solve the mystery of her death. The actress, seven months pregnant, was radiant in her acceptance speech, honoring Le Carre for "this unflinching, angry story." Ang Lee was a popular winner as best director, for "Brokeback Mountain." "I want to thank two people who don't even exist," he said, "except for the artistry of Annie Proulx, Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry. Their names are Ennis and Jack." Those characters, he said, taught us about great love itself." "I made this film right after my father passed away, and more than any other, I made this film for him."

Paul Haggis, who shared his "Crash" award with Bobby Moresco, quoted Bertold Brecht: "Art is not a mirror to hold up to society, but a hammer with which to shape it." His film, he implied, was such a hammer. The third Oscar for "Crash" came for best editing, by Hughes Winborne, reflecting the complexity of its interlocking stories. "Brokeback Mountain," as expected, won for best adapted screenplay, by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana. McMurtry, the legendary author of novels set in the West ("The Last Picture Show"), strode down the red carpet wearing a tuxedo coat, blue jeans and cowboy boots. Ossana thanked author E. Annie Proulx ("She's right over there") for trusting them with her story. McMurtry mostly thanked Ossana, and then the Texas used bookstore proprietor thanked "all the booksellers of the world - remember that 'Brokeback Mountain' was a book before it weas a movie." After years of overwrought production numbers weighing down the performances of nominated songs, what an impact Dolly Parton made by simply walking out on stage and singing her "Travelin' On." Kathleen "Bird" York brought a power to the performance of her song "In the Deep" from "Crash" with simple, heartfelt vocals, subtle backup singers and a backdrop of flames that, oddly enough, was subtle. too: It was typical of a ceremony with more class and style than many another Oscarcast. And consider the evident joy of the rap group Three 6 Mafia (Jordon "Juicy J" Houston, Paul "DJ Paul" Beauregard and Darnell "Crunchy Black" Carlton), as they were joined by joined by Taraji P. Henson, one of the stars of the film, performing "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp," from "Hustle and Flow." (Stewart's helpful definition of a pimp: "Sort of like an agent with a better hat.") The song's co-writer, Cedric "Frayser Boy" Coleman, told me on the red carpet he knew the nomination was for real "when they sent a limousine to pick me up at my mamma's house." They'll send him some more limousines. In another upset, the Oscar went to "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp." In their exuberant acceptance speech, Three 6 Mafia thanked everyone from George Clooney and Oscarcast director Gil Cates. "Now that's how to make an acceptance speech," Stewart said. Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin brought down the house while introducing legendary director Robert Altman with an inspired delivery in his trademark overlapping dialogue. But they didn't step on each other's lines when they read a list of his great credits. The director has been nominated five times ("M*A*S*H," "Nashville," "The Player," "Short Cuts," "Gosford Park"), but his first Oscar was an honorary one, for lifetime achievement. He interrupted a tumultous standing ovation by quipping, "I've got a lot to say and they've got a clock on me. I always thought this kind of award meant it was over. Then it dawned on me I was in rehearsals for a play in London that opened last night,and I just finished my new film 'Prairie Home Companion.' So it's not over. And no other film director," he said, "has gotten a better shake than I've had. I've never had to make a film I didn't want to make. And to me, I've just made one long film." He said he couldn't thank all of his collaborators, "so I'm gonna thank a doctor who's taking care of me, Jodie Kaplan." Then the 81-year-old Altman made a startling revelation: "I'm here in a way under false pretenses. I have to become straight with you. Ten, 11 years ago, I had a total heart transplant. I got the heart of a young women who was in her late 30s, and so by that kind of calculation, you may be giving me this award too early. I think I've got about 40 years left on it." South Africa won its first Oscar, as "Tsotsi" was honored for best foreign film. "God bless Africa," said writer-director Gavin Hood, singling out his star, Presley Chweneyagae. The baby-faced actor plays a township thug who kills without emotion, until he accidentally comes into possession of a baby who changes his life. It was the second foreign film nomination in a row for South Africa, which placed "Yesterday" last year and is experiencing a filmmaking renaissance. Best documentary, as expected, went to "March of the Penguins," so successful, it actually outgrossed all of this year's best picture nominees. The filmmakers came onstage holding penguin plush toys and thanked the academy with whistles they claimed were penguin-speak. The original scores of motion pictures are sometimes meant to be consciously listened to by the audience, sometimes intended as almost unheard background. The winner for best score was Gustavo Santaolalla, whose compositions for "Brokeback Mountain" were heard, and remembered, and contributed in an important way to the elegiac emotional tone of the film. He dedicated his awsard to his mother, his coungtry Argentina, and Latinos everywhere." Though "Memoirs of a Geisha" was shut out of the major categories, it drew honors for its superb technical credits. It was honored for its Japanese period costumes, designed by Colleen Atwood, who won in 2003 for "Chicago." Backstage in the press room, she was asked about the film's controversial use of Chinese actresses to play Japanese roles. "Those choices were not up to me," she said, "but the film was about a story, not a race." The film also won best art direction and set decoration for John Myhre and Gretchen Rau. Myhre, who accepted on behalf of Rau, was asked backstage why she didn't attend. "She is having some serious health issues right now, " Myhre said, "which I would prefer for her family to address." Splotchy faced Steve Carrell and Will Ferrell introduced the Oscar for best makeup, which went to "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," a film that created fantastical creatures not only with animation but with live-action makeup and costuming. Stewart's one-liner: "I'm disappointed that 'Cinderella Man' didn't win. Imagine making Russell Crowe look like he got in a fight." Ben Stiller got more laughs with a special-effects bit using a green suit that would have disappeared in front of a green screen that was, however, lacking. He annouced the visual effects Oscar for "King Kong," the first of three technical awards for the giant ape epic, which also picked up Oscars for sound mixing and sound editing.

The Oscar for best animated film went to the magical and whimsical “Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit,” the first feature-length adventure about a man-and-dog team that built up a cult following in three short subjects. The category was extrarordinary this year for lacking any films made with the currently dominant computer technology; two were stop-action and one was mostly hand-drawn. Winner for live action short: "Six Shooter," by Martin McDonagh of Ireland, starring Brendan Gleeson as a man whose wife dies; on the train ride home across Ireland, he sits across from an obnoxious young man of heartless cruelty, who picks on a couple the aisle who have lost their baby. How long can the others put up with him? The Oscar winner for best animated short was another hand-drawn film, "The Moon and the Son: An Imagined Conversation," by John Canemaker and Peggy Stern. It had extraordinary weight for a short subject, as it re-created a painful relationship between a son and his angry father. The voices by Eli Wallach and John Turturro gave realism and depth to the images, which segued from photographs to drawings. The Oscar for best documentary short went to "A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin," by Corinne Marrinan and Eric Simonson. Corwin, who still teaches at USC, was the producer of "On a Note of Triumph," a historic 1945 radio broadcast on V-E Day. The film, which serves as a rebuke to modern formula broadcasting, assembled many who remember the broadcast, including Chicago's own legendary Studs Terkel, who says, "I can still recite most of it."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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