Published February 22, 2009
"Has anybody ever fainted here?"
With that, the 81st Annual Academy Awards were underway, as Penelope Cruz gasped her way to the stage after becoming the first big winner of the night, grabbing a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona."
"Thank you Woody for trusting me with this beautiful character," a teary-eyed Cruz said as she accepted the award, referring to Woody Allen, the film's director.
The late Heath Ledger won a Best Supporting Actor nod for his role in "The Dark Night." His family accepted the award on the actor's behalf.
"This award tonight would have humbly validated Heath's quiet determination to be truly accepted by you all here - his peers in an industry he so loved," said his father Kim Ledger in accepting the award on behalf of Ledger's young daughter, Matilda.
Best-picture front-runner "Slumdog Millionaire" scored in four early categories, claiming the adapted-screenplay prize for Simon Beaufoy, as well as the cinematography, film-editing and sound-mixing Oscar. The Harvey Milk film biography "Milk" won for original screenplay.
The epic love story "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," which led with 13 nominations, had three wins, for visual effects, art direction and makeup.
"The Dark Knight" had a second win, for sound editing.
"Man on Wire," James Marsh's examination of tight-rope walker Philippe Petit's dazzling stroll between the towers of the World Trade Center in 1974, was chosen as best documentary.
After last year's Oscars delivered their worst TV ratings ever, producers this time aimed to liven up the show with some surprises and new ways of presenting awards. Rather than hiring a comedian such as past hosts Jon Stewart or Chris Rock, the producers went with actor and song-and-dance man Hugh Jackman, who has been host of Broadway's Tony Awards.
Instead of the usual standup routine, Jackman did a musical number to open the show, saluting nominated films with a clever tribute.
Jackman later did a medley staged by his "Australia" director Baz Luhrmann with such performers as Beyonce Knowles and "High School Musical" stars Vanessa Hudgens and Zac Efron.
"Slumdog Millionaire" went into the evening with 10 nominations and an unstoppable run of prizes from earlier film honors.
In keeping with its theme of bottomless optimism amid adversity, "Slumdog Millionaire" has led a charmed life, dodging a flirtation with straight-to-DVD release, winning over critics and climbing toward $100 million hit status. The film has won top honors at all key earlier awards ceremonies.
Now its cast of unknowns -- from new celebrities Dev Patel and Freida Pinto to kids plucked by director Danny Boyle from the slums of Mumbai, India -- earned a trip to Hollywood's glitziest party.
The film's young stars were greeted with cheers and blew kisses in return as they walked the red carpet before the Oscars.
Shot in India on a modest budget of $14 million, "Slumdog Millionaire" traces the life of a Mumbai orphan who overcomes poverty, betrayal, police torture and other hardships on his way to a reunion with his childhood love and success on India's version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."
The film nearly got lost in the shuffle as Warner Bros. folded its art-house banner, Warner Independent, which had been slated to distribute "Slumdog Millionaire." It was rescued from the direct-to-video scrap heap when Fox Searchlight stepped in to release the film.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.