LOS ANGELES – In a rags-to-riches story that even Hollywood couldn't script, "Slumdog Millionaire" wrested Oscar night from the Hollywood establishment with wins for Best Picture, Best Director, and six other categories.
In winning eight out of its ten nominations, and with the entire cast in attendance, including the irrepressible children recruited from the Mumbai streets to be its young stars, "Slumdog" was the feel-good story of the night.
"Just to say to Mumbai, all of you who helped us make the film and all of those of you who didn't, thank you very much. You dwarf even this guy," director Danny Boyle said, holding up his Oscar.
"Slumdog" was filmed for under $20 million, a pittance by Hollywood standards, and was even slated briefly to go straight to DVD, bypassing theaters altogether.
But "Slumdog" wasn't the only underdog that people had their eyes on Sunday night. Mickey Rourke, whose career had hit rock bottom and then some, was looking for the ultimate vindication that a Best Actor nod for "The Wrestler" would get him.
Unfortunately for Rourke, Sean Penn got in his way.
As he took the stage to accept his second Oscar for playing slain gay-rights pioneer Harvey Milk, Penn gleefully told the crowd: "You commie, homo-loving sons of guns."
Penn also slammed anti-gay protesters who demonstrated near the Oscar site, and made comments about California's recent vote to ban gay marriage.
"For those who saw the signs of hatred as our cars drove in tonight, I think it's a good time for those who voted for the ban against gay marriage to sit and reflect on their great shame, and their shame in their grandchildren's eyes if they continue that support," Penn said. "We've got to have equal rights for everyone."
RELATED: List of Winners at the 81st Academy Awards.
For his demented reinvention of Batman villain the Joker, Heath Ledger became only the second actor to posthumously win an Oscar, his triumph coming exactly 13 months after his death from an accidental overdose of prescription drugs.
His Oscar was accepted by Ledger's parents and sister on behalf of the actor's 3-year-old daughter, Matilda.
"We'd like to thank the academy for recognizing our son's amazing work, Warner Bros., and Christopher Nolan in particular for allowing Heath the creative license to develop and explore this crazy Joker character," said his father, Kim Ledger.
Penelope Cruz triumphed as a woman in a steamy three-way affair with her ex-husband and an American woman in Woody Allen's romance "Vicky Cristina Barcelona."
"Has anybody ever fainted here? Because I might be the first one," Cruz said, who went on with warm thanks to Allen. "Thank you, Woody, for trusting me with this beautiful character. Thank you for having written all these years some of the greatest characters for women."
"OK, that fainting thing, Penelope," Winslet joked later as she accepted her best-actress prize for "The Reader," in which she plays a former concentration camp guard in an affair with a teen. "I'd be lying if I haven't made a version of this speech before. I think I was probably 8 years old and staring into the bathroom mirror, and this would be a shampoo bottle. But it's not a shampoo bottle now."
It was Winslet's first win after five previous losses.
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.
It was a much different style for the Oscars as each past recipient offered personal tributes to one of the nominees, without clips of the nominated performances. Awards usually are done in chit-chat style between a couple of celebrity presenters.
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 an engaging 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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.