'The Artist,' Jean Dujardin and Meryl Streep take top honors at Oscars

The film "The Artist" won top honors at the Academy Awards Sunday, taking the Best Picture prize and marking the first time in 83 years that a silent film has won the Oscar.

The black-and-white comic melodrama took four prizes Sunday, including best picture, actor for Jean Dujardin and director for Michel Hazanavicius. Not since the World War I saga "Wings" was named outstanding picture at the first Oscars in 1929 had a silent film earned the top prize.

Meryl Streep won the Oscar for Best Actress for her role as Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady."

Streep played the British prime minister as a senile retiree, as well as a hectoring, dominant figure who instilled fear and respect in her own cabinet. At the film's pinnacle, Streep as Thatcher is the backbone of a nation that goes to war over the distant Falkland Islands after Argentina invades in 1982.

Streep, 62, won best actress for her 17th Oscar nomination, the most times any performer has been nominated by the Academy.

Her third win put her in a category with other three-time Oscar winners Jack Nicholson, Walter Brennan and Ingrid Bergman. Only Katharine Hepburn with four wins had more.

Christopher Plummer took home his first Oscar Sunday in a career that has spanned more than five decades for his role in the film "Beginners."

Plummer's victory in the Best Supporting Actor category made history, with the 82-year-old being the oldest person ever to win the award.

"You're only two years older than me, darling," Plummer said, addressing his Oscar statue in this 84th year of the awards. "Where have you been all my life? I have a confession to make. When I first emerged from my mother's womb, I was already rehearsing my Oscar speech."

The previous oldest winner was best-actress recipient Jessica Tandy for "Driving Miss Daisy," at age 80.

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Octavia Spencer took home the first big acting honor of the night, winning Best Supporting Actress for her role in "The Help."

Spencer's Oscar triumph came for her role as a headstrong black maid whose willful ways continually land her in trouble with white employers in 1960s Mississippi.

"Thank you, academy, for putting me with the hottest guy in the room," Spencer said, referring to last year's supporting-actor winner Christian Bale, who presented her Oscar.

Her brash character holds a personal connection: "The Help" author Kathryn Stockett based some of the woman's traits on Spencer, whom she met through childhood pal Tate Taylor, the director of the film.

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Before taking the stage, Spencer got kisses from "The Help" co-stars Viola Davis, a best-actress nominee, and Jessica Chastain, a fellow supporting nominee.

"I share this with everybody," Spencer said.

"The Artist's" director Michel Hazanavicius won the Best Director Award for the silent film.

Claiming Hollywood's top-filmmaking honor Sunday completes Hazanavicius' sudden rise from popular movie-maker back home in France to internationally celebrated director.

Host Billy Crystal kicked things off with a kiss from actor George Clooney in a parody of the film “The Descendants.” The scene was part of his opening montage, which also included his signature goofy song.

Crystal joked about his return to his gig as host, saying “this is my ninth time – just call me War Horse.”

Martin Scorsese's adventure "Hugo" won the first two prizes of the night, claiming the Oscars for cinematography and art direction.

"Marty, you're a genius as usual," said "Hugo" cinematographer Robert Richardson, who won his third Oscar after previous wins for "JFK" and Scorsese's "The Aviator."

The wins for "Hugo" were a blow to best-picture favorite "The Artist," which lost in both categories. "The Artist" ran second to "Hugo" with 10 nominations.

The red carpet had its highlights as well, with comedian Sacha Baron Cohen walking the carpet dressed as a Moammar Qaddafi-like dictator for his upcoming film, “The Dictator.” The actor then managed to spill what he claimed to be the ashes of the late North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il all over E! News host, Ryan Seacrest.

His stunt got him bum rushed by Oscar security.

- The Associated Press contributed to this report.