Slumdog Millionaire and its director, Danny Boyle, with their modern-day fairy tale about hope and hard times in the slums of Mumbai, pushed aside big-studio contenders to sweep top honors at the 81st annual Academy Awards on Sunday.
“You dwarf even the sky,” Boyle said in a tribute to the people of Mumbai, who figured by the thousands in his film.
He spoke while accepting the best director award, only minutes before Slumdog Millionaire was named best picture, helping give the evening a distinctly international tilt.
Boyle, 52, has been known for putting an inspirational twist on often dark and sophisticated movies that have included Trainspotting, about heroin addiction, and Sunshine, about sacrifice on a mission to reignite the sun.
The many prizes for Slumdog Millionaire — writer Simon Beaufoy was honored for best adapted screenplay, among other prizes — completed the film’s steady march past competitors like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Frost/Nixon.
The best picture award was a first for Fox Searchlight, which distributed Slumdog Millionaire in the US. In the past, the studio appeared to narrowly miss the big prize with a series of comic best picture nominees that included Little Miss Sunshine, Sideways and The Full Monty.
In what was widely perceived to be one of the year’s few tight races, Sean Penn was named best actor for his performance in Milk, as the gay-rights advocate Harvey Milk.
“You commie, homo-loving sons of guns,” said Penn, who edged aside Brad Pitt and Mickey Rourke for the best actor Oscar, his second.
Best actress honors went to Kate Winslet for her performance in The Reader as a German woman who becomes romantically involved with a teenager while concealing her role in the Holocaust.
Hollywood has been taking on more and more of a global lilt with each passing year, but on this evening it was especially evident in the show and in the awards themselves.
After Penelope Cruz won for best supporting actress for her role in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, she gave part of her speech in Spanish — she said backstage it was a dedication to the actors and people of Spain — and then suggested backstage that the movies had to grow beyond the bounds of strictly American stories.
“We are all mixed together, and it has to be reflected in the cinema,” she said.
The supporting actress award, the night’s first, was presented by no less than five past winners of the prize, Whoopi Goldberg, Tilda Swinton, Eva Marie Saint, Goldie Hawn and Anjelica Huston. The heavy show of star power was meant to make good on a promise that the broadcast would deliver entertainment value that reached far beyond that offered by the nominees.
Heath Ledger, in a widely anticipated development, won the best supporting actor prize for his performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight. Ledger died unexpectedly of a drug overdose early last year, before Dark Knight was released.
Ledger’s parents afterward said his Oscar statuette would be held in trust by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Many other awards also went to those favored in the preshow betting.
Dustin Lance Black won the best original screenplay Oscar for Milk. Black, who is openly gay, said Milk’s story had given him hope that one day he might “fall in love and even get married.”
Beaufoy, whose Slumdog screenplay was based on a novel by Vikas Swarup, rattled off a list of places he never expected to be — “the moon, the South Pole, the Miss World podium and here” — as he accepted that award for his work on a film that captured many of the movie industry’s pre-Oscar honors and was widely viewed as a preordained winner of the evening’s final award, for best picture.