I want to thank Billy Wilder, I want to thank Billy Wilder and I want to thank Billy Wilder, said Michel Hazanavicius, the films director, in keeping with a self-referential theme that ruled the evening.
Thomas Langmann, the producer, accepting his award for a mostly silent, black-and-white fable about an actors struggle with the end of silent film, said the achievement was dedicated to his father, the deceased French director Claude Berri.
Until Sunday no silent film had won the top Oscar since Wings, at the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929. But nostalgia ruled the night, as Hugo, about another silent star, Georges Mlis, won a string of less prominent awards, and Midnight in Paris, a comic time trip to Paris in the 1920s, took the prize for original screenplay for Woody Allen.
Meryl Streep, a winner for her portrayal of a doddering Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, made her victory look like a shock. But she hadnt won since 1983, even though she reigns as the actor with the most nominations in the history of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, with 17 in all. Streep said she could imagine half of America gasping: Oh no! Oh, come on! Why her Again as her name was read.
When the only surprise is a victory by Streep, you know things are going by the script. Viola Davis, for her work in The Help, had been considered a strong candidate as the best-actress winner.
Merci, beaucoup, I love you! shouted Jean Dujardin, as he picked up his award as best actor for a movie that was conceived in France, but showered its adoration on the Hollywood of yore.
After a dry spell in the early evening, The Artist gained momentum as the major awards were presented, beginning with a prize for Hazanavicius. The winner unscrolled a long string of French-accented thank yous that included Uggie the dog.
Christopher Plummer, born in 1929, won his first Academy Award, as best supporting actor, for Beginners. Youre only two years older than me, darling where have you been all my life said Plummer, in picking up a statuette that was first given for films made in 1927 and 1928.
It was long overdue recognition for Plummer, who had appeared in dozens of films over more than 50 years, and finally won for his portrayal, in Beginners, of a father who in his final years acknowledges being gay.
Congratulations to Plummer; the average age of the winners has now jumped to 67, joked Billy Crystal, the evenings master of ceremonies. That was before Woody Allen, 76, won a best original screenplay Oscar for Midnight in Paris, bumping the average age still higher. That film was another nostalgia trip, about literary Paris in the 1920s. In keeping with a personal tradition, Allen was a no-show, and left the Academy to accept its own prize on his behalf.
Closer to present time, Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash had just won an adapted-screenplay Oscar for The Descendants. It was welcome recognition for a movie that once appeared among the front-runners for best picture, but seemed to falter as a grueling, monthslong campaign season showered pre-Oscar prizes on The Artist.
There was a dollop of drama to the proceedings.
As the show passed its midpoint, Hugo had made the only show of force. A 3-D tale, set in Paris, it had won five Oscars, for cinematography, art direction, sound editing, sound mixing and visual effects.
Meanwhile, two hours in, The Artist, supposedly the nights front-runner, had won only two awards, those for its Jazz Age costume design and musical score. If the early snubs sent a shiver through Harvey Weinstein, whose company distributed The Artist in the United States, he could take comfort, at least, in a win for Undefeated.
That film, about a black urban high school football team and its white coach, was also distributed by the Weinstein Company, and took the Oscar for best documentary feature. One of the films makers drew a gasp in the auditorium when he broke Oscar protocol by tossing off a strictly forbidden obscenity something rare at the tightly controlled Academy Awards.
Chris Rock followed with a racial joke, about black men getting lousy roles even in animated films. It may have been in questionable taste, but it jarred the show closer to modern times.
Rango was the animation winner, from the director Gore Verbinski and Paramount Pictures. Both DreamWorks Animation, which had Kung Fu Panda 2 in the running, and Walt Disneys Pixar Animation, which had no nominee in the category at all, had watched their grip on the prize slip to Verbinski, who had never before made an animated film.
Elizabeth Taylor was the capper in an especially crowded memorial sequence that paid tribute to one after another among the film figures who died in the last year. The actor Ben Gazzara, the movie executive John Calley, and the Oscar show producers Gil Cates and Laura Ziskin were among them.
Finally, the show settled into its inevitable rhythm of presentation, thanks, and congratulatory applause in a typical Oscar broadcast, only a relatively small sliver goes to production numbers and pranks by the host. But the montage moments kept coming.
As the end neared, actors like Julia Roberts and Robert Downey Jr were on film carrying on about why they love film. Ive never had any of those feelings, said Crystal.
And the demographic jokes never stopped. Perky gets old fast with this crowd, Ben Stiller warned Emma Stone, as she milked a bit that wound around her status as a first-time presenter.
Indeed it was a mirth-by-any-means-necessary kind of night: Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, Chris Rock, Kristen Wiig, Kermit the Frog and a parade of other comedians were among the presenters.
Crystal, his vaudeville grin firmly in place, set the tone early, opening the show with a song-and-dance montage that managed to send up the nine best-picture nominees, Tom Cruise, the movie Bridesmaids, and his own aging career all at once.
This is my ninth time, my ninth time hosting the Oscars, he quipped in an opening monologue that seemed bent on leaving no one out. Just call me War Horse. Pointing one of his barbs directly at the film industry, he added, Nothing can take the sting out of the worlds economic problems like watching millionaires present each other with gold statues.
The theatre was gilded and draped in red, as were many of the starlets. The idea was to mimic a glamour that came with the movies of old a time when, perhaps, they mattered a little more than they do in an age of multiplatform entertainment.
The big show-business smile that infused the ceremony was more than a ratings ploy. It was also an effort by the Academy to move past a tumultuous Oscar season that left the organisation bruised if not bloodied.