Penelope Cruz Wins Supporting Actress Oscar

Penelope Cruz won the first Academy Award of the night Sunday, claiming the supporting-actress honor as a tempestuous artist in Woody Allen’s Spanish romance “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.”

The win capped a big weekend for Cruz, fresh off her win Saturday for the same prize at the Spirit Awards honoring independent film. “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” features Cruz as an unstable Spaniard in a steamy three-way affair with her ex-husband and an American woman.

“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.”

It’s the fifth time an Allen film has earned a performer a supporting-acting honor. Cruz joins past Allen collaborators Dianne Wiest, a dual Oscar winner for “Hannah and Her Sisters” and “Bullets Over Broadway”; Michael Caine for “Hannah and Her Sisters”; and Mira Sorvino for “Mighty Aphrodite.”

The award was presented by five past supporting-actress winners, including last year’s, Tilda Swinton, plus Eva Marie Saint, Anjelica Huston, Whoopi Goldberg and Goldie Hawn.

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.

Offering a nod to best-picture favorite “Slumdog Millionaire,” Jackman crooned, “Just a humble slumdog, sitting in a chair, of a millionaire …” He hauled best-actress nominee Anne Hathaway on-stage to stand in as Richard Nixon in a gag tune about fellow best-picture nominee “Frost/Nixon” and asked the question in song — why don’t comic-book movies get nominated? — a dig at Oscar voters’ best-picture snub of the Batman blockbuster “The Dark Knight.”

“Slumdog Millionaire” came 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.

For best picture, “Slumdog Millionaire” faced off against the romantic epic “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” the Richard Nixon saga “Frost/Nixon,” the Harvey Milk tale “Milk” and the Holocaust-themed drama “The Reader.”

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 arthouse 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.

It wasn’t all sunshine for “Slumdog Millionaire” going into the Oscars, though. A few raindrops fell on the red carpet at midmorning amid forecasts of a 30 percent chance of showers on Hollywood’s big night. And hope of warm feelings between the Screen Actors Guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers was lost late Saturday night when SAG’s board of directors rejected the producers’ “last, best and final offer” for a new contract.

Sunday’s ceremony, airing live on ABC, featured a mix of fresh faces and old Oscar hands in the acting categories. Two-time winner Meryl Streep extended her record to 15 nominations, this time for best actress in “Doubt,” while other past Oscar recipients and nominees include Sean Penn (best actor for “Milk”), Kate Winslet (best actress for “The Reader”), Robert Downey Jr. (supporting actor for “Tropic Thunder”) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (supporting actor for “Doubt.”)

Newcomers included a rush of veteran performers, among them best-actress contenders Anne Hathaway (“Rachel Getting Married”) and Melissa Leo (“Frozen River”) and best-actor candidates Mickey Rourke (“The Wrestler”), Frank Langella (“Frost/Nixon”) and Richard Jenkins (“The Visitor”).

“The Dark Knight” co-star Heath Ledger was considered as strong a lock to win supporting actor as “Slumdog Millionaire” is to win best picture and director. Ledger, who died on Oscar nominations day last year, took comic-book villains to new heights with his delirious incarnation of Batman foe the Joker.

Past winner Angelina Jolie and her man, Brad Pitt, both were nominated. She’s up for best actress in “Changeling” and he’s competing for best actor in “Benjamin Button,” which leads with 13 nominations.

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