OSCAR!

It was “Slum” enchanted evening at last night’s 81st Annual Academy Awards as Slumdog Millionaire swept to victory with eight Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Song and Best Adapted Screenplay. The feel-good story of a kid from the slums of Mumbai who lands on the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire in a quest to find the love of his life proved irresistible to Oscar voters, beating out more serious fare like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Reader, Frost/Nixon and Milk. In his acceptance speech, director DANNY BOYLE thanked the people of Mumbai, holding up his Oscar statuette and saying that they, quote, “dwarf even this guy.”

After five nominations, KATE WINSLET finally scored her first-ever Oscar on her sixth — she won for her role as a Nazi prison guard in The Reader. She told the audience, “I’d be lying if I haven’t made a version of this speech before. I think I was probably eight years old and staring into the bathroom mirror and this would have been a shampoo bottle.” Clutching her newly-won statuette, she added, “It’s not a shampoo bottle now!”

SEAN PENN won his second Oscar for playing the real-life murdered gay activist HARVEY MILK. At the podium, Penn jokingly called the Oscar voters “Commie, homo-loving son of a guns,” and noted his reputation as a “difficult” actor by admitting, “I know how hard I make it to appreciate me, often.” Penn also used his speech to call for “equal rights for everyone,” and acknowledged the man many thought would beat him for the award by saying, “MICKEY ROURKE rises again…and he is my brother.”

As expected, HEATH LEDGER won Best Supporting Oscar for The Dark Knight — precisely 13 months after his death from an accidential overdose of prescription drugs. His family accepted on his behalf, saying, “This award tonight would have humbly validated Heath’s quiet determination to be truly accepted by you all here — his peers within an industry he so loved.” PENELOPE CRUZ won for Best Supporting Actress for Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and delivered the second half of her speech in her native Spanish.

As for the actual Oscar telecast, the producers promised something radically different, and in many ways, it was. The stage had more of a nightclub feel, with the orchestra onstage. Host HUGH JACKMAN sang and danced his heart out, starting with an opening number that incorporated “homemade props” and nods to all the nominated films, and some that weren’t. The man known to many as Wolverine pointedly asked, in one lyric, “How come comic book movies never get nominated?” Jackman also did a full-blown, top-hat-and-tails salute to movie musicals with the help of BEYONCÉ, High School Musical stars ZAC EFRON and VANESSA HUDGENS, and DOMINIC COOPER and AMANDA SEYFRIED of Mamma Mia!

Other differences: lengthy montages of all the big movies of the year — nominated or not — were shown, grouped into categories like romance, action, animation and documentary. And the awards were handed out in the order in which they would fall during the actual creation of a film — first comes the screenplay, then the costume design, then the special effects, then the music, then the directing, and so on.

The most unusual change in the show was having five past winners in the four major acting categories come onstage, personally address each nominee, and simply describe their roles: no clips from their performances were shown. That amounted to 20 extra mini-speeches. For example, ROBERT DENIRO spoke about Sean Penn’s performance, SHIRLEY MACLAINE talked about ANNE HATHAWAY, WHOOPI GOLDBERG discussed AMY ADAMS, and KEVIN KLINE described Heath Ledger.

Other tidbits:

–EDDIE MURPHY presented JERRY LEWIS with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award — fittingly, since Murphy starred in the hit remake of Lewis’ classic The Nutty Professor.

–Presenting an award for cinematography with NATALIE PORTMAN, BEN STILLER came out dressed as a spaced-out JOAQUIN PHOENIX, in dark glasses and a huge bushy beard. Portman told Stiller he looked like an escapee from a “Hasidic meth lab,” while Stiller said he wanted to “retire from being a funny guy.”

–When ALAN ARKIN was talking about PHILLIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN’s performance in “Doubt,” he accidentally called him “Seymour Phillip Hoffman.”

–Man on Wire, a movie about PHILIPPE PETIT, who tightrope-walked between the World Trade Center towers in the early ’70s, was named Best Documentary. At the podium, Petit balanced the Oscar statuette on his chin, upside down.

–When JACK BLACK and JENNIFER ANISTON presented the animation awards, the camera kept cutting to ANGELINA JOLIE. We hope that was because Jolie was Jack Black’s co-star in Kung Fu Panda, and not because Jolie is now with Aniston’s ex BRAD PITT.

–The star who got the biggest applause during the annual “In Memoriam” montage was, perhaps not surprisingly, PAUL NEWMAN.

–The three Best Original Song performances were presented in somewhat of a mash-up, with JOHN LEGEND, at one point, singing PETER GABRIEL’s nominated song from Wall-E, “Down To Earth,” simultaneously during the performances of the nominated Slumdog Millionaire songs “Jai Ho” and “O Saya.”

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