LOS ANGELES – Hollywood has met Bollywood at the Academy Awards, and the makers of Oscar champ "Slumdog Millionaire" hope it's a sign of future melding between the U.S. dream factory with its counterparts in India and elsewhere in the world.
A tale of hope amid adversity and squalor in Mumbai, "Slumdog Millionaire" came away with eight Oscars, including best picture and director for Danny Boyle.
The low-budget production was a merger of India's brisk Bollywood movie industry, which provided most of the cast and crew, and the global marketing reach of Hollywood, which turned the film into a commercial smash, said British director Boyle.
"We're Brits, really, trapped in the middle, but it's a lovely trapped thing," Boyle said backstage. "You can see it's going to happen more and more. There's all sorts of people going to work there. The world's shrinking a little bit."
It was a theme Oscar voters embraced through the evening with other key awards honoring films fostering broader understanding and compassion.
Sean Penn won his second best-actor Oscar, this one for playing slain gay-rights pioneer Harvey Milk in "Milk," while Kate Winslet took best actress for "The Reader," in which she plays a former concentration camp guard coming to terms with the ignorance that let her heedlessly participate in Nazi atrocities.
Penn had harsh words for protesters outside the Oscars holding anti-gay signs.
"I'd tell them to turn in their hate card and find their better self," Penn said. "I think that these are largely taught limitations and ignorances, this kind of thing. It's really sad in a way, because it's a demonstration of such cowardice, emotional cowardice, to be so afraid of extending the same rights to your fellow man as you'd want for yourself."
As expected, Heath Ledger became just the second performer to win an Oscar posthumously, receiving the supporting-actor award for the menace and mayhem he wreaks as Batman villain the Joker in "The Dark Knight." Penelope Cruz was the first Spanish actress to win an Oscar with her supporting prize as a volatile artist in a three-way romance in Woody Allen's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona."
Ledger's award was accepted by his parents and sister on behalf of the 3-year-old daughter he had with actress Michelle Williams. The win came 13 months after Ledger died of an accidental overdose of prescription drugs on Oscar nominations day last year.
His sister, Kate Ledger, said backstage that her brother sensed he was creating something special with "The Dark Knight."
"When he came home Christmas a year ago, he had been sending me shots and bits and pieces of the film," Kate Ledger said. "He hadn't seen it, but he knew. I said, `I have a feeling, this is it for you,' and I said, `You're going to get a nomination from the academy.' He just looked at me and smiled. He knew."
"I think he would have been quietly pleased, because I think he enjoyed the performance he did," said Ledger's mother, Sally Bell. "He was very proud of what he did. Heath was never one to be over the top with anything. He would be quietly pleased it was being recognized by his peers in the industry."
"Slumdog Millionaire" started as an unlikely candidate for the sort of industry and audience recognition it has garnered, presenting a cast of unknowns and a Dickensian tale of an Indian orphan rising above his street-urchin roots.
Though set in a foreign land, the film tells a universal story of optimism that has been eagerly embraced by U.S. audiences.
"This country has changed, from the moment we started making the film to the moment it was released," "Slumdog" producer Christian Colson said. "I think America is cool again, for the first time in my lifetime. ... I think this is a symptom of how it's beginning to embrace a more-globalized view of the world."
Boyle earned the directing prize with his first Oscar nomination in a career of hip movies that include the drug romp "Trainspotting" and the zombie horror tale "28 Days Later."
"Slumdog Millionaire" has all the trademark elements of Boyle: raw and relentless energy, rich visual whimsy, a sense of childlike yearning, and a seamless mix of the harrowing and hilarious.
The film follows the travails and triumphs of Jamal, who artfully dodges a criminal gang that mutilates children to make them more pitiable beggars. Jamal witnesses his mother's violent death, endures police torture and struggles with betrayal by his brother, while single-mindedly hoping to reunite with the lost love of his childhood.
Fate rewards Jamal, whose story unfolds through flashbacks as he recalls how he came to know the answers that made him a champion on India's version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."
"Slumdog" writer Simon Beaufoy, who won the adapted-screenplay Oscar, said the film clicked with audiences stung by the recession and the realization that "this money thing, it's been shown to be a real false idol."
"It's come out at a time when the value of money, which has been raised to this extraordinary height, is suddenly being shown to be a kind of very shallow thing," Beaufoy said. "The financial markets are crashing around the world, and a film comes out which is ostensibly about being a millionaire. Actually, what it's about, it's a film that says there's more important things than money: love, faith and family. And that struck a chord with people."
Oscar organizers shook things up a bit after last year's show drew the lowest TV ratings ever. Song-and-dance man Hugh Jackman was host instead of the usual standup comedian, and he kept the show to three and a half hours, relatively brisk for a ceremony that has topped four hours some years.
The Oscars have been criticized in the past for devoting so much time to technical categories that average movie fans care little about. This time, the show abridged many of those awards, with Will Smith hammering through four such categories in quick succession, including sound mixing and film editing.
That allowed more time for the show to linger with celebrities. Each acting prize was presented by five past winners of the same awards, among them Halle Berry, Nicole Kidman, Kevin Kline, Sophia Loren, Anthony Hopkins, Shirley MacLaine and Robert De Niro.
Winslet finally walked off with an Oscar after five previous losses. While Winslet said she had been practicing Oscar speeches since childhood, holding a shampoo bottle instead of a golden statuette, she still felt "like a little girl from Reading," her hometown in England.
"Did you see my mum and dad? My mum won a pickled onion competition in their local pub just before Christmas, and that was a big deal," Winslet told reporters backstage. "You just don't think that these dreams that seem so silly and so impossible could ever really come true."