'Crash'-ing the party

Haggis film nets top nod in big finish.

Befitting a film about the often rocky clash of cultures in Los Angeles, Lionsgate's "Crash" gunned its engines at the last moment to capture the top prize for best picture at the 78th Annual Academy Awards.

Focus Features' "Brokeback Mountain," which won most of the key walk-up awards, was considered the prohibitive favorite as members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences paraded into the Kodak Theatre at Hollywood & Highland on Sunday. So "Crash" producer Cathy Schulman could only thank the Academy "for embracing our film about love and about tolerance, about truth" when her film beat the odds.

The top acting prizes followed a more predictable script, with the presumptive favorites, "Capote's" Philip Seymour Hoffman and "Walk the Line's" Reese Witherspoon, rewarded as best actor and best actress.

Ultimately, in a year in which smaller, politically charged films commanded the Oscar spotlight and with emcee Jon Stewart offering further political commentary, Academy voters judiciously divvied up the awards among a wide range of contenders. "Crash" and "Brokeback" took home three trophies as they split the best picture and best directing honors, which went to "Brokeback's" Ang Lee. The sumptuous "Memoirs of a Geisha" took three prizes that acknowledged the rich look of its cinematography, sets and costumes, and "King Kong" also grabbed three statuettes for its visual effects and sound.

Among film companies, Focus Features led the pack thanks to its three "Brokeback" wins and Rachel Weisz's best supporting actress nod for "The Constant Gardener," while Lionsgate, Sony Pictures and Universal Pictures took three Oscars apiece.

Both Hoffman and Witherspoon were first-time nominees who managed to parlay their nominations into potentially career-enhancing wins.

Hoffman, an established character actor who now could morph into a leading man after portraying author Truman Capote, expressed his appreciation for his longtime friends and collaborators, screenwriter Dan Futterman and director Bennett Miller. He offered special words of appreciation for his mother, Marilyn O'Connor, who attended the awards. "Her passions became my passions," he said. "And, you know, be proud, Mom, because I'm proud of you."

Witherspoon, who already has established herself as a light comedian, now can also look forward to a career as a dramatic actress after playing June Carter in "Line." Paying tribute to her parents as well as her grandmother, the actress acknowledged the late Carter, saying: "People used to ask June how she was doing, and she used to say, 'I'm just trying to matter.' And I know what she means. You know, I'm just trying to matter, and live a good life and make work that means something to somebody. And you have all made me feel that I might have accomplished that tonight. So thank you so much for this honor."

Lee won the DGA Award for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" in 2001 but then saw best directing honors slip away at the Academy, when Steven Soderbergh took that year's prize for "Traffic." This year, Lee's DGA win proved a better omen as he triumphed for the gay romance "Brokeback," a movie he insisted was not just about gay men but demonstrated "the greatness of love itself."

Weisz was named best supporting actress for playing a crusading activist in Africa in "Gardener." In her acceptance, she paid tribute to novelist John le Carre, "who wrote this unflinching, angry story. And he really paid tribute to the people who are willing to risk their own lives to fight injustice." She added, "They're greater men and women than I."

George Clooney picked up the evening's first award when he was named best supporting actor for his performance as a disillusioned CIA agent in "Syriana." The congenitally wisecracking Clooney couldn't resist observing wryly: "The funny thing about winning an Academy Award, it will always be synonymous with your name from here on in. George Clooney, Oscar winner, sexiest man alive 1997, Batman, died today in a freak accident ...."

But then he turned more serious, saying, "We are a little bit out of touch in Hollywood every once in a while. I think that's probably a good thing." Noting that Hollywood had confronted such issues as AIDS and civil rights before the rest of the country had, he continued: "This Academy, this group of people gave Hattie McDaniel an Oscar in 1939 when blacks were still sitting in the backs of theaters. I'm proud to be part of this Academy, proud to be part of this community and proud to be out of touch."

"I'm just glad that Clooney doesn't do makeup. It turned out well," said Howard Berger, who along with Tami Lane took home the award for best achievement in makeup for the fantasy film "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe."

Some of the evening's most eloquent words were spoken, appropriately enough, by the evening's winning screenwriters.

Writer-director-producer Paul Haggis, who shared best original screenplay honors with co-writer Bobby Moresco for "Crash," said, "Tonight, I just want to thank those people who take big risks in their daily lives when there aren't cameras rolling ... who stand up for peace and justice and against intolerance."

Diana Ossana, who was awarded best adapted screenplay honors along with her writing partner Larry McMurtry for "Brokeback," said, "The duty of art is to send light into the darkness of men's hearts. Thank you, Annie Proulx ... for trusting us with your brilliant short story. Thank you to Ang Lee and our brilliant cast for breathing life into our words."

"Brokeback" also earned an award for Argentinean composer Gustavo Santaolalla for the movie's score. "I'm so proud to have worked on this movie," he said, calling it "a movie that once again shows us that love makes us all very similar."

"It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp," the rap tune from "Hustle & Flow," with its music and lyrics by Jordan Houston, Cedric Coleman and Paul Beauregard, brought down the house with its win for best original song. But though it might have seemed an unlikely Oscar winner, it comes just three years after the win for "Lose Yourself," the rap song from Eminem's "8 Mile."

Colleen Atwood, an Oscar winner for "Chicago," picked up her second best costume win for the designing the luxurious kimonos of "Memoirs of a Geisha," a movie, she noted, that represented "an effort that circled the globe and came together here in Los Angeles." "Geisha" also copped the award for best art direction, which went to art director John Myhre and set designer Gretchen Rau, who could not attend because of health problems.

The movie's Dion Beebe earned the Oscar for best cinematography.

"King Kong" took the visual effects award, which went to Joe Letteri, Brian Van't Hul, Christian Rivers and Richard Taylor. They thanked actor Andy Serkis, who enacted the role of Kong before the monster was brought alive by CG artists, and also offered a shout-out to director Peter Jackson "for continuing to surprise us, guide us and making films we love."

"Kong" also claimed the honors for sound editing, shared by Mike Hopkins and Ethan Van der Ryn, and sound mixing, earned by Christopher Boyes, Michael Semanick, Michael Hedges and Hammond Peek.

The South African feature "Tsotsi," directed by Gavin Hood, was honored as best foreign-language feature.

When "March of the Penguins" scored the award for best documentary, its filmmakers took to the stage complete with prop penguins. Director Luc Jacquet offered a few words in simulated penguin-speak before dedicating the award to "all the children in the world who saw this movie" in the hopes that they would grow up to endorse a treaty to protect Antarctica.

Not to be outdone when it came to props, animation director Nick Park brought along tiny bow ties to decorate his Oscar. After winning three Academy Awards for his animated short films, including two centered on the eccentric English inventor Wallace, Park picked up his fourth Oscar when "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit" earned the award for best animated feature. Park, who accepted the award along with co-director Steve Box, offered special acknowledgment to actor Peter Sallis, present at the Kodak, who he said has been the voice of Wallace for 23 years.

The award for best live-action short went to the Irish film "Six Shooter," directed by Martin McDonagh, while the Oscar for best animated short went to "The Moon and the Son: An Imagined Conversation," directed by John Canemaker and produced by Peggy Stern. "Moon," in which Canemaker comes to terms with his Italian-American father, includes documentary footage as well as hand-drawn animation, and Canemaker thanked the Academy for "your faith in hand-drawn animation, which can still pack an emotional wallop."

"A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin" was named best short documentary. Eric Simonson, who shared the award with Corinne Marrinan, paid tribute to writer and broadcaster Corwin, saying, "I hope you are watching tonight, and I hope your words last forever."