HOLLYWOOD — They walked into the Kodak Theatre and took a seat at the 78th annual Academy Awards hoping to forever leave behind the stepping stones that brought them here. Some nominees had been fired from sitcoms, some had suffered through tiny indignities in made-for-TV movies and at least one had starred on TV's "The Facts of Life." They'd made critically despised clunkers like "The Mummy Returns," "Hulk" and "Legally Blonde 2." On Sunday night (March 5), however, the only thing some of them would make was history.
Reese Witherspoon, George Clooney, Rachel Weisz and Philip Seymour Hoffman took home the first Oscars of their careers, seeming to indicate a transformative celebration that shockingly stopped short of another groundbreaking bestowal: the naming of a gay-themed best picture winner.
An uproar erupted throughout the press room as the night's most predictable victory was snatched away, with the underdog "Crash" overtaking the presumed winner, "Brokeback Mountain." "Crash," a drama about the intersection of more than a dozen diverse people in Los Angeles, had been viewed by prognosticators as an unlikely winner. Perhaps, some joked, the victory had something to do with the sheer number of voting Academy members in the cast.
"You know what would be easier?" host Jon Stewart joked, attempting to acknowledge everyone from Sandra Bullock to Ludacris to Terrence Howard. "Raise your hand if you were not in 'Crash.' "
The film's big win stunned Oscar know-it-alls and, perhaps especially, astonished many of those who made the film. Last month writer/director Paul Haggis told MTV News that, when Lions Gate Films informed him of the studio's plan to campaign for a Best Picture nod for "Crash," his response had been cautious.
"I said, 'Don't embarrass me, please. Don't humiliate me.' And they ignored me — thank God."
Last night, a triumphant Haggis joked backstage after the win. "Do we look muted?" he asked, rhetorically. "Because we're pretty happy. I'm so shocked. We're still trying to believe that we actually got this."
The night's most infectious victory, however, came via Three 6 Mafia, winners of best song for "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" from "Hustle & Flow." Moments after a rambunctious performance of the song onstage, the jeans-and-hats-sporting group gave an equally boisterous acceptance speech, much to the delight of attendees Queen Latifah and Jamie Foxx — who offered to party with them after the show. Juicy J fit in shout-outs to Ludacris, Clooney and Memphis for good measure during his acceptance speech, after which Stewart singled out the group as being the happiest people in the Kodak.
"I think it just got a little bit easier out here for a pimp," laughed Stewart. "That's how you accept an Oscar."
"This is such a blessing right now," Three 6's Juicy J said backstage moments later. "This means, like, more movies to write, writing more songs for more movies. We have some independent films we're going to try to put out ourselves. This is so huge for the group."
"Right now, when you look around and listen to radio and watch television, hip-hop is taking over," added DJ Paul, trying to catch his breath after becoming part of the only hip-hop act ever to win an Oscar. "Clothes, underwear, there is so much going on. Hip-hop is taking over."
One thing that didn't inspire such revolution was "Brokeback," winning mostly minor awards after its advance hype had Best Supporting Actor winner George Clooney teasing backstage that the film had inspired him to make a gay love movie of his own. "A sequel to 'Batman' would be the gay thing," he grinned, referring to "Batman & Robin," the 1997 skeleton in his closet of clunkers.
"That's the funny thing about winning an Academy Award," Clooney said minutes before in his acceptance speech. "It will always be synonymous with your name from here on in. [My obituary] will be: Oscar winner George Clooney, sexiest man alive 1997, Batman, died today in a freak accident."
On the fashion front, Morgan Freeman kicked it Hef-style in an ascot, Charlize Theron's shoulder was weighed down by a bow so big it needed its own seat and Jessica Alba opened herself up to dozens of whiplash lawsuits while turning heads in a sexy golden dress (see "Salma And Reese Make Colorful Splashes, Jake And Heath Hog The Black On Oscar Red Carpet"). The most fashionable accessory at the Oscars, however, was a sense of humor — something freshman host Jon Stewart had in no short supply.
In an off-kilter opening video segment that solicited punch lines from past hosts including Chris Rock and David Letterman, Stewart awoke from a dream and rolled over in bed to find Halle Berry, then George Clooney, urging him to take the job as Oscar host (see "Oscar Host Jon Stewart Gives Mad Props to Three 6 Mafia, Fears Russell Crowe Beat-Down"). It would prove an ideal opening for a night marked by references to first-time experiences, Clooney's love life and sexual-orientation tolerance.
"I'm so glad to be here tonight," the "Daily Show" host greeted the crowd before acknowledging the "elephant in the room." "Let's face facts — even the boxing movie was called 'Cinderella Man.' There were a lot of gay themes."
"Tonight is the night we celebrate excellence in film," he continued. "With me, the fourth male lead from [the 2002 bomb] 'Death to Smoochy.' "
Smooching her own shiny new friend moments after meeting him for the first time, a very-pregnant Rachel Weisz discussed her Best Supporting Actress win for "The Constant Gardener," along with a reluctance to bring more than one Oscar into her life. "There are a few names [in mind]," she laughed while addressing reporters. "We don't know if it's a boy or a girl. We're still thinking [of names], but Oscar isn't among them."
Weisz — who pulled a Hilary Swank onstage when she forgot to thank fiance Darren Aronofsky (director of "Requiem for a Dream" and "Pi") — blamed her scatterbrained nature on a combination of motherhood and mass hysteria. "I think it's because I'm pregnant, my brain is like porridge," she grinned. "The adrenaline, the baby was going crazy; poor baby. It was kicking around."
Not pregnant yet undoubtedly sharing Weisz's upset stomach was Philip Seymour Hoffman, the typically mellow "Capote" star who was visibly moved by a Best Actor win that may finally allow him to overcome the second-banana stigma that has dogged his career. "I literally lost all control of my bowels up there," he joked backstage. "I'm lucky I got off when I did."
One winner who couldn't have stayed on the stage long enough was Witherspoon, who after her maiden win acknowledged that future plans include leaving the "Legally Blonde" series in the dust. "Well, there's not even a '3' yet, lucky you," she joked. "I don't know what I'll do next. I have no work; I'm unemployed."
"For me this was a great accomplishment," Witherspoon said of her moving turn, acting and singing and soliciting great emotion as Johnny Cash's wife June Carter Cash in "Walk the Line." "This woman is just an amazing person to portray. That was more than a lot of it. I was lucky to have this opportunity, and lucky I didn't blow it away."
Blown away was the best way to describe Ang Lee, who confidently accepted his Oscar for best director by saying, "I wish I could quit you," and then revealed backstage that he had barely walked into the wings when he heard of the upset best picture snubbing for his film. "It was a surprise for me this year, frankly," a stunned Lee said. "But congratulations to the 'Crash' filmmakers. It seems to be very enjoyable."
"At the box office we finished the best of all five movies, and we'd been winning and sweeping among all these movies," he continued, reference the film's big wins at other award ceremonies (see " 'Brokeback Mountain,' 'Walk The Line' Win Big At Golden Globes"). "I just don't know."
"It's bittersweet," "Brokeback" screenwriter Diana Ossana added. "But it's wonderful that we won for the screenplay."
For some of tonight's eager nominees, the 78th Oscars allowed them to forever put their stepping stones behind them. For others a party "Crash"-er sent them back to the drawing boards.