Two heavyweights battled to the finish Sunday at the 77th Academy Awards, with "Million Dollar Baby" winning a unanimous decision over "The Aviator."
Clint Eastwood's heartbreaking boxing drama took best picture and director, repeating his "Unforgiven" double from 1992. Yet "Aviator" flew off with the most awards: five, including four technical prizes and best supporting actress for Cate Blanchett.
Not one category yielded a stunning surprise. As predicted, Jamie Foxx took home the best actor award for his dead-on impersonation of Ray Charles in "Ray." Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman won actress and supporting actor as the hard-luck boxer and ruminative trainer of "Baby." The literate "Sideways" and imaginative "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" split screenplay awards.
Chris Rock got off to a rough start in his hosting debut, making a mistake in his second sentence: "We have four black nominees tonight. (There were five, counting actors alone.) He began with puffball jokes: "The only acting at the Oscars is from people pretending they're not mad they lost. ... "
Then he stalked around the stage, getting as close as he could to the front row of bystanders and venting at pet peeves in a comedy club-style monologue. There were no montages of clips with Rock inserted, no mock musical numbers, no attempts to be even-handed or ingratiating.
Rock expressed approval of "Fahrenheit 9/11," then cut loose on the president: "Bush basically re-applied for his job this year. If you applied for a job, and there was a movie in every theater showing how much you sucked in that job, would you get it?"
He handled this year's big movie controversy by saying, "I saw `Passion of the Christ.' Not that funny, really. They made six `Police Academies' but couldn't make `Passion of the Christ'? A lot of Jewish people were offended by `Passion.' I can relate to that: I had to deal with `Soul Plane.' "
(Anyone who felt the Academy slighted `Passion' had reason to complain Sunday. It lost all three awards -- cinematography, makeup and score -- it might have won.)
Rock introduced Halle Berry like this: "An Oscar-winner for `Monster's Ball,' she will soon eagerly be seen in `Catwoman 2.' (The stone-faced Berry ignored him to discuss art direction.) He also fired away at a well-known liberal: "When he's not dazzling us with his acting ability, he's boring us to death with his politics. Please welcome Tim Robbins!"
Rock's lowest moment came when he impersonated Catherine Zeta-Jones in a sex-mad bit with Adam Sandler. As the show went on, Rock virtually disappeared, then muzzled himself except for straightforward introductions.
Academy president Frank Pierson, who won a 1975 Oscar for writing "Dog Day Afternoon," added an uplifting note by dedicating the show to U.S. troops around the world. He brought on "Dog Day" star Al Pacino to present a lifetime award to 80-year-old director Sidney Lumet, who's been nominated five times but has never won. (Martin Scorsese can empathize: With the "Aviator" loss, he's gone 0-for-7 since 1980 as a writer and director.)
The program moved faster than usual on occasion; all five nominees were sometimes shepherded onstage before the winner was named. That happened only in categories where none of us knew who they were, such as art direction. Since the camera didn't cut to them for shocked or disappointed reactions, that change added nothing to the atmosphere.
The show seemed more multi-national than ever. Ethnic presenters ranged from Spain's Penélope Cruz and Mexico's Salma Hayek to China's Ziyi Zhang.
Beyoncé Knowles sang one Oscar-nominated song in French, Antonio Banderas crooned one from "The Motorcycle Diaries" in Spanish -- "Al Otro Lado del Rio," which won -- and French-born, Chinese-American cellist Yo-Yo Ma played a Bach sarabande during the annual film-clip tribute to dead folks. It was a good night to be Hispanic: Spain's "The Sea Inside" won best foreign film.