LOS ANGELES - Christopher Plummer and Octavia Spencer won the supporting-acting Academy Awards on Sunday and Michel Hazanavicius earned the directing prize for his best-picture front-runner "The Artist."
The 82-year-old Plummer became the oldest acting winner ever for his role as an elderly widower who comes out as gay in "Beginners."
"You're only two years older than me, darling," Plummer said, addressing his Oscar statue in this 84th year of the awards. "Where have you been all my life? I have a confession to make. When I first emerged from my mother's womb, I was already rehearsing my Oscar speech."
The previous oldest winner was best-actress recipient Jessica Tandy for "Driving Miss Daisy," at age 80.
Completing an awards-season blitz that took her from Hollywood bit player to star, Spencer won for her role in "The Help" as a headstrong black maid whose willful ways continually land her in trouble with white employers in 1960s Mississippi.
Spencer wept throughout her breathless speech, in which she apologized between laughing and crying for running a bit long on her time limit.
"Thank you, academy, for putting me with the hottest guy in the room," Spencer said, referring to last year's supporting-actor winner Christian Bale, who presented her Oscar.
Her brash character holds a personal connection: "The Help" author Kathryn Stockett based some of the woman's traits on Spencer, whom she met through childhood pal Tate Taylor, the director of the film.
"I am the happiest director in the world," Havanavicius said, thanking the cast, crew and canine co-star Uggie. "I also want to thank the financier, the crazy person who put money in the movie."
Hazanavicius had come in as the favorite after winning at the Directors Guild of America Awards, whose recipient almost always goes on to claim the Oscar.
The win is even more impressive given the type of film Hazanavicius made, a black-and-white silent movie that was a throwback to the early decades of cinema. Other than Charles Chaplin, who continued to make silent films into the 1930s, and Mel Brooks, who scored a hit with the 1976 comedy "Silent Movie," few people have tried it since talking pictures took over in the late 1920s.
The only other filmmaker from France to win the directing Oscar is "The Pianist" creator Roman Polanski, who was born in France, moved to Poland as a child and has lived in France since fleeing Hollywood in the 1970s on charges he had sex with a 13-year-old girl.
Hazanavicius, known in his home country for the "OSS 117" spy comedies but virtually unheard of in Hollywood previously, won a prize that eluded half a dozen of France's most-esteemed filmmakers, including Jean Renoir, Francois Truffaut and Louis Malle, who all were nominated for directing Oscars but never won.
Martin Scorsese's Paris adventure "Hugo" won five Oscars, including the first two prizes of the night, for cinematography and art direction. It also won for visual effects, sound mixing and sound editing.
It was a great start for Scorsese's film, which led contenders with 11 nominations.
The visual-effects prize had been the last chance for the "Harry Potter" franchise to win an Oscar. The finale, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2," had been nominated for visual effects and two other Oscars but lost all three. Previous "Harry Potter" installments had lost on all nine of their nominations.
The teen wizard may never have struck Oscar gold, but he has a consolation prize: $7.7 billion at the box office worldwide, including $1.3 billion from "Deathly Hallows: Part 2," last year's top-grossing movie.
Another beloved big-screen bunch, the Muppets, finally got their due at the Oscars. "The Muppets" earned the best-song award for "Man or Muppet," the sweet comic duet sung by Jason Segel and his Muppet brother in the film, the first big-screen adventure in 12 years for Kermit the frog and company.
Earlier Muppet flicks had been nominated for four music Oscars but lost each time, including the song prize for "The Rainbow Connection," Kermit's signature tune from 1979's "The Muppet Movie."
"I grew up in New Zealand watching the Muppets on TV. I never dreamed I'd get to work with them," said "Man or Muppet" writer Bret McKenzie of the musical comedy duo Flight of the Conchords," who joked about meeting Kermit for the first time. "Like many stars here tonight, he's a lot shorter in real life."
Filmmaker Alexander Payne picked up his second writing Oscar, sharing the adapted-screenplay prize for the Hawaiian family drama "The Descendants" with co-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. Payne, who also directed "The Descendants," previously won the same award for "Sideways."
Payne said he brought along his mother from Omaha to the Oscars, and that she had demanded a shout-out if he made it onstage.
"She made me promise that if I ever won another Oscar I had to dedicate it to her just like Javier Bardem did with his Oscar. So mom, this one's for you. Thank you for letting me skip nursery school so we could go to the movies."
Woody Allen earned his first Oscar in 25 years, winning for original screenplay for the romantic fantasy "Midnight in Paris," his biggest hit in decades. It's the fourth Oscar for Allen, who won for directing and screenplay on his 1977 best-picture winner "Annie Hall" and for screenplay on 1986's "Hannah and Her Sisters."
No fan of awards shows, Allen predictably skipped Sunday's ceremony, where he also was up for best director and "Midnight in Paris" was competing for best picture.
Best-picture front-runner "The Artist," which ran second to "Hugo" with 10 nominations, won two Oscars, for musical score and costume design.
"Rango," with Johnny Depp providing the voice of a desert lizard that becomes a hero to a parched Western town, won for best animated feature.
"Someone asked me if this film was for kids, and I don't know. But it was certainly created by a bunch of grown-ups acting like children," said "Rango" director Gore Verbinski, who made the first three of Depp's "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies.
"Undefeated," a portrait of an underdog high school football team, won for feature documentary.
Back as Oscar host for the first time in eight years, Crystal also did his signature introduction of the best-picture nominees with a goofy song medley.
Before his monologue, Crystal appeared in a collection of clips inserting him in scenes from key nominees. The montage included re-creations from some 2011 films featuring Tom Cruise of "Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol" and Clooney's best-picture contender "The Descendants," with the actor planting a kiss on Crystal.
Spoofing a scene from nominee "Midnight in Paris," Bieber told Crystal he was there to bring in the 18-to-24-year-old demographic for the 63-year-old host.
Crystal's return as host seemed appropriate on a night that had Hollywood looking back fondly on more than a century of cinema history.
The top two nominees — "Hugo" and "The Artist" — are both love songs to early cinema.
"Hugo" centers on a mystery connected to French cinema pioneer Georges Melies, who made groundbreaking fantastical short films in the early 1900s. "The Artist" traces the downfall of a 1920s movie star and is favored to become the first silent film to win best picture since the original Oscar ceremony 83 years ago.
Add the Marilyn Monroe tale "My Week with Marilyn" — which earned Michelle Williams a best-actress nomination as the Hollywood's greatest sex goddess and Kenneth Branagh a supporting-actor nomination as Oscar winner Laurence Olivier — and the show's producers had a ready-made script for a night of fond recollection and backslapping about show business.
Producers Brian Grazer and Don Mischer created the right setting, converting the theater where the Oscars have been held for the last decade into a grand mock-up of a stylish old movie house.
Of course, nostalgia can be sad along with celebratory. The Eastman Kodak Co., whose film has been a staple in the business for as long as Hollywood has been around, is in bankruptcy, and to save money, it won court approval to duck out of its sponsorship deal for the theater that's home to the Oscars.
The signs were still up identifying it as the Kodak Theatre, but at the request of the landlord, Oscar organizers yanked references to it from the broadcast.
"We're here at the beautiful Chapter 11 theater," Crystal joked.