The urban drama "Precious" earned best supporting actress for Mo'Nique, who used her speech to fire back at critics who accused her of not campaigning hard enough for the film. "First," she said, "I would like to thank the Academy for showing that it can be about the performance and not the politics."
"I want to thank Miss Hattie McDaniel for enduring all that she had to so that I would not have to," she said, also thanking Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, who signed on as executive producers to promote "Precious" after it premiered at last year's Sundance Film Festival.
"Precious" also won best adapted screenplay, stealing one of the only seemingly sure awards for "Up in the Air," essentially sinking that movie's chances of taking home any statues.
Though awards for best director and best picture had yet to be handed out, "Avatar" won awards for art direction, visual effects and cinematography.
The close Oscar race played into a broadcast tailored to appeal to an audience that has been dwindling in recent years. A newly expanded best picture category with 10 nominees, up from the usual five, aimed to recognize popular hits such as "The Blind Side" along with little-seen critical favorites such as "An Education."
But the show also looked for other ways to become a must-see event, besides trotting out the usual array of A-list presenters such as Cameron Diaz and Robert Downey Jr. A lengthy tribute to horror films seemed almost an excuse to use the "Twilight" stars Kristen Stewart and Taylor Lautner as presenters. By contrast, a tribute to the late writer-director John Hughes played to nostalgia by reuniting Molly Ringwald, Judd Nelson, Anthony Michael Hall and others onstage.
Among the other major award-winners were "Up" for best animated feature and original score, "The Weary Kind (Theme from Crazy Heart)" for best original song and Christoph Waltz for best supporting actor in "Inglourious Basterds."
Some other memorable moments:
HAPPY TO BE HERE. In the show's opening lineup of leading actor and actress nominees, first-timer Gabourey Sidibe ("Precious") celebrated with a little hip-shaking dance.
DEUTSCHE THANKS. Waltz, accepting his award for supporting actor in "Inglourious Basterds" from presenter Penélope Cruz, marveled: "Oscar and Penelope - that's an uber-bingo!"
REAL COUNTRY. Ryan Bingham, accepting for best original song for "The Weary Kind (Theme From Crazy Heart)," offered a lyrical thanks to his wife: "I love you more than rainbows, baby."
WORKING BLUE. Ben Stiller presented the award for best makeup wearing an "Avatar"-style costume (complete with tail), noting that the movie wasn't even nominated.