The filmmakers from Down Under were on top of the entertainment world Sunday evening as "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," the final installment of the hugely successful trilogy, made a clean sweep at the 76th annual Academy Awards held at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood.
In an abbreviated awards season that cut short Oscar campaigning by a month, the epic adventure of hobbits, elves and wizards conjured from the pen of the late novelist J.R.R. Tolkien, captured Oscars in all 11 categories in which it was nominated, including best picture. The record-tying sweep was particularly notable since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had honored the first two films only for technical achievement, overlooking them in the major categories.
The 28-year-old South African-born Charlize Theron won best actress for her appearance- and career-altering role as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in the low-budget drama "Monster," while Sean Penn, who has skipped the show the last three times he was nominated, walked away with best actor as a grieving, revenge-filled father of a murdered girl in Clint Eastwood's "Mystic River."
Peter Jackson, 42, who took home Oscars for director and adapted screenplay for "The Return of the King," said he was relieved that the academy had "seen past the trolls and the wizards and the hobbits in recognizing fantasy this year." The award has proven elusive for fantasy genre films, bypassing screen classics such as "The Wizard of Oz," "Star Wars" and "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial."
The night, however, proved to be a celebration of all things Middle-earth. "The Return of the King" also received Oscars for art direction, costume design, visual effects, makeup, sound mixing, score, editing and song. The vastly popular trilogy was seven years in the making and the final installment was one of only two films in Hollywood history to gross more than $1 billion worldwide, the other being 1997's "Titanic."
With the 11 wins, "Return" ties 1959's "Ben-Hur" and "Titanic" for the most Oscars.
After a night in which Jackson and his New Zealand-based production crushed the competition, Theron thanked "everybody in South Africa" and, holding up the golden statuette, added, "They're all watching tonight and I'm bringing this home next week."
Penn, 43, in acknowledging the community of actors, said, "If there is one thing that actors know, other than that there weren't any WMDs (weapons of mass destruction in Iraq), it's that there's no such thing as best in acting."
Oscar night was particularly sweet for winners in the top categories, where the gold went to films that were deemed either risky gambles or consigned to the low-budget world of independents. They included "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, which New Line Cinema greenlighted despite a $300 million budget going into the project; "Mystic River," which Eastwood got made only because of his clout at Warner Bros., and "Monster," which independent Newmarket Films distributed.
The trophy for best supporting actor went to 45-year-old Tim Robbins for his role as an adult haunted by memories of being molested as a child in "Mystic River."
Although one of Hollywood's most politically outspoken actors, Robbins used his acceptance speech not to slam the war in Iraq, a topic on which he's been vocal, but to implore real-life victims of child abuse and violence to seek help. Backstage, though, he was a little surprised that his outspoken politics had not cost him the Oscar.
"I never would have imagined this would happen because of so many negative things being written when we opposed the war last year," he said. "I'm moved by it. I'm humbled by it. I'm floored."
The academy conferred its best supporting actress statuette on Renee Zellweger, 34, for her role as Ruby, a cantankerous Southern farm girl in the Civil War drama "Cold Mountain." This was her third consecutive Oscar nomination, losing twice previously for best actress.
Asked backstage about the deglamorized look both she and fellow nominee Theron adopted in their roles, Zellweger said: "The more you can change yourself, the more removed the character is from your own experiences, the more rewarding it is creatively."
It was a family affair for the Coppolas as Sofia Coppola and father Francis Ford Coppola took the stage to present the best adapted screenplay award, shortly before she won the Oscar for best original screenplay for "Lost in Translation." . Just as three generations of Hustons -- Walter, son John and granddaughter Anjelica -- have won Oscars, so now have Sofia, her writer-director father and her late grandfather, composer Carmine Coppola.
A French-Canadian story of a dying college professor, "The Barbarian Invasions," captured the Oscar for best foreign language film -- the first Canadian feature to win in this category.