In the evening's most hotly contested battle, veteran Clint Eastwood triumphed over the slightly less veteran Martin Scorsese to win the Oscar for best director.
It was the victory of "Million Dollar Baby," the small, intimate character piece, over "The Aviator," the super-sized extravaganza of Hollywood filmmaking.
Scorsese, 62, one of Hollywood's premier directors, has been nominated five times for best director but has never won, joining the ranks of Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles as directors who've won numerous kudos but never the ultimate award.
Showing his cool elan, the 74-year-old Eastwood -- who became the oldest winner of the directing award -- thanked his mother, 96, for her "genes" and added, "I'm happy to be here and still working."
He thanked a long list of veteran collaborators, including 89-year old production designer Henry Bumstead, whom he described as a member of "our crack geriatrics team."
Eastwood also beat Taylor Hackford ("Ray"), Mike Leigh ("Vera Drake") and Alexander Payne ("Sideways") for the directing prize.
Yet it was the contest between front-runners Scorsese and Eastwood that proved to be the evening's nail-biter. The well-respected icons have come to embody different strains of Hollywood filmmaking.
In one corner was Scorsese, the diminutive, fast-talking Italian-New Yorker -- an enfant terrible of the 1970s who spearheaded one of the greatest periods in American film with such intensely personal, super-macho stories as "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull." Thirty years later, when most of his auteur comrades had faded from the scene (with the notable exception of Steven Spielberg), Scorsese has kept ticking, devoting himself to extravagant, visually flamboyant historical pageants starring dreamboat Leonardo DiCaprio.
A wonky cineaste, Scorsese is also filmdom's most famous preservationist.
In the other corner was Dirty Harry, the film star who also became a director in the 1970s with such films as "Play Misty for Me" and "The Outlaw Josey Wales." At the time, Eastwood was largely derided by critics as either a crypto-fascist or a dud, a critical assessment that dissipated with 1992's Oscar-winning "Unforgiven."
Through the last decade, he told his stories tersely, with spare economy and increasingly lean budgets. He wrote and played their jazzy melancholic scores.
Meeting with reporters backstage Sunday, he called "Million Dollar Baby" "a humble movie" and said he didn't take anything for granted.
Eastwood and Scorsese do, of course, share similarities -- an obsession with alienated men in America, with violence and its repercussions. As directors, neither has garnered wild box-office success; both have had to resort to different strategies to stay in the game. Both also have devoted fans, particularly among actors who credit them as maestros of performance -- albeit with dramatically different methods.
Scorsese has guided more actors to Oscar nominations than any other living director. With Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman's victories Sunday night, Eastwood surpassed him in leading the most actors to the actual award.
Conventional wisdom says that the actors' branch dominates the 5,808-member academy. Conventional wisdom has proved right, as Scorsese has been beaten by actor-directors Robert Redford, Kevin Costner and now Eastwood.
This year, Scorsese did little campaigning -- he was rumored to have felt besmirched by the glad-handing he performed two years ago on behalf of "Gangs of New York," which came to nothing. By contrast, Eastwood was re-embraced by the media and then targeted by conservatives, who accused the former Republican mayor of Carmel of creating a pro-euthanasia commercial.
Fortunately, a cinematic rematch waits in the wings. Scorsese will return to the gangster milieu with "The Departed," an Irish gangster story starring DiCaprio and Jack Nicholson, while Eastwood tackles "Flags of Our Fathers," the big-screen version of James Bradley's book detailing the battle of Iwo Jima in WWII.