In a ceremony alternately as solemn and celebratory as the movie that won a leading four prizes -- the rags-to-riches drama "Slumdog Millionaire" -- Sunday night's Golden Globe awards helped focus the Oscar race as it honored the late Heath Ledger for his performance in "The Dark Knight."
By winning trophies for best dramatic picture, director, screenplay and score, "Slumdog Millionaire" cemented its place as the awards season's most beloved underdog: After losing its American distributor soon after it completed filming early last year, the modestly budgeted story of an unlikely Indian game show contestant now has become not only a powerful Academy Award contender but also a minor box-office hit.
"We really weren't expecting to be here in America at all at one time so it's just amazing to be standing here," "Slumdog Millionaire" screenwriter Simon Beaufoy said in accepting his honor from the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. A few months after Warner Bros. closed "Slumdog Millionaire" distributor Warner Independent Pictures, Fox Searchlight took over the $14-million film's release, with Warners sharing costs and revenue.
If "Slumdog Millionaire" provided the most joyous moments at the 66th annual awards show, Ledger's posthumous win for supporting actor offered its most poignant.
Ledger died last January from an overdose of prescription medications, before "The Dark Knight" was released and became the second-highest grossing movie in Hollywood, trailing only "Titanic." "The Dark Knight" was the actor's last completed film role.
"I for one will start to be able to look less at the gap in the future and the incredible place Heath made for himself with his talent and with his dedication," Chris Nolan, the film's director and co-writer, said in accepting Ledger's award for his haunting performance as the Joker.
Ledger's win was not unexpected, but in one of the more surprising picks by the 85 movie journalists who make up the HFPA, Mickey Rourke was named best dramatic actor for his role as an over-the-hill grappler in "The Wrestler."
"It's been a very long road back for me," said a humbled Rourke, a veteran actor whose admittedly wild off-screen behavior tarnished his reputation and nearly cost him the lead role in "The Wrestler." Rourke was initially dropped from the film when the producers couldn't raise money to make the movie with him in the lead, and he was recast only after his replacement, Nicolas Cage, and director Darren Aronofsky parted ways on the movie. The actor even thanked his dogs for sticking with him when others did not.
More of an extended, freewheeling and alcohol-soaked dinner party than most award shows, Sunday night's ceremony may have reached new highs (or lows) for bawdy banter.
Rourke's acceptance speech was peppered with mild profanities, Aronofsky made a joking (but nevertheless obscene) gesture toward Rourke, and "Slumdog Millionaire" producer Christian Colson appeared to utter a four-letter expletive when the broadcast's producers cued music in the middle of his best drama acceptance speech. The remarks and gesture could spark complaints to the Federal Communications Commission; publicists from NBC did not immediately respond to e-mails seeking comment.
When winners weren't talking like gangster rappers, a few appeared surprised and flattered, including the English actress Kate Winslet, who won for dramatic actress (as an unhappy suburban housewife in "Revolutionary Road") and supporting actress for "The Reader" (in which she played a German troller worker with a horrendous secret.)
"I was so shocked to win one. Honestly, I can't believe it," Winslet said backstage after collecting her second trophy. "To have been here so many times and to have not won so many times. To win twice in one night . . . ," said the actress, a previous Golden Globe nominee for "Little Children."
Because the HFPA is composed of journalists working for foreign publications, it was not entirely unanticipated that only one of the six acting winners was American (Rourke being the exception). "Happy Go Lucky's" Sally Hawkins, who was named top actress in a musical or comedy, is English, while "In Bruges' " Colin Farrell, the selection for best actor in a musical or comedy, is Irish. Winslet is British and Ledger was born in Australia.
In the other film awards, Woody Allen's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" collected the award for best comedy or musical, "Waltz With Bashir" was named top foreign language film, "Wall-E" took the animation prize, and Bruce Springsteen's ballad for "The Wrestler" -- a song that Rourke personally asked the rocker to compose -- was honored as best original song.