March 12, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST

Hard to say exactly when it became clear we were witnessing a trouncing of mythical proportions. By hour 2, host Billy Crystal was already cracking jokes: ”It’s now official: There is nobody left in New Zealand to thank.” A bit later, The Barbarian Invasions producer Denise Robert, accepting for Best Foreign Language Film, quipped, ”We’re so thankful that Lord of the Rings did not qualify in this category.” By the time Best Picture presenter Steven Spielberg walked up to the lectern and ripped open the envelope, the room had fallen into a full-on Frodoesque Rings trance. ”It’s a clean sweep,” Spielberg said with a grin, and with that, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King racked up 11-for-11 wins — the highest perfect score in Oscar history — and tied Titanic and Ben-Hur for the most wins ever.

How do you say juggernaut in Elvish?

King was heavily favored in many categories, of course. Like the long-questing fellowship, the Tolkien trilogy had reached its end, and thus its reward. In 2002 The Fellowship of the Ring scored four Oscars; in 2003 The Two Towers won a mere pair (with lord of The Lord of the Rings Peter Jackson denied even a nomination in the directing category). Apparently, the Academy had been reserving the big bucket of gold guys for the series’ final act. But no one guessed how dominant The Return of the King would be. ”I think midway through the night, there was this feeling that it was all going to go our way,” says Elijah Wood. ”It was really wonderful and a little frightening to suddenly become the enemy of the room.”

That hostility may have been less about the sweep and more about the sheer tedium of the 76th Annual Academy Awards — one of the most predictable Oscar ceremonies in memory. You know you’re in for a mellow night when the biggest upset is — egads! — Destino’s loss for animated short film. While the nominations presented a refreshing mix — foreign-language films were up for major prizes, nominees hailed from places as diverse as South Africa, Iran, Japan, and Brazil, and half of the 20 acting nominees were first-timers — the results themselves were as unruffling as eight-time Oscar host Crystal, the Academy equivalent of comfort food.

It’s a good night to be a hobbit,” Robin Williams remarked at the end of Oscar eve. Indeed, the entire weekend was hobbitcentric, beginning with a must-attend party Saturday night at the stunning hilltop home of New Line cochairman Robert Shaye. Along with Jackson, Wood, et al., the event attracted such varied stars as Sean Connery, Anjelica Huston, Julianne Moore, Brendan Fraser, Pierce Brosnan, and even American Splendor’s Harvey Pekar, who was predictably dour, sitting stone-faced with wife Joyce in front of the dance floor and saying of the Oscars, ”It’s all bulls — -.”

Okay, but Hilary Swank sure looked like she was having fun, and the party offered quite a contrast to the fete thrown by Miramax, which was not only low-key but also low-wattage, except for obligatory Cold Mountain attendees Renee Zellweger and Jude Law. The limp affair may have been due to the fact that the studio failed to produce a Best Picture nominee for the first time in 12 years. (Still, they have the cold comfort of owning a piece of Master and Commander — and Harvey and Bob Weinstein got to see their names in King’s credits.) Harvey blames Cold Mountain’s snubbing on its late release date, exacerbated by the Great Screener Debacle of 2003 — in which, to prevent piracy, the MPAA banned studios from sending out films on videotape or DVD. The ban was ultimately vanquished by court order (MPAA head Jack Valenti himself admitted on Oscar night that he wished he’d handled it differently). Still, many screeners got posted late — a tough break in the already short Oscar season. When told that Jackson dismissed the theory that films were hurt by the delay, Weinstein snapped: ”The screener thing didn’t hurt him at all. So of course he said that.”

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