Oscars '09: Winners' stories -- Sean Penn, Kate Winslet, Danny Boyle, and other nominees react to the ceremony

By Josh Rottenberg
Updated February 27, 2009 at 05:00 AM EST

Director Danny Boyle is a master at amping up suspense, and on the red carpet at the 81st annual Academy Awards, he was doing his best to inject maximum drama into the evening’s proceedings. That wave of pre-Oscar awards for his rousing indie hit Slumdog Millionaire? The virtually unanimous assumption that it was a lock for Best Picture? Don’t be fooled, he warned. This thing was going to come right down to the wire. ”No one knows anything, really,” Boyle said. ”We’ll see. It’s a cliff-hanger!”

Nice try. By the time the final curtain fell on the Oscar ceremony some four hours later, the brightly colored fable about a plucky orphan from the slums of Mumbai who finds love and riches beyond his wildest dreams had reached its preordained fairy-tale ending, racking up eight statuettes, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Song for its closing number, ”Jai Ho” (which, fittingly enough, loosely translates as ”victory”). Even Harvey Weinstein, who had his own Best Picture candidate with The Reader, had to acknowledge that Slumdog, for all its exotic flavor, managed to tap into Americans’ deep longing for a sense of uplift in troubled times. ”When you study what Franklin D. Roosevelt did in his first 100 days, he inspired the country, and I think that’s the appeal of Slumdog Millionaire,” Weinstein said from the red carpet before the ceremony. ”It’s very appropriate.”

Appropriate, yes. Shocking TV, no. This year’s Oscars were notably short on dramatic upsets. As anticipated, Penélope Cruz took home the Best Supporting Actress prize for Vicky Cristina Barcelona; Heath Ledger won a posthumous Best Supporting Actor award for The Dark Knight; Kate Winslet won a long-awaited Best Actress Oscar for The Reader; and, in the most contested major race, Milk star Sean Penn beat out The Wrestler‘s Mickey Rourke to win Best Actor. ”I’m truly not sure who I would have voted for: me or Mickey or one of these other guys,” Penn said after the ceremony. ”They’re all magicians.” Perhaps the biggest upset was in the Best Foreign Language Film category, in which the Japanese drama Departures defeated the Israeli favorite Waltz With Bashir. Asked backstage if he was surprised by the win, Departures director Yojiro Takita expressed (through an interpreter) a sentiment that was otherwise in short supply: ”It was hard to believe, and it was unbelievable.”

That’s not to say the evening was entirely without surprises. In an effort to goose the Oscars’ sagging ratings, new producers Laurence Mark and Bill Condon recruited Hugh Jackman as host to bring a dash of old-fashioned glamour to the telecast and made numerous tweaks to the show’s format, including upping the quotient of Broadway-style musical numbers (top hats! jazz hands!) and bringing five former winners on stage, like some Oscar version of Top Chef, to bestow each of the acting awards. Writer-director Judd Apatow, who’d shot a segment about comedy in which Seth Rogen and James Franco took jabs at some of the year’s most sober Oscar fare, was nervous about how it would play. ”If it doesn’t go well, I’ve got to sit uncomfortably in the middle of all these people,” he said.

Despite Boyle’s effusive praise for the revamped show during his acceptance speech (”It’s bloody wonderful!”), not all the innovations killed. Aside from a bit in which a mumbling Ben Stiller ambled around the stage with a bushy beard and sunglasses, à la Joaquin Phoenix (”You look like you work at a Hasidic meth lab,” cracked co-presenter Natalie Portman), the earnest presentation lacked the sharp, timely barbs that were a staple under hosts like Jon Stewart and Chris Rock. (There wasn’t a single Christian Bale joke, for starters.) Since awards season began, some argued that the Oscars will regain their former popularity only if they show more love in major categories to popcorn blockbusters, such as The Dark Knight and Iron Man. ”If ifs were gifts, every day would be Christmas,” Iron Man star Robert Downey Jr., a Best Supporting Actor nominee for Tropic Thunder, said on the red carpet with a shrug. In the end, the telecast managed to reverse the recent slide in viewership, beating the record-low ratings for last year’s show by 13 percent.

For the giddy young stars of Slumdog, who’d made the longest and strangest trip to the Kodak Theatre, none of that mattered. For them, the Oscars were the surreal climax of an improbable ride that began on the dusty streets of Mumbai. Late that night at the Fox Searchlight party, amid all the glittering celebrities, Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail and Rubina Ali, who portrayed the youngest versions of Salim and Latika, sat transfixed playing BrickBreaker on someone’s BlackBerry, even as blond women fawned over them and snapped pictures. The next day, they and some of the film’s other young cast members wouldn’t be taking meetings with high-powered studio executives and directors. They were going to Disneyland.

Additional reporting by Ari Karpel, Whitney Pastorek, and Nicole Sperling