Hollywood -- Philip Seymour Hoffman was named best actor last night at the 78th annual Academy Awards for his performance as Truman Capote in the film Capote.
Otherwise, films with clear political messages dominated the early stages of last night's Academy Awards, as George Clooney and Rachel Weisz won supporting actor and actress Oscars for movies that questioned America's Mideast policy and the world's treatment of medical crises in Africa.
In the evening's first award, Clooney won for playing a burned-out, overweight CIA agent in Syriana. Clooney entered the evening up for three Oscars (also for directing and writing Good Night, and Good Luck), and used his acceptance speech to address the notion that there's a growing disconnect between what Hollywood deems award-worthy and what audiences want to see.
"This academy ... gave Hattie McDaniel an Academy Award in 1939 when blacks were still sitting in the backs of theaters," Clooney said, recalling the African-American actress honored for playing Mammy in Gone With the Wind. "I'm proud to be part of this academy ... and I'm proud to be out of touch."
Weisz won for playing a political activist working in Africa whose murder leads to an investigation of government corruption in The Constant Gardener, a thriller based on a book by John Le Carre.
The film, she said, "paid tribute to the people who are willing to risk their own lives to fight against injustice. They're greater men and women than I."
Both Clooney and Weisz praised filmmakers for movies that question the current political and cultural mainstream.
"They might be out of the mainstream at times, but the mainstream keeps changing," Clooney said. "These two films [Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck] would have been dead center in the mainstream back in 1976."
Nick Park's Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, a showcase for stop-motion animation, won for best animated feature, a category dominated since its inception by films from Pixar studios. Backstage, Park joked how glad he was that "Pixar didn't have a movie this year."
A special Oscar was presented to director Robert Altman, who was praised by presenters Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep as a man "who didn't play by the rules or stick to the script."
Although nominated for the directing award five times (for M*A*S*H, Nashville, The Player, Short Cuts and Gosford Park), Altman - long recognized as one of Hollywood's favorite, most contented loners - has never won a competitive Oscar.
"I look at it as a nod to all of my films," Altman said in accepting his award, "because for me, I have made just one long film."
In one of the evening's most competitive categories, last summer's surprise box-office hit, March of the Penguins, was named the best feature-length documentary.
In a shocker that undoubtedly increased the motion picture academy's street cred, the best song Oscar went to "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp," from Hustle & Flow.
Other Oscars were awarded to Memoirs of a Geisha (art direction and costume design), The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (makeup), King Kong (visual effects) and Crash (editing).
Tsotsi, from South Africa, won the award for best foreign language film.
Brokeback Mountain had been the clear frontrunner since nominations were announced Jan. 31. Momentum had been building steadily for Crash, however, with its multiple storylines and suggestion that America has yet to become a true racial melting pot.
Brokeback has generated plenty of controversy, thanks to its gay central characters and their intimate relationship. But Crash has been making its own news lately, thanks to a dispute over which of the six credited producers should be allowed onto the Oscar stage should it win for best picture. The academy ruled it would allow only two, producer-director Paul Haggis and Cathy Schulman, leading at least one of the slighted producers to file suit.
For the second straight year, the motion picture academy opted for a rookie host. Last year, it was Chris Rock, picked at least partially in an attempt to attract the young, male audience advertisers covet. This year, the new guy onstage was The Daily Show's Jon Stewart, picked for much the same reason.
After an opening that suggested he was way down the list of Oscar's preferred hosts (including cameos by former hosts Billy Crystal, Rock, Steve Martin, Whoopi Goldberg and David Letterman), Stewart riffed on nominated films and poked fun at many stars in attendance ... as well as on the glitter and glamour that always accompanies the awards ceremony.
He also praised the film Capote, for showing America "that not all gay people are virile cowboys."