Octavia Spencer won the supporting-actress Academy Award on Sunday for "The Help," completing an awards-season blitz that took her from Hollywood bit player to star.
Spencer's Oscar triumph came for her role as a headstrong black maid whose willful ways continually land her in trouble with white employers in 1960s Mississippi.
Spencer wept throughout her breathless speech, in which she apologized, between laughing and crying, for running a bit long on her time limit.
"Thank you, academy, for putting me with the hottest guy in the room," Spencer said, referring to last year's supporting-actor winner Christian Bale, who presented her Oscar.
Her brash character holds a personal connection: "The Help" author Kathryn Stockett based some of the woman's traits on Spencer, whom she met through childhood pal Tate Taylor, the director of the film.
Before taking the stage, Spencer got kisses from "The Help" co-stars Viola Davis, a best-actress nominee, and Jessica Chastain, a fellow supporting nominee.
"I share this with everybody," Spencer said.
Martin Scorsese's Paris adventure "Hugo" won the first two prizes of the night, claiming the Oscars for cinematography and art direction.
It was a great start for Scorsese's film, which led contenders with 11 nominations.
"Marty, you're a genius as usual," said "Hugo" cinematographer Robert Richardson, who won his third Oscar after previous wins for "JFK" and Scorsese's "The Aviator."
The wins for "Hugo" were a blow to best-picture favorite "The Artist," which lost in both categories. "The Artist," which ran second to "Hugo" with 10 nominations, did win the night's third Oscar, for costume design.
The Oscars normally start with a major prize such as one of the supporting-acting categories, but this one began with an unusual flurry of technical awards. Meryl Streep's Margaret Thatcher drama "The Iron Lady" claimed the makeup Oscar.
"Thanks, Meryl, for keeping me employed for the last 37 years. Your brilliance makes my work look good, no matter what," said J. Roy Helland, who shared the makeup Oscar with Mark Coulier.
Oscar organizers saved the first acting trophy until nearly a quarter of the way through the 24 awards. But TV viewers had a consolation prize at the outset with the return of beloved Oscar host Billy Crystal.
Crystal got the show off to a lively start with a star-laden montage in which he hangs out with Justin Bieber and gets a nice wet kiss from George Clooney.
Back as Oscar host for the first time in eight years, Crystal also did his signature introduction of the best-picture nominees with a goofy song.
Before his monologue, Crystal appeared in a collection of clips inserting him in scenes from key nominees. The montage included re-creations from some 2011 films featuring Tom Cruise of "Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol" and Clooney's best-picture contender "The Descendants," with the actor planting a kiss on Crystal.
Spoofing a scene from nominee "Midnight in Paris," Bieber told Crystal he was there to bring in the 18-to-24-year-old demographic for the 63-year-old host.
Stars such as Clooney, Brad Pitt, Meryl Streep and Jean Dujardin arrived on the red carpet to the delight of fans in the bleachers outside the theater, but comedian Sacha Baron Cohen showed up and upset the chic Hollywood tone.
Cohen arrived dressed in an over-the-top white military uniform, sunglasses and a thick beard to promote his upcoming film "The Dictator." Holding an urn he jokingly claimed were the ashes of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, Cohen then dumped the container onto "American Idol" host Ryan Seacrest.
Among key nominees, Dujardin has a chance to become the first Frenchman to win best actor for "The Artist," which is favored to become the only silent movie to take the best-picture prize since the first Oscar ceremony 83 years ago.
Christopher Plummer is in line to become the oldest acting winner ever at 82. Streep might join the acting three-peat club with a third Academy Award.
Along with Streep, Hollywood's big night had plenty of other returning stars, with past Oscar winners and nominees such as Clooney, Pitt, Glenn Close, Michelle Williams and Nick Nolte in the running again.
Because of a change in voting rules, the Oscars feature nine best-picture nominees for the first time, instead of the 10 they had the last two years.
Competing against "The Artist" for the top honor are Clooney's family drama "The Descendants"; the Deep South tale "The Help," featuring best-actress nominee Davis; and Scorsese's "Hugo."
Also in the lineup: the romantic fantasy "Midnight in Paris," from writer-director Woody Allen; Pitt's baseball tale "Moneyball" and his family saga "The Tree of Life"; the World War I epic "War Horse," directed by Steven Spielberg; and Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock's Sept. 11 story "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close."
Spencer had been a virtual lock for supporting actress, having dominated earlier film honors for her breakout role in "The Help" as a brash maid in 1960s Mississippi. The same holds true for Plummer, the front-runner for supporting actor for his role as an elderly widower who comes out as gay in "Beginners."
The lead-acting categories are where the drama lies. Best actress shapes up as a two-woman race between Davis as a courageous maid leading an effort to reveal the hardships of black housekeepers' lives in "The Help" and Streep as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady."
The record-holder with 17 acting nominations, Streep has won twice and would become only the fifth performer to receive three Oscars. Jack Nicholson, Ingrid Bergman and Walter Brennan all earned three, while Katharine Hepburn won four.
It's been almost three decades since Streep last received an Oscar, for 1982's "Sophie's Choice." Though she has the most acting nominations, she also has the most losses — 14. Another loss would be her 13th in a row.
Best actor also looks like a two-person contest between Clooney as the distressed patriarch of a Hawaiian clan in "The Descendants" and Dujardin as a silent-era superstar whose career tanks as talking pictures take over in "The Artist."
It would be the second Oscar for Clooney, who won the supporting-actor prize for 2005's "Syriana." While French actresses have won before, among them Marion Cotillard and Juliette Binoche, Dujardin would be the first actor from France to receive an Oscar.
Dujardin was picked as best actor Saturday at the Spirit Awards honoring independent film, where "The Artist" ruled with four prizes, including best picture and director for Michel Hazanavicius, who is favored for the same trophy at the Oscars.
"The Artist" has dominated Hollywood honors this season, winning key prizes at the Golden Globes and awards shows held by the Directors, Producers and Screen Actors guilds.
"This means a lot, because it's a small movie. It's not expensive. We did it with small money," Hazanavicius said backstage at the Spirit Awards. "And it's black and white and silent."
If "The Artist" comes away with the best-picture trophy, it would be the first win for a silent film since the war story "Wings" was named outstanding picture at the inaugural Oscars in 1929.