Slumdog Millionaire was the big winner at the 81st Academy Awards, scooping the best picture and director awards in an emotionally charged night that also saw the late Heath Ledger honoured for his performance in The Dark Knight.

With the show’s producers shaking up the format to arrest a slide in television ratings, Kate Winslet won best actress for her performance in The Reader while there was an upset in the best actor category when Sean Penn triumphed for his role as the gay rights activist Harvey Milk.

In a speech that paid tribute to Mickey Rourke, who had been widely expected to win for his performance in The Wrestler, Penn referred to the recent ban on gay marriage in California, saying future generations would be ashamed of the decision. “You’ve got to have equal rights for everyone,” he said.

But the night belonged to Slumdog Millionaire, which won awards for best adapted screenplay, cinematography, song, film editing, sound mixing, and score as well as best film and best director.

The success was all the sweeter for director Danny Boyle and Christian Colson, its producer, because they had to fight for the film to be released after the initial ambivalence of Warner Brothers Entertainment.

The studio had recently closed its independent film division Warner Independent Pictures and upon seeing a cut of the film its executives were unsure of the film’s potential. Rival studio Fox Searchlight was brought on board to market and distribute the film, helping propel it to Oscar glory.

“We had a script that inspired mad love in everyone that read it, we had a genius of a director and we had a cast and crew unwavering in its commitment,” said Colson, who accepted the award with the film’s cast behind him.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was desperate to revitalise the Oscar show, which has slipped in the television ratings in recent years.

Hugh Jackman, the star of the X-Men films was enlisted to sprinkle some stardust on the proceedings, opening the night with a big musical performance, while in the acting categories, five past winners – rather than the usual one – were united on stage to present the awards.

In accepting her award for best actress Winslet managed to avoid the histrionics of her Golden Globes acceptance speech, when she professed her undying love for co-star Leonardo di Caprio and forgot Angelina Jolie’s name.

On Sunday night a much more composed Winslet took the stage to win her first Oscar following five previous nominations, although she raised eyebrows with a parting remark to beaten nominee Meryl Streep when she joked that the losing actress had to “suck it up”.

Penelope Cruz won best supporting actress for her performance in Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, while the family of the late Heath Ledger accepted the best supporting actor award following his death last year.

“I have to say this is ever so humbling, just being amongst such wonderful people in such a wonderful industry,” said Ledger’s father, Kim. The family accepted the award on behalf of the actor’s three-year-old daughter, Matilda.

Overall, it was an upbeat Oscars, despite the troubles that hang over the entertainment industry. Hollywood studios are struggling to cope with the recession and the decline of their most profitable revenue stream – DVDs – while there is a strong possibility the industry’s main acting union will strike to force a better pay deal.

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