Cruz wins best supporting actress

Penelope Cruz won the first Oscar of the night at the 81st annual Academy Awards, a best supporting actress honor for "Vicky Cristina Barcelona."

Cruz paid tribute to writer-director Woody Allen, who oversaw “Vicky Cristina,” and Pedro Almodovar, who gave her some of her best roles, and thanked “everyone who has helped me from the beginning.” True to the producers’ promise to give the Academy Awards more of a “party” tone, Hugh Jackman led off the show with cracks about downsizing — “Next year,” said the “Australia” star, “I’ll be starring in a movie called ‘New Zealand’ ” — then segued into a song-and-dance number he said he assembled in his garage. Performing songs about each best picture nominee in various musical styles, with “homemade” backgrounds behind him, at one point he reached into the audience and physically lifted Anne Hathaway on stage to play Richard Nixon in “Frost/Nixon.” Then the gregarious host paid tribute to various celebrities in the audience as if pointing out VIPs in a nightclub. “Surprise” appears to be the operative word for tonight’s Academy Awards show. There are the usual surprises, the questions about who will win in the acting categories: Will it be Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler” or Sean Penn in “Milk” for best actor Will Kate Winslet once again lose out And who’s going to win best supporting actress Producers have also promised plenty of surprises for the show presentation, including the awards presenters themselves. Rumor has it that some are being kept off the red carpet entirely. Some of the nominees have said they’re surprised to even be there. Melissa Leo, nominated for best actress for “Frozen River,” said nothing has compared with the Oscar experience. “[The film] has given me an extraordinary year,” she told CNN.”But to be here tonight … it’s so humongous.” Blog: Behind the scenes Oscar outfits were generally elegant and classy, with most men wearing tuxedos (including the young members of the “Slumdog” cast) and women in beautiful, sometimes muted, gowns. Viola Davis (“Doubt”) wore gold; Freida Pinto (“Slumdog Millionaire”) opted for a rich blue. Anne Hathaway wore a glittery — and snug — Armani mermaid gown. Gallery: See what the stars are wearing » But despite all the surprises, scripted and otherwise, there are two certainties as the show approaches: “Slumdog Millionaire” is still the odds-on favorite for best picture, and host Hugh Jackman plans to have a great time. “The way I see it is if I’m not going to have a good time, then how can anyone else have a good time,” Jackman told CNN, while impishly threatening to go “drunk and nude” for the show. The makers of “Slumdog” have been having a great time since January, when their film took home the Golden Globe for best drama. The crowd-pleasing rags-to-riches story has been the winter’s surprise winner, also racking up victories from the Producers Guild, the Writers Guild, the Directors Guild and the BAFTAs. Watch which films, stars are up for top honors »

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“I think that ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ is one of those very rare cases, where the movie comes out and you think, ‘OK, that’s a good little movie … it will be happy to be nominated, and it will get some great recognition,’ ” said Oscar historian Steve Pond, author of “The Big Show.” “And somehow it has hung on, and the bigger movies that came out afterwards did not click with people as much, and suddenly this little movie was the best story of the year.” That gives “Slumdog’s” best picture competition — “Milk,” “Frost/Nixon,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and “The Reader” — a major challenge in stopping the little film’s momentum. See the complete list of nominees With “Slumdog” the odds-on favorite to win best picture, Oscar observers are focusing on the acting races for dramatic kicks. Even Nate Silver, the mastermind of the political Web site, which accurately predicted Barack Obama’s presidential victory in November, is getting into the act. Running this year’s nominees through a sieve of Oscar history, Silver told New York magazine the favorites are Mickey Rourke (“The Wrestler”), Kate Winslet (“The Reader”), Heath Ledger (“The Dark Knight”) and Taraji P. Henson (“Benjamin Button”).

Ledger, who died in early 2008, could become the second performer to win an Oscar posthumously. Peter Finch won best actor for 1976’s “Network” two months after he died in 1977. There’s also chatter about whether “Button,” which leads all films with 13 nominations, could go home empty-handed, a distinct possibility given the way the film has been shut out so far this awards season. The record for most nominations without a win is held by 1977’s “The Turning Point” and 1985’s “The Color Purple,” both of which went 0 for 11.