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Producer Christian Colson, centre, along with the cast and crew, accept the Best Picture Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire at Sunday's Academy Awards. ((Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press))

Hollywood loves a rags-to-riches tale and Slumdog Millionaire emerged on top in Los Angeles on Sunday evening at the 81st annual Academy Awards.

The Mumbai-set film won in eight of the 10 Oscar categories for which it was nominated, including the prestigious best picture and best director for British filmmaker Danny Boyle.

"Our film was a collaboration between hundreds of people and I'm so happy that so many of them could be here tonight," producer Christian Colson said as a large contingent of Slumdog's cast and crew celebrated behind him.

Slumdog, which at one point was at risk of going straight to DVD release, has been the darling of the film award season, picking up trophy after trophy.

The movie has had an "extraordinary journey," Colson said, thanks to "a script that inspired mad love in everyone who read it, a genius for a director and a cast and a crew who were unwavering in their talent."

Among Slumdog's raft of wins was a pair of statuettes for composer A.R. Rahman for the film's score and the song Jai Ho.

"Before coming, I was excited and terrified. The last time I felt like that was during my marriage," Rahman said. "The essence of the film is about the optimism and hope in our lives. All my life I've had a choice of hate and love. I chose love and I'm here."

Past winners honour acting nominees

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A.R. Rahman performs at the Oscars. He won the Oscar for best original song, Jai Ho, from the film Slumdog Millionaire. ((Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press))

One of the evening's departures from tradition included enlisting a selection of five past winners of each acting category to deliver a personal tribute to each of this year's nominees before the winner was announced.

Sophia Loren, Shirley MacLaine, Marion Cotillard, Nicole Kidman and Halle Berry jointly awarded best actress to Kate Winslet for The Reader — the British actress's first win after six nominations.

"I made a version of this speech before. I think I was eight years old and staring into the mirror. This was a shampoo bottle," Winslet said looking at her golden Oscar trophy. "Well, it's not a shampoo bottle now. I feel very fortunate to have made it all the way from there to here."

Sean Penn and his acclaimed performance as slain gay activist and politician Harvey Milk bested longtime friend Mickey Rourke for the best actor Oscar. Rourke had been a front-runner for his comeback turn in The Wrestler.

"You commie, homo-loving sons o' guns. I did not expect this," Penn quipped to loud laughter and applause from the audience.

"I want it to be very clear I know how hard I make it to appreciate me, often… I am touched by this appreciation," he said, alluding to his infamous short temper, which was mentioned by Robert De Niro — who presented the category alongside Ben Kingsley, Michael Douglas, Adrien Brody and Anthony Hopkins.

 Winners at the 81st annual Academy Awards
 Picture: Slumdog Millionaire
 Directing: Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
 Actor: Sean Penn, Milk
 Actress: Kate Winslet, The Reader
 Supporting actor: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
 Supporting actress: Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
 Animated feature: Wall*E
 Foreign language: Departures
 Cinematography: Slumdog Millionaire
 Art direction: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
 Costume design: The Duchess
 Makeup: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
 Documentary feature: Man on Wire
 Documentary short: Smile Pinki
 Film editing: Slumdog Millionaire

 Original score: Slumdog Millionaire

 Original song: Jai Ho (Slumdog Millionaire)
 Short film, animated: La Maison en Petit Cubes
 Short film, live action: Spielzeugland (Toyland)
 Sound editing: The Dark Knight
 Sound mixing: Slumdog Millionaire
 Visual effects: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
 Screenplay, adapted: Slumdog Millionaire
 Screenplay, original: Milk

In his speech, Penn also made reference to a group of anti-gay protesters who staged a demonstration along the route to the Kodak Theater, where the Oscars were held.

"I think it is a good time for those who voted for the ban against gay marriage to sit and reflect and anticipate their great shame and the shame in their grandchildren's eyes if they continue that way," he said.

Best supporting actor winners Alan Arkin, Joel Grey, Cuba Gooding Jr., Christopher Walken and Kevin Kline ushered in a sombre moment about half-way through the ceremony as the late Heath Ledger was named the latest winner and only the second actor ever to win an Academy Award posthumously. He was recognized for his turn as Joker in The Dark Knight.

A standing ovation and moist eyes greeted Ledger's father, mother and sister as they accepted his trophy.

"This is ever so humbling, being amongst such wonderful people in such a wonderful industry," said Ledger's father, Kim Ledger.

"Tonight we are choosing to celebrate and be happy for what he achieved," said the young Australian actor's mother, Sally Bell.

A previous Oscar nominee for Brokeback Mountain, Ledger died of an accidental prescription drug overdose in January 2008. His win Sunday night follows the trophy posthumously awarded to Peter Finch for 1976's Network.

The evening's first award was also presented by five previous winners, as Tilda Swinton, Whoopi Goldberg, Goldie Hawn, Eva Marie Saint and Anjelica Huston welcomed Spanish actress Penelope Cruz to join them.

Cruz won best supporting actress for her performance as the tempestuous artist Maria Elena in Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

"Has anybody ever fainted here? Because I might be the first one," Cruz quipped in her speech.

"Thank you Woody for trusting me with this beautiful character," she said, also thanking filmmaker and frequent collaborator Pedro Almodovar "for making me part of so many of his endeavours"

Switching to Spanish, Cruz added, "I dedicate this to all the actors from my country."

Changes to ceremony

First-time Oscar broadcast producers Bill Condon and Laurence Mark, known for the movie musical Dreamgirls, were brought in to revitalize the 81st edition of the top film honours — a revamp deemed necessary after 2008's ceremony drew the lowest TV ratings in the annual show's history.

One of the most prominent changes was to eschew the traditional comedian as host in favour of stage and screen actor Hugh Jackman, who opened with an entertaining monologue that included an energetic song-and-dance routine with exaggerated, bargain-basement props and also incorporated best actress nominee Anne Hathaway.

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Oscar host Hugh Jackman performs a skit with actress Anne Hathaway during the opening of Sunday's show. ((Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press) )

In its first half, the ceremony also included a romance-themed montage featuring movies of the past year, a Judd Apatow short-film salute to the oft-ignored genre of comedy — starring Seth Rogen and James Franco as their Pineapple Express characters — and Baz Luhrmann's lavish, over-the-top tribute to movie musicals featuring host Jackman, singer Beyonce and young actors Amanda Seyfried, Dominic Cooper, Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens.

The rejigged ceremony moved along at a moderately brisk pace for an Oscar broadcast — coming in at about 3½ hours — helped by grouping similarly themed categories together and somewhat fewer celebrity presenters. Famous faces who helped hand out Oscars included: Tina Fey, Steve Martin, Will Smith, Sarah Jessica Parker, Daniel Craig, Alicia Keys, Jennifer Aniston and Jack Black.

The evening also included a few moments of rare spontaneity, including tight-rope walker Philippe Petit — subject of James Marsh's winning documentary Man on Wire — bounding up to the stage to join Marsh and balancing the Oscar upside-down on his chin.

'For most of my life I thought that doing good for someone didn't mean you would receive commendation for that act of kindness. At least until now.'— Jerry Lewis

During the broadcast, comedy star and previous Oscar nominee Eddie Murphy paid tribute to actor Jerry Lewis, whom the U.S. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences named this year's recipient of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for his many years of raising awareness and funds for muscular dystrophy.

"For most of my life I thought that doing good for someone didn't mean you would receive commendation for that act of kindness. At least until now," Lewis said in his brief acceptance speech.

"The humility I feel is staggering and I know it will stay with me for the rest of my life," he added. "To all you people from the movie business, it's such a joy being a part of you and what you do."

With files from the Associated Press