Dave Karger
March 12, 2010 AT 05:00 AM EST

Upon winning an Academy Award, some actors appear shocked. Others come across as perplexed, nonplussed, or overwhelmed. But when Sandra Bullock was named Best Actress for The Blind Side, the 45-year-old star looked, well, guilty. ”Did I really earn this or did I just wear y’all down?” she said when she reached the stage. No, Sandra, you did it by turning in the best performance of your career and navigating the brutal awards-campaign process with humor, grace, and ease.

In a business in which films are touted as awards bait before they’re even filmed, the success of The Blind Side seemed to blindside just about everyone involved with the sports drama, including its star and its studio. ”Nobody said, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is an Oscar contender,”’ recalls Bullock. ”No one paid attention. We were down in Georgia, making our little film in the heat. People left us alone. There wasn’t a hub of people circling to remind us how important this film was.”

For its part, Warner Bros. (which is owned by EW parent company Time Warner) was focused on higher-profile entries such as Clint Eastwood’s Invictus. But strong response from early Screen Actors Guild screenings last November gave the studio and Bullock’s team an indication that her fiery turn might gain some awards-season traction. First, however, the studio had to get voters to recognize the challenges of playing real-life Memphis mom Leigh Anne Tuohy. ”I was afraid that people wouldn’t realize what a high-wire act that role is,” says Blind Side director John Lee Hancock. ”The degree of difficulty is much higher than people who haven’t acted would know. And I was wrong, because people did start to notice and spread the word that this was a damn fine performance.”

Snagging a Golden Globe nomination was one thing. But when she tied for Best Actress at the Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards on Jan. 15 with the perceived front-runner, Julie & Julia‘s Meryl Streep, Bullock emerged as a prime Oscar contender as well. That evening, she also provided one of the season’s most memorable moments: Bullock grabbed Streep’s face on stage and planted a quick but intense kiss on her lips. ”People don’t realize how funny Meryl Streep is,” Bullock says. ”They think of her as a very serious actress. She’s an incredible woman with a wicked sense of humor.”

Two days later, both stars picked up Best Actress Globes, and during the subsequent weeks, Bullock managed the rare feat of seeming less like a candidate and more like a bemused observer of the process, even lobbying for Streep to win the Academy Award. Perhaps that’s why, after winning the SAG award, she still didn’t write a speech for Oscar night. ”I feel like if you’re preparing it, you feel like you’re gonna win,” she said on the red carpet at the Kodak Theatre just before the ceremony. ”When I do it, I’ve gotta just fly off the seat of my pants and see what happens.”

What happened was nothing short of the evening’s best acceptance speech. With no cheat sheet in front of her, Bullock praised the other nominated actresses before tearing up and thanking her late mother, Helga, ”for reminding her daughters that there’s no race, no religion, no class system, no color, nothing, no sexual orientation, that makes us better than anyone else. We are all deserving of love.” Her husband of almost five years, the former Monster Garage host Jesse James, 40, even got a little misty.

Minutes after her win, she was unable to fully process her achievement. ”It’s been a roller coaster,” the actress (who has not yet lined up her next project) told EW at the Governors Ball. ”In a year’s time I’ll look back and remember it, but right now it’s really blurry.” Asked to clarify her ”Did I earn this?” remark, she responded with characteristic humility: ”It’s an important moment and you feel, ‘Do I really deserve this, especially in the company I was sitting with?’ You should never feel like it’s earned. I certainly don’t. But I’ll work hard the next 15 years to make sure it was worth giving it to me.” (Additional reporting by Whitney Pastorek Nicole Sperling, and Kate Ward)


Sandra Bullock’s other big win
Liked her Oscar speech? You should have heard her at the Razzies.

Future awards contenders, take note: This is what good sportsmanship looks like. On March 6, Sandra Bullock arrived at the 30th annual Golden Raspberry Awards — i.e., the Razzies, the industry’s celebration of the year’s sorriest films — to accept her Worst Actress trophy for All About Steve, the stinker from last summer that she also produced.

From the moment Bullock walked on stage, pulling a red wagon filled with Steve DVDs to hand out, she’d won over the 280-person audience. ”This is the deal we’re going to make…. You promise to watch the movie and really consider whether it was really and truly the worst performance,” she said, echoing the I’m-not-sure-I-deserve-this theme that ran through her Oscar campaign — only this time, with tongue in cheek. ”You guys could rewatch the movie and rethink your decision and I will show up next year and then we can all go drink afterwards.”

Though Bullock isn’t the first Worst Actress winner to accept in person — Catwoman‘s Halle Berry attended in 2005 — she is the only one ever to win a Razzie and an Oscar in the same year. ”If you are going to win a Razzie, then that’s the way to do it — have fun with it,” the event’s founder, John Wilson, told EW. ”I wish there were more people with that combination of self-deprecation and guts.” — Missy Schwartz (Additional reporting by Katherine Tulich)

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