Before any envelopes were opened at the 79th Annual Academy Awards, there were several sealed deals: No matter what, Helen Mirren was going to win for Best Actress. There was no way Forest Whitaker would lose the Best Actor prize. And most of all, whatever won Best Picture would without a doubt be considered a ''surprise.'' That final certainty was the most compelling reason to watch the Feb. 25 ceremony, an unusually low-key affair hosted by Ellen DeGeneres and marked by perhaps the most geographically and ethnically diverse group of nominees ever. The big pre-Oscar Best Picture prizes had gone to Babel, Little Miss Sunshine, and The Queen. But the winner of the night turned out to be The Departed, Martin Scorsese's multiplex-friendly crime drama that nabbed four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Surprise!
Okay, many prognosticators (including EW) had foreseen a Departed victory. But as attendees drove past the usual brigade of Bible thumpers sporting protest signs like ''Hollywood loves Hell and Degenerates'' (get it?), they hoped the evening would provide at least some conversation fodder for the after-parties. ''People are passionate about all five films,'' said Crash director Paul Haggis, an Original Screenplay nominee for Letters From Iwo Jima this year, on the red carpet. ''You can't predict anything at the Oscars. Otherwise, there's a script that's written sometime in December and you just follow it, and that's not interesting.''
Some of the night's plotlines ended predictably, most notably Scorsese's long-time-coming win in the Best Director category. Before the show, Scorsese got the most red-carpet shout-outs. ''I'd like to see Marty win, because Marty Scorsese was the one who got me interested in movies as a kid,'' said Little Miss Sunshine producer David T. Friendly. ''I grew up in New York, and Mean Streets was just an eye-opener.'' When Francis Ford Coppola, who presented the award with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, was asked on the carpet whom he was rooting for, he proclaimed, ''We know who the favorite is and that's where I'm at.'' As the show progressed, Departed producer Graham King seemed more concerned about Scorsese's chances than his own. ''After [we won Adapted] Screenplay and Editing, I thought, Marty's got to win. Marty's got to win,'' he said at the Governors Ball. ''And if Marty wins, then we'll see [about Best Picture].''
And what was Scorsese's reaction when he did win? ''Totally surprised. Totally surprised by it all,'' the director told EW after the ceremony. ''I'm still shocked. Still totally shocked. Can't believe any of it. Can't. Just can't.'' Good thing his speech was more eloquent. Reaction to his victory ranged from elation (''Are you kidding me?'' said Departed costar Mark Wahlberg. ''Marty is so overdue. It was awesome. It really was'') to relief (''If he hadn't won, those three guys that presented would have been really awkward there,'' said Jack Black. ''That was the whole reason they were there, right?'').
Unfortunately for this year's other high-profile repeat Oscar bridesmaids, Scorsese was the only contender who ended a long losing run. Kate Winslet, up for Best Actress for Little Children, went home empty-handed for the fifth time, while The Good German composer Thomas Newman made it 0-for-8. Asked on the carpet how he was feeling, eight-time Best Actor nominee Peter O'Toole responded, ''Expectations are likely low.'' By the end of the evening he was an eight-time loser.
But the evening did contain some winning moments. Jerry Seinfeld scored with his multiplex-etiquette monologue, while DeGeneres' candid-camera bit with Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg was classic Ellen humor. And then there was Al Gore's priceless campaign-announcement fake-out with Leonardo DiCaprio. ''We made a comedy star out of Al Gore. Who would have thought?'' marveled telecast co-writer Bruce Vilanch, who revealed that the idea for the bit actually came from the former vice president's daughter Kristin, an ex-writer on Futurama. ''I had the idea before but I thought, 'What am I going to say to him, We're going to make a fool out of you?' But I guess when your family says it, it's okay.'' For the record, outside the Governors Ball, Gore joked with former MPAA president Jack Valenti, saying ''I'm only 99 percent sure I'm not going to run.''
Gore wasn't the only Oscar novice to be embraced by the audience. Dreamgirls' Jennifer Hudson, who picked up the Best Supporting Actress prize for her first screen performance, won even bigger applause for co-performing the film's three nominated songs live, capping off a long week for the 25-year-old: ''It was very stressful and tense a lot of pressure, a lot of work, a heavy schedule.'' By the next day, she was in full diva mode, leaving her Beverly Hills hotel wearing headphones and being trailed by an entourage that included her boyfriend, James Peyton.
Her costar Eddie Murphy's weekend didn't end as happily. ''This is absolutely the most gratifying, humbling experience,'' the Supporting Actor frontrunner told EW on the red carpet. ''It's a combination of all of those things, being here.'' The emphasis would soon be on humbling: Minutes after he lost to Little Miss Sunshine's Alan Arkin, Murphy huddled in the hallway of the Kodak Theatre with Harvey Weinstein, who let Murphy make a few calls on his cell phone. Soon after, they and their dates disappeared, and never showed up at the Governors Ball.
Faring better was another first-time nominee, Forest Whitaker, who completed his streak with the Best Actor prize for The Last King of Scotland. ''I told myself, 'Whatever happens, it's okay,''' he said afterward. '''If I lose, I'll go to one party. Just try to enjoy the show.''' Asked for a reaction on his and Hudson's dual African-American acting victories, Whitaker responded, ''Wasn't it even a greater night for Mexicans?''
Good point. Pan's Labyrinth, from Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, won three awards. But right after Labyrinth's hat trick, it lost the Best Foreign Language Film prize to Germany's The Lives of Others. The shock waves were felt a few miles away at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, where Elton John, hosting his annual fund-raiser for his AIDS foundation, scoffed, ''I can't believe f---ing Pan's Labyrinth lost!''
Still, much of the talk centered on this year's Benetton-ad class of nominees. ''With MTV, children growing up in the suburbs aren't shielded from the inner city anymore,'' said Best Actor nominee Will Smith. ''So I feel like the appreciation of experiences is more readily available.'' Singer Marc Anthony, escorting wife Jennifer Lopez, saw it a bit differently. ''I don't care if they're Mexican, Japanese, black, English,'' he said. ''Art is being celebrated tonight, not race. I think we've got to start rephrasing some of that stuff. Not 'Oh, he's a Mexican director.' No, he's a director.''
Incidentally, it was also a great night for gay women: In addition to DeGeneres hosting the event, Melissa Etheridge was an upset winner in the Best Original Song category for her theme from An Inconvenient Truth. Clutching her Oscar backstage, Etheridge declared, ''This is the only naked man that will ever be in my bedroom!''
Thanks to a few too many clip montages, however, the show clocked in at a butt-numbing three hours and 51 minutes, 18 minutes longer than last year. While the ratings were up slightly from 2006, the show's 40.2 million viewers still ranks among the lower tallies in recent years. Inside the Kodak, stars mingling at the bar were confused by this year's maddening reordering of the categories, which meant no major awards until almost an hour into the ceremony. Hard to know when to order that glass of chardonnay.
But it was worth the wait for Best Actress winner Mirren, who delivered one of the most assured speeches of the night. ''I certainly thought about what I was going to say about the Queen because I did feel a certain responsibility,'' she told EW after her win. ''I was representing my film, my director and the producers, my country, and the Queen of England.'' After so many trips to awards-show stages in the past two months, how did she react when her name was called? ''She didn't, until she came back with the Oscar saying 'I won an Oscar,''' said her husband, director Taylor Hackford. ''I think she was gobstruck.''
(Additional reporting by Carrie Kravetz, Jeff Labrecque, Whitney Pastorek, Jessica Shaw, Christine Spines, Adam B. Vary, and Allison Hope Weiner)