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'Million Dollar' Oscar Night

Clint Eastwood received the best-director Academy Award on Sunday for the boxing saga "Million Dollar Baby." The film also took home the best picture Oscar. A previous winner for "Unforgiven," Eastwood joined an exclusive club of dual-directing recipients that includes Billy Wilder, David Lean, Robert Wise and Steven Spielberg.

Jamie Foxx won the best-actor Academy Award on Sunday for the title role in "Ray," in which he delivered an uncanny emulation of beloved singer Ray Charles.

Eastwood, Swank and Foxx weren't the only winners at the Academy Awards. Preliminary indications are it was a strong ratings performer for ABC.

The Oscars' 30.1 rating in Nielsen Media Research's 56 top markets was a slight 1 percent improvement over last year's comparable number, and the highest-rated Academy Awards in the metered markets since 2000. The rating is an estimate that nearly 33 million households were tuned in.

Nationwide viewership totals were to become available later Monday.

Last year's Oscars were seen by 43.5 million people, a sharp 32 percent increase over 2003. Considering the ominous signs of ratings declines for the Golden Globes and Grammys this year, the numbers left ABC executives pleased.

"Obviously, Chris Rock as host had an impact in the resurgence of the numbers," said Larry Hyams, vice president of audience analysis and research at ABC.

Backstage at the Oscars, Eastwood contemplated how deserving he was to come away with his second best-picture and directing triumph, this time for the boxing tale "Million Dollar Baby."

"There's a lot of great movies that have won the Academy Award, and a lot of great movies that haven't," said Eastwood, whose film also earned Swank her second best-actress Oscar and Morgan Freeman the supporting-actor prize. Humbly, Eastwood added, "You just do the best you can."

Following Morgan Freeman's supporting-actor win for "Million Dollar Baby," Foxx's triumph made it only the second time in Oscar history that African-Americans won two of the four acting honors.

Hilary Swank became a double Academy Award winner Sunday, earning the best-actress prize for her performance as an indomitable boxer in "Million Dollar Baby." Swank won the best-actress Oscar five years ago for "Boys Don't Cry."

Cate Blanchett took the supporting-actress prize for her work in Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator." The Howard Hughes epic also dominated the technical awards, cinematography included, and was in a head-to-head race with Clint Eastwood's boxing drama "Million Dollar Baby" for best picture.

Blanchett had the spirit of the Oscars' most-honored actress on her side. Katharine Hepburn, the love of Hughes' life in the 1930s before she began her long romance with Spencer Tracy, earned 12 nominations and won a record four Oscars.

"Thank you, of course, to Miss Hepburn. The longevity of her career I think is inspiring to everyone," said Blanchett. She added thanks to "Aviator" director Scorsese, saying, "I hope my son will marry your daughter."

Oscar host Rock said Blanchett was so convincing that Sidney Poitier, Hepburn's co-star in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," showed up at Blanchett's house for supper.

Freeman's win set up a record-tying night for black performers, with Jamie Foxx expected to take the best-actor prize for the Ray Charles tale "Ray." It would be only the second time blacks have won two of the four acting Oscars, following Denzel Washington and Halle Berry's triumph three years ago for "Training Day" and "Monster's Ball."

"It means that Hollywood is continuing to make history," Freeman said backstage. "We're evolving with the rest of the world."

The superhero action comedy "The Incredibles" won the animated-feature prize, beating 2004's biggest box-office hit, the fairy-tale sequel "Shrek 2." It was the second-straight animated Oscar for Pixar Animation, which won a year ago for "Finding Nemo."

"I don't know what's more frightening, being watched by millions of people, or the hundreds of people that are going to be annoyed with me tomorrow for not mentioning them," said Brad Bird, writer-director of the "The Incredibles."

The latest win dabs salt on the Walt Disney Co.'s wounds over the looming expiration of its distribution deal for Pixar films, which ends after next year's "Cars." The back-to-back Oscars underscore Pixar's ascendance and the weakening position of animation pioneer Disney, which has yet to win the animated-feature Oscar with any of its homegrown films and whose biggest recent cartoon hits have all been made by Pixar.

Unlike last year, when "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" dominated the awards as expected and flat-out front-runners took all four acting prizes, the 77th Oscars shaped up as a mixed bag, with only Foxx a virtual lock to win.

"Boy, am I glad there wasn't a fourth episode of `Lord of the Rings,"' said John Dykstra, who shared the visual-effects Oscar for "Spider-Man 2."

With no huge hits among top nominees, Oscar organizers worried that TV ratings could dwindle for the live ABC broadcast. The Oscars tend to draw their biggest audiences when blockbusters such as "Titanic" or "Return of the King" are in the mix, stoking viewer interest.

Producers of the show hoped the presence of first-time host Rock might boost ratings, particularly among younger viewers who may view the Oscars as too staid an affair. Rock had mocked the Oscars a bit beforehand, calling awards shows "idiotic," but he was on his best behavior in his opening monologue.

Rock chided some celebrities by name and included one mild three-letter word, but his routine was fairly clean for the comedian known for a foul mouth in his standup act.

"The only acting you ever see at the Oscars is when people act like they're not mad they lost," Rock said. He recalled the year when Halle Berry won and fellow nominee "Nicole Kidman was smiling so wide, she should have won an Emmy at the Oscars for her great performance. I was like, if you'd done that in the movie, you'd have won an Oscar, girl."

Organizers also tried to spice up the show with new presentation tactics, including herding all nominees on stage at the same time, beauty-pageant style, for some awards.

The first prize of the night, for art direction, was awarded that way, with a total of nine nominees from five films spread across stage behind presenter Berry. The Oscar went to "The Aviator," which also won for film editing and costume design.

"The Aviator, Scorsese's gloriously rendered Hughes saga, and "Million Dollar Baby," Eastwood's emotionally piercing tale, presented the evening's key matchup for best picture.

The other contenders were "Finding Neverland," a fanciful look at playwright J.M. Barrie's inspirations in writing "Peter Pan"; "Ray," a hearty portrait of the loves, lusts, failings and musical triumphs of singer Charles; and "Sideways," the critics' darling about a dour wretch whose road trip with a buddy leads him to new hope for romance.

"Sideways" won the adapted-screenplay prize for director Alexander Payne and his writing partner, Jim Taylor.

"My mother taught me to write, and she died before she could see any of this, so this is for you, mom," Taylor said.

"Born Into Brothels," which examines the lives of children of prostitutes in Calcutta, India, received the Oscar for feature-length documentary.

Scorsese and Eastwood's duel for best director carried almost as much drama as the best-picture race.

One of American cinema's most esteemed filmmakers, Scorsese was in danger of joining such luminaries as Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Altman as record holders for Oscar futility: Five directing nominations, five losses.

Eastwood, a past directing and best-picture Oscar recipient for the 1992 Western "Unforgiven," beat Scorsese for both the Directors Guild of America prize and the Golden Globe directing honor for "Million Dollar Baby." Those prizes are solid indicators on who ultimately wins the best-director Oscar.

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