In a cliffhanger suitable for a silent movie, The Artist escaped with the best picture Oscar at Sunday's 84th annual Academy Awards.
Michel Hazanavicius' black and white valentine to Hollywood's silent era collected five Academy Awards — equalling Martin Scorsese's Hugo, which earlier appeared on the verge of an upset after five wins in technical categories.
But the later, major results titled toward The Artist, a backstage melodrama with barely any dialogue.
Meanwhile, Billy Crystal had plenty to say, zinging celebrities, singing parodies and generally not living up to the hype surrounding his return to Oscar hosting duties.
There were other surprises in the Oscar envelopes, including Meryl Streep's best actress win for The Iron Lady, after pre-show prognostications leaned heavily toward Viola Davis of The Help. Davis was one of the first Kodak Theatre attendees hugging Streep on her way to the stage.
It was Streep's third career Oscar but her first win in 29 years, since Sophie's Choice.
"I really understand I'll never be up here again," Streep said wryly, before thanking everyone involved with her "inexplicably wonderful career."
"This is such a great honor but the thing that counts most with me is the friendships and the love and the sheer joy we have had making movies together."
In addition to best picture, director, musical score and costumes, The Artist's star Jean Dujardin was named best actor — the first French-born winner in that category — for playing George Valentin, a silent movie star ruined by the advent of talkies.
"I love your country," Dujardin said, accepting the Oscar by slipping into his native tongue: "If George Valentin could speak he'd say: 'Wow... formidable, merci beaucoup, I love you.' "
Meanwhile, Davis' Help co-star Octavia Spencer was named the best supporting actress, capping her near-sweep of that category during the awards season.
"Thank you, academy, for putting me with the hottest guy in the room," Spencer said onstage, after catching her breath and basking in the evening's first standing ovation.
Christopher Plummer, 82, became the oldest actor to win an Oscar, playing an aging widower finding new life as a gay man in Beginners.
Plummer bested the former record held by Driving Miss Daisy's Jessica Tandy by nearly a year and a half. It was only his second Oscar nomination in an illustrious film career dating back to 1965's The Sound of Music.
"You're only two years older than me, darling," Plummer tenderly said to the statuette. "Where have you been all my life?"
Woody Allen was a no-show to accept his third original screenplay Oscar in 15 nominations, this time for the romantic fantasy Midnight in Paris. Allen has attended the show only once, in 2002 urging Hollywood to continue filming in New York after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Alexander Payne, Jim Rash and Nat Faxon won the adapted screenplay prize for The Descendants.
Crystal's ninth turn hosting — his first since 2004 — replaced the sour taste of last year's James Franco-Anne Hathaway experiment in hipness with a stale, familiar flavor. He did it old-school style, with a little song, a little dance, a little Moet in celebrity pants, Billy Crystal's greatest shticks.
After a too-somber intro by Morgan Freeman, Crystal took a digital tour of the best picture nominees, beginning with a recreation of the monochrome opening shots of The Artist. Crystal appeared with electrodes strapped to his neck declaring in title cards: "I won't host!" and plugged his next movie.
From there the montage segued to a hospital setting from The Descendants, with best actor nominee George Clooney leaning in for a kiss and begging Crystal to host again. Not enough time to write jokes, the comedian protested, and within the next few minutes the truth behind that joke was becoming painfully clear.
A Midnight in Paris-style cameo by Justin Bieber — "here to give you the (age) 18-to-24 demographic," the pop star joked. Moneyball's aged baseball scouts were dubbed "the youngest, hippest (joke) writers in town." Both gags signaled the academy's surrender to the inevitable: The Oscars will never be hip, so why not embrace its inner geezer?
Crystal was a comfort host, not as abrasive as Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globes, or removed from tradition as Franco last year. He's a beloved part of the Hollywood establishment, rather than an outsider like Jon Stewart or David Letterman. It was an affable, insider performance under circumstances that can easily be used as the show's alibi.