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BELLE OF THE "BALL'

Halle Berry became the first African-American woman to win a best actress Academy Award Sunday night at the 74th annual celebration of Hollywood's finest.

Berry won for her searing portrayal of an executed convict's widow in Monster's Ball, on an evening when the Academy also honored Sidney Poitier, the only previous actor of color to win a lead-performance Oscar. Berry sobbed uncontrollably as she accepted the historic award, and the audience rose in an ovation, many crying along with her.

"This moment is so much bigger than me," she said when she regained composure. "This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll. It's for the women who stand beside me: Jada Pinkett Smith and Vivica Fox and all the women who now have a chance because the door has been opened."

The stage was set for Berry by Poitier's, honorary Oscar for a half-century of career excellence, including an Oscar for Lilies of the Field in 1962. A 90-second standing ovation followed a videotaped tribute featuring African-American actors Poitier inspired including this year's nominees Berry, Denzel Washington and Will Smith.

Poitier wished to share his award with filmmakers including Norman Jewison (In the Heat of the Night) and Stanley Kramer (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner) for their "courageous" decisions to hire a black actor.

"I benefited from their efforts, the industry benefited from their efforts and America benefited from their efforts," Poitier said with his trademark precise diction. He dedicated the honor to African-American actors preceding him, "on whose shoulders I was able to stand to see where I could go."

DreamWorks' fractured fairy tale Shrek won the first ever Academy Award for best animated feature, a category added after the genre's recent artistic and box office advances. The irreverent story of an overachieving ogre grabbed the prize ahead of Monsters, Inc. from Walt Disney Studios, creators of the feature-length animated format in 1937 with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Disney regained a measure of satisfaction when For the Birds, a Pixar Animation Studios project attached to Monsters, Inc., was named best animated short subject. Later, composer Randy Newman broke the longest losing streak in Academy history, winning a best song prize for If I Didn't Have You from Monsters, Inc. after 15 previous losses.

"I don't want your pity," Newman said with his usual droll humor. "I want to thank the music branch from giving me all those chances to be humiliated."

Playing characters coping with ailing spouses earned best supporting actor and actress Oscars for Jim Broadbent and Jennifer Connelly.

Connelly played the wife of a psychologically tortured genius in Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind. Jim Broadbent's character John Bayley in Iris dealt lovingly with the decline of his wife, novelist Iris Murdoch, who suffered from Alzheimer's disease.

Broadbent, who also appeared in Moulin Rouge and Bridget Jones's Diary last year, posted a minor upset over pre-show favorites Ben Kingsley (Sexy Beast) and Ian McKellen (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring). The British-born actor thanked Bayley for allowing him to "intrude upon and, he might say, plunder his life." Like Connelly, the actor won with his first nomination.

Connelly's win in her first trip down the red carpet continued a remarkable trend in Academy voting. Nineteen of the past 20 recipients of the best supporting actress prize were rookies in the running. The exception is Dianne Wiest who claimed the prize with her first nomination for Hannah and Her Sisters, then won again in 1995 for Bullets Over Broadway.

Connelly read a prepared statement of thanks without lifting her eyes to the audience until her final words. She was wise to prepare an acceptance speech after winning a Golden Globe and several other prizes during the awards season.

"By some beautiful twist of fate I've landed in this vocation that demands that I feel and helps me to learn," Connelly said. "And no film has moved or taught me more than A Beautiful Mind (that) I believe in love. There's nothing more important. Alicia Nash is a true champion of love and so thank you to her for her example."

Peter Jackson's fantasy The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring began the Oscar campaign last month as the favorite with 13 nominations, five more than A Beautiful Mind and Moulin Rouge. Jackson's epic never showed the momentum of a nominations leader in its strong suit, categories dealing with technical achievements. The film won for its wizardly makeup, special effects and Andrew Lesnie's cinematography based on the writings and drawings of novelist J.R.R. Tolkien.

Jackson's lavish adaptation of Tolkien's novel _ the first film in a trilogy already produced _ lost in the film editing category to Pietro Scalia's tension-enhancing assembly of the Somalian war drama Black Hawk Down. Scalia won his first Academy Award for Oliver Stone's JFK in 1992. Ridley Scott's war movie also was honored as the best achievement in sound of 2001.

Moulin Rouge claimed early Oscars for best costume design and art direction in competitions including The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.

Murder on a Sunday Morning was named best documentary feature of 2001. It traces the case of an African-American teenager falsely accused of murder through racial profiling. The short documentary prize went to Thoth, featuring a street musician performing a one-man street corner opera to promote world peace.

This year's Oscar program offered entertainment by committee, as four-time host Whoopi Goldberg carried less of the comedy load than usual for an emcee. Her entrance on a trapeze a la Nicole Kidman's character in Moulin Rouge, wearing a Lady Marmalade costume possibly lifted from Patti LaBelle's closet, was a highlight.

ABC-TV's coverage of the event cleverly supported Goldberg's punchlines with well-planned cuts to the butts of her jokes in the audience.

More humor came from guest stars such as Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson donning nominated costume designs and a surprise stand-up comedy cameo by longtime Oscar ceremony avoider Woody Allen, encouraging filmmakers to take their business to New York City. Even Tom Cruise got a few laughs during otherwise somber introductory remarks concerning what movies mean to everyone, especially after the events of Sept. 11.

Sunday's Kodak Theatre moments were held under the tightest security procedures in Oscar history. Streets were blockaded for several blocks around the Academy's new $94-million venue in the heart of old Hollywood.

Oscar winners

Partial list of 74th annual Academy Awards presented Sunday evening at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood:

BEST ACTOR: Denzel Washington, Training Day.

BEST ACTRESS: Halle Berry, Monster's Ball.

SUPPORTING ACTOR: Jim Broadbent, Iris.

SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Jennifer Connelly, A Beautiful Mind.

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Akiva Goldsman, A Beautiful Mind.

ANIMATED FEATURE: Shrek.

ANIMATED SHORT: For the Birds.

ART DIRECTION: Moulin Rouge.

CINEMATOGRAPHY: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.

COSTUMES: Moulin Rouge.

DOCUMENTARY FEATURE: Murder on a Sunday Morning.

DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT: Thoth.

FILM EDITING: Black Hawk Down.

FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: No Man's Land, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

LIVE ACTION SHORT: The Accountant.

MAKEUP: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.

ORIGINAL SCORE: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Julian Fellowes, Gosford Park.

ORIGINAL SONG: If I Didn't Have You, by Randy Newman, from Monsters, Inc.

SOUND: Black Hawk Down.

SOUND EDITING: Pearl Harbor.

VISUAL EFFECTS: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.

Oscar winners previously announced this year:

GORDON E. SAWYER AWARD: Edmund M. Di Giulio.

JEAN HERSHOLT HUMANITARIAN AWARD: Arthur Hiller.

HONORARY AWARDS: Sidney Poitier and Robert Redford.

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