LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Nostalgia ruled at the Oscars, with the classic film homages "The Artist" and "Hugo" dominating with five awards each, Meryl Streep winning her first best-actress prize in nearly three decades and longtime favorite Billy Crystal returning as host.
It was a rather safe, predictable affair all around, with the winners who've heard their names throughout awards season being called up on stage one last time Sunday night. "The Artist," a black-and-white love letter to silent film, won best picture, best director for France's Michel Hazanavicius and best actor for Jean Dujardin as an actor who finds his career in danger with the arrival of the talkies. It also earned prizes for costume design and original score.
"Hugo," Martin Scorsese's 3-D mixture of family adventure and plea for film preservation, collected its prizes in the technical categories: cinematography, art direction, sound mixing, sound editing and visual effects.
Streep, the most celebrated actress of our generation, found herself in the unusual position of playing the sentimental, underdog favorite. Many (including AP's film writers) had chosen Viola Davis as the likely favorite to win best actress for her formidable portrayal of a maid in the 1960s South in "The Help." But Streep, who's been nominated more than any other actor in Oscar history -- 17 times -- hadn't won since 1982's "Sophie's Choice."
The glittering crowd in the theater (and journalists in the press room alike) erupted in gasps and cheers when Streep's name was called for her uncanny performance as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady." Streep was quick to thank her longtime makeup artist J. Roy Helland, who was also a winner Sunday night, for transforming her for the past 37 years.
Asked backstage whether she might celebrate with a couple of whiskeys -- Thatcher's favorite drink -- Streep deadpanned: "I'm going to start with a couple."
The energy she brought to the show was a rarity. Sure, there was an inadvertent F-bomb from T.J. Martin, one of the directors of the high-school football film "Undefeated," which won best documentary feature. The women of "Bridesmaids" continued the "Scorsese!" drinking game they started a few weeks ago at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, taking a swig whenever someone said the director's name.
Bret McKenzie of "Flight of the Conchords" had a nice original-song win for the hilarious "Man or Muppet" from "The Muppets" -- but even that was no big shocker in a field of just two nominees. And it was a pleasant surprise seeing Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall win film editing for the beautifully fluid "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" on a night when "Hugo" was expectedly (and deservedly) winning so many technical awards.
But for the most part, the Oscars were more of the same. Christopher Plummer, who's won every award and critics' group accolade imaginable, earned his long overdue Oscar for supporting actor for the romantic comedy "Beginners," in which he plays a 75-year-old man who finally comes out as gay. At 82, he's the oldest acting winner ever.
"You're only two years older than me, darling," Plummer said on stage, admiring his golden trophy. "Where have you been all my life?"
His supporting-actress counterpart, Octavia Spencer, also has been a repeated winner throughout awards season. She plays a sassy, subversive maid who dares speak her mind in "The Help," and drew a spontaneous standing ovation as she walked on stage for her tearful acceptance.
Afterward, she told reporters: "I was just trying not to fall down 'cause I had an incident where I fell at an awards show."
"This is one of those evenings in my life that I'll never forget," she added.
Crystal, overseeing hosting duties for the ninth time, was a familiar, reliable replacement after Eddie Murphy stepped down in solidarity with Brett Ratner, who was supposed to produce the show but resigned after making a gay slur.
The comedian trotted out all the usual routines we've come to expect from him, including being magically inserted into the action in best-picture nominees and blockbusters alike. He also did his usual song-and-dance routine with musical bits about each of the nine films competing for the night's top prize.
"You didn't think I was not going to do this, did you?" Crystal asked, as if acknowledging how reheated the gag was.
Even though the ceremony itself ran just 3 hours 13 minutes -- which is comparatively short -- it seemed a whole lot longer with the inclusion of comic bits that dragged and felt like filler. The normally solid Christopher Guest mockumentary crew pretended to be a focus group picking apart "The Wizard of Oz," for example. Co-presenters Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow bickered while pretending to make a documentary; it had its moments only because Downey is so charismatic.
But more often, we had montages of nominees describing the movies they love best on a night when the quality of films and the love of a shared moviegoing experience should be self-evident. At the end of an awards season in which films about the silent era dominated, we were repeatedly told how we should feel.
Follow Christy Lemire on Twitter: https://twitter.com/#!/christylemire .