At the Oscars it was a good night for director Clint Eastwood's drama Mystic River - although the veteran had to relinquish the best director and best film gongs to Peter Jackson, whose team walked away with a 100 per cent sweep of 11 Oscars.
Mystic River star Sean Penn won the Oscar for best actor for his role in which he plays the tormented father of a murdered girl in Boston.
And his Mystic River co-star Tim Robbins won the award for best supporting actor for his searing performance as the suspected killer of his friend's daughter.
Charlize Theron pipped Keisha Castle-Hughes and, as widely predicted, won best actress for the drama Monster, in which she masked her stunning beauty - literally - to play real-life female serial killer Aileen Wuornos.
Renee Zellweger won the Oscar as best supporting actress for her scene-stealing role as the scrappy, plain-spoken farmhand Ruby Thewes in the epic Civil War romance Cold Mountain.
For Zellweger, 34, fast becoming one of Hollywood's most sought-after actresses, the third time was the charm. She was previously nominated for best actress as the insecure heroine of Bridget Jones's Diary and as the homicidal hoofer Roxie Hart in Chicago.
In Cold Mountain, based on the novel by Charles Frazier, Zellweger plays the tough but loyal farm girl sent to help Nicole Kidman manage her deceased father's farm amid the deprivations and cruelties of war. Critics raved about her scruffy, earthy performance.
It was a thrilling night for Theron, who tearfully thanked her mother, recently revealed as the self-defence killer of the actress' father.
The South African native and former model might have seemed an odd choice for the role of Wuornos, the first known American female serial killer, who was executed in 2002.
Although she has become noticed through lighter roles in films such as The Cider House Rules and The Italian Job, it was as Wuornos, the abused, disturbed serial killer, that Theron took her greatest risk, which paid off with the Academy Award - on her first nomination.
Theron, who exudes old-style Hollywood glamour, underwent a gruelling daily makeup ritual to play the part, in which a latex layer of "skin" was stretched over her beauteous face to approximate Wuornos' sun-mottled visage. She also had to sport a pair of heavy dentures.
Penn had been considered a frontrunner for the Oscar, but some said the volatile, outspoken actor might be overlooked because of personal factors such as his travelling to Iraq before the war and having failed to attend the Golden Globe awards.
But Penn's affecting performance in Mystic River, coupled with another bravura turn this year in 21 Grams, was too good for voters to ignore.
Penn, whose tumultuous marriage to Madonna ended in divorce, is regarded as one of Hollywood's finest actors. He has specialised in finely detailed performances portraying aggressive or disturbed characters, often criminals or cops. In Dead Man Walking he played a killer on death row.
War movies such as The Thin Red Line and Casualties of War or crime thrillers have rounded out his testosterone-fuelled oeuvre, but where Penn has distinguished himself is in the sensitivity he has managed to bring to characters that often exist on the fringes of society.
Robbins, star of such films as The Shawshank Redemption, The Player and Bull Durham, won the Oscar for his work as Mystic River's Dave Boyle, a tormented, beaten man in working class Boston suspected of killing the daughter of his friend, played by Sean Penn.
"Oh boy, wow!" Robbins said upon receiving the statuette from last year's best supporting actress, Catherine Zeta-Jones. "This is really a lovely honour."
Robbins, who has in the past used the Oscars as a forum for his liberal political leanings, drew cheers for delivering a message that sprung from his Mystic River role.
"In this movie, I play a victim of abuse and violence, and if you are out there and have had that tragedy befall you there is no shame or weakness in seeking help and counselling," Robbins said. "It sometimes is the strongest thing you can do to stop the cycle of violence."