Crash turned the tables on popular wisdom when it was named best picture at the 78th annual Academy Awards last night as it took three Oscars, while the pre-ceremony favourite Brokeback Mountain also took home three awards including best director for Ang Lee.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Reese Witherspoon won the lead actor and actress prizes for Capote and Walk The Line respectively, while George Clooney and Rachel Weisz won their supporting actor categories for Syriana and The Constant Gardener.

Gavin Hood's Tsotsi claimed South Africa's first ever Oscar in the foreign language category and Luc Jacquet's The March Of The Penguins proved too strong for the competition in the documentary strand.

While many had predicted a stronger showing for Brokeback Mountain, the Western claimed another senior Oscar for Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry in the adapted screenplay category, as well as original score for Gustavo Santaolalla.

Earlier in the evening Crash writer-director Paul Haggis was onstage to collect the original screenplay award with co-writer Bobby Moresco. 'I want to thank those people who take big risks in their daily lives when the cameras aren't rolling, people who stand up for peace and justice against intolerance,' Haggis said.

Haggis' fellow Crash producer Cathy Schulman made the acceptance speech for best picture and expressed heartfelt appreciation to all their collaborators. 'You have made this year one of the most breathtaking, stunning and maverick years in Academy history,' she told members. She thanked Crash financier Bob Yari, whom she is suing for business dealings concerning Bull's Eye Entertainment. In a separate but not entirely unrelated matter, Yari is suing the Academy and the Producers Guild of America after he was denied producer accreditation on the picture and therefore did not join Haggis and Schulman on the stage. Hughes Winborne collected the editing award for Crash.

'I want to thank two men called Ennis and Jack,' Ang Lee said upon winning his first best director Oscar. 'They taught all of us who made Brokeback Mountain so much about gay men and women, whose love is denied by society, but just as important, the greatness of love itself.'

Lead actor winner Hoffman was nearly lost for words as he took the stage after his performance as Truman Capote in Capote trumped the other four contenders. 'I'm overwhelmed,' Hoffman said, before heaping praise on his old friends, Capote director Bennett Miller and screenwriter Dan Futterman, also nominees last night. 'I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you.'

Witherspoon was equally humbled by winning the lead actress award for her role as June Carter in Walk The Line. 'Johnny Cash and June Carter had a wonderful tradition of honouring other artists and I really feel that tradition tonight,' Witherspoon said. She cited her grandmother as a major influence in her life for teaching the importance of self-respect. 'It was an important part of June Carter's life.'

Supporting actor winner Clooney, who had also been nominated in the directing and screenwriting categories for Good Night, And Good Luck, praised Hollywood's desire to champion relevant socio-political causes down the years. 'We're the ones who talk about AIDS when it was just being whispered, and we talked about civil rights when it wasn't really popular. And we bring up subjects. This Academy, this group of people, gave Hattie McDaniel an Oscar in 1939 when blacks were still sitting in the backs of theatres. I'm proud to be a part of this Academy.'

'I share it with others,' Rachel Weisz said of her supporting actress prize for The Constant Gardener. 'I thank Ralph Fiennes, my luminous acting partner, Fernando Meirelles our director who is brimming over with such humanity, our dignified sensitive producer Simon Channing Williams, and of course, John le Carre, who wrote this unflinching, angry story. He really paid tribute to the people who are willing to risk their own lives to fight injustice. And they're greater men and women than I.'

Luc Jacquet and his The March Of The Penguins producing team took the stage as feature documentary winners holding aloft the toy penguins that were one of the most popular sights during the red carpet arrivals. Jacquet whistled into the microphone and in what he claimed was penguin-speak for 'thank you'. He added: 'I'd like to dedicate this statuette to all the children in the world who saw this movie. In 2041, they will decide to ruin you or not [when they decide what to do with] the treaty that protects Antarctica.' Responding to a question backstage about what he thought of the spoof internet short Brokeback Penguin, Jacquet quipped: 'There is not only one model in nature; there are many, many models of nature.'

Adapted screenplay Oscar winner Larry McMurtry had been nominated once before for his 1971 classic The Last Picture Show, and ironically the prolific novelist won not for an adaptation of one of his own novels but for adapting E Annie Proulx's short story. He paid comprehensive praise to Ossana, and thanked booksellers around the world. 'I want to thank all our contributors to the survival of the culture of the book.'

Collecting the foreign language award for Tsotsi, an emotional director Gavin Hood said: 'We may have foreign language films, but our stories are the same as your stories and they are about human heart and emotion.'

Nick Park and Steve Box won animated feature for Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit. It was Park's fourth Academy Award but his first for a feature. 'Somebody once said if you make a bad film, you make it alone,' Box told the auditorium. 'If you make a great film, everybody made it with you. We all made it together, guys.' The pair added in unison: 'Cracking cheese, Gromit.'

Dion Beebe won the cinematography prize for Memoirs Of A Geisha, his first win and second nomination after Chicago. Colleen Atwood won the costume design statuette for Memoirs of A Geisha, which won three nominations overall, and told the press backstage of the international effort that went into making the costumes. 'I had women from Armenia, from Costa Rica, from Mexico making kimonos, listening to Memoirs Of A Geisha with their headsets on in Spanish,' Atwood said. 'And I had people in Copenhagen doing embroidery for me who are Danish, English, Japanese... so it was really interesting that all these different cultures embraced the real beauty of the kimono in a way that was with the greatest love.' Art director John Myhre collected the picture's third award of the night for achievement in art direction and thanked the Academy on behalf of absent set decorator Gretchen Rau.

'It all started when I was a little boy and my mother read me Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, and at that point I knew I wanted to go live with the monsters,' Howard Berger, who along with Tami Lane won make-up for The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, said.

Joe Letteri, Brian Van't Hul, Christian Rivers and Richard Taylor collected their Oscars for visual effects on King Kong. 'I've got to thank Andy Serkis for really giving us the heart of Kong,' Letteri said. 'Peter Jackson, thank you for continuing to surprise us, and delight us, guide us, and for making films that we all love.' King Kong's sound mixing team of Christopher Boyes, Michael Semanick, Michael Hedges and Hammond Peek thumped their chests in homage to the giant ape after taking the stage for their Oscar.

Corinne Marrinan and Eric Simonson took home the documentary short category award for A Note Of Triumph: The Golden Age Of Norman Corwin, while Martin McDonagh won the short film (live action) category for Six Shooter and expressed excitement backstage over the proliferation of distribution platforms for short films. 'Magnolia Films are working to get short films, both the dramatic and the animation, in theatres all over the country for the past two weeks. There are just a lot more opportunities, and iTunes is launching films that way too.'

John Canemaker and Peggy Stern picked up the animated short Oscar for The Moon And The Son: An Imagined Conversation. 'Peggy and I thank the Academy for this great honour,' Canemaker said. 'And also for your faith in hand-drawn animation, which still can pack an emotional wallop.'

Jordan Houston, Cedric Coleman and Paul Beauregard won original song for It's Hard Out Here For A Pimp from Hustle & Flow.

Robert Altman received a standing ovation as he collected the honorary Oscar. 'When the news first came I was caught off-guard. I always thought this award meant it was over,' Altman said. 'But then it dawned on me I was doing an interview for my next film, A Prairie Home Companion. So it's not over.' He continued: 'They say filmmaking is like building a sand castle. You build it and invite your friends and watch it wash away. I've built about 40 of them and I'm never tired.'