Martin Scorsese's gangster thriller "The Departed" won best film at the 79th Academy Awards on Sunday and earned the veteran filmmaker the directing Oscar that had eluded him throughout his legendary career.

For Scorsese, the Oscar win ended one of the longest losing streaks in the history of the world's top film awards.

He had been nominated seven times for writing and directing without winning an Oscar, and went home each time without the coveted award in hand.

But his luck changed on Sunday with "The Departed," a gangster film set on the East Coast.

A gleeful Scorsese received a standing ovation from the Oscars crowd as he made his way to the stage.

"Could you double-check the envelope?" he joked to the presenters -- his friends, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, and George Lucas.

The Academy Award dream had been a long time coming, he admitted to his peers.

"So many people over the years have been wishing this for me -- strangers,'' Scorsese said before rattling off encounters in elevators and dentist offices. "And I'm saying thank you.''

Scorsese had been up against Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu for "Babel;" Clint Eastwood for "Letters From Iwo Jima;" Stephen Frears for "The Queen;" and Paul Greengrass for "United 93.''

"The Departed," which also won Oscars for best adapted screenplay and best editing, is the story of rival gangster and police moles, based on the Hong Kong thriller "Infernal Affairs."

Scorsese's film was the most popular at the box office (US$128.6 million) among the best-picture nominees.

Lead-acting Oscars

Forest Whitaker won the best actor Oscar for his role as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland."

"When I was a kid, the only way I saw movies was from the back seat of my family's car at the drive-in and it wasn't my reality to think I would be acting in movies," Whitaker said.

"So receiving this honour tonight tells me that it's possible. It is possible for a kid from East Texas, raised in South Central LA and Carson, who believes in his dreams, commits himself to them with his heart, to touch them, and to have them happen," he said.

Whitaker had been up against Leonardo DiCaprio for "Blood Diamond''; Ryan Gosling for "Half Nelson''; Peter O'Toole for "Venus''; and Will Smith for "The Pursuit of Happyness.''

Helen Mirren won the best actress Oscar for her performance as reserved monarch Elizabeth II in "The Queen."

Mirren's role as the out-of-touch queen in the days after the death of the Princess of Wales has brought the British actress her widest acclaim in 40 years on stage, screen and television.

"My sister told me that all kids love to get gold stars, and this is the biggest and the best gold star that I have ever had in my life," Mirren said.

"I want to share my gold star with my fellow nominees, the brilliant, brilliant actresses who gave such amazing performances this year."

She had been up against 14-time Oscar nominee Streep, who won a Golden Globe as a demanding fashion editor in "The Devil Wears Prada"; Spanish beauty Penelope Cruz, who plays the mother of an abused girl in "Volver"; Kate Winslet of the adultery drama "Little Children" and Judi Dench of the psychological thriller "Notes on a Scandal."

Mirren, 61, also thanked the woman who inspired the role.

"You know for 50 years and more, Elizabeth Windsor has maintained her dignity, her sense of duty, and her hairstyle. She's had her feet planted firmly on the ground, her hat on her head, her handbag on her arm, and she's weathered many, many storms. And I salute her courage and her consistency," Mirren said.

"And I thank her, because if it wasn't for her, I most certainly would not be here."

Best supporting Oscars

Former "American Idol" runner-up Jennifer Hudson won supporting actress Oscar for her dazzling breakout performance in the hit film "Dreamgirls."

For Hudson, the nomination caps a speedy rise to stardom with her first film role, just two years after being cast off "Idol" in favour of Fantasia Barrino.

"Oh my God, I have to just take this moment in. I cannot believe this. Look what God can do. I didn't think I was going to win,'' Hudson said through tears of joy. "If my grandmother was here to see me now. She was my biggest inspiration for everything.

"Because she was a singer, she had the passion for it, but she never had the chance," said Hudson, who won the Oscar for her role as the headstrong Effie White.

It was the 25-year-old's first movie role, for which she also picked up Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild wins earlier this year.

Film veteran Alan Arkin won the best supporting actor Oscar for his performance as the obscenity-spewing, heroin-snorting grandfather in "Little Miss Sunshine," in a surprise victory over Eddie Murphy.

"I'm deeply moved by the open-hearted appreciation our small film has received, which in these fragmented times speaks so openly of the possibility of innocence, growth and connection," said Arkin, after quipping he almost didn't get the part because he was considered too virile.

"Acting for me has always been and always will be a team sport. I cannot work at all unless I feel a spirit of unity around me," he said, in thanking the cast, crew and production team of the film.

"Little Miss Sunshine" was a low-budget comedy that emerged from the indie world to become a commercial hit and major awards player.

It was the first Academy Award for Arkin, 72, who had previously been nominated for his film debut in 1966's "The Russians Are Coming The Russians Are Coming" and in 1968 for "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter."

The win was a surprise victory over Eddie Murphy, who won several other major Hollywood awards this year for his role as a soul singer in "Dreamgirls." Other contenders in the category included Jackie Earle Haley for "Little Children;" Djimon Hounsou for "Blood Diamond" and Mark Wahlberg for "The Departed."

Canada had an early win with animator Torill Kove, who was awarded the Oscar in the best animated short film category for "The Danish Poet." 

The film, a Canada-Norway co-production, is a quirky 15-minute animated short about a poet with writer's block that has already won Kove a Genie award.

"I want to thank the Academy for this wonderful award. It is such an honour. And also for continuing to support the animated short category; it really means a lot to us," said the Montreal-based artist, who was nominated in 2000 for "My Grandmother Ironed the King's Shirt.''

Kove thanked the National Film Board, Norway's Mikrofilm AS and legendary Norwegian-born actress Liv Ullmann for "her beautiful narration."

"And to everyone else who worked on this I want to say thank you, thank you, thank you. You know who you are and I know who you are. And without you I wouldn't be standing here with this little guy."

The best documentary feature went to Davis Guggenheim's "An Inconvenient Truth," based on former vice-president Al Gore's acclaimed slide-show presentation on global warming.

"All of us who made this film ... we did so because we were moved to act by this man," said Guggenheim as he grasped Gore's arm.

"An Inconvenient Truth'' also won original song for Melissa Etheridge's "I Need to Wake Up.''

"Mostly, I have to thank Al Gore for inspiring me, showing me that caring about the earth is not Republican or Democrat, it's not red or blue. It's all green,'' Etheridge said.

In other Oscar news on Sunday:

  • First-time screenwriter Michael Arndt won the original screenplay award for his work on "Little Miss Sunshine," edging out Paul Haggis and Iris Yamashita for "Letters from Iwo Jima;" Guillermo del Toro for "Pan's Labyrinth;" Guillermo Arriaga for "Babel;" and Peter Morgan for "The Queen."
  • Germany's "The Lives of Others," won best foreign language film Oscar, over Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta for her film "Water." Other films in contention for the prize included Denmark's "After the Wedding;" Algeria's "Days of Glory;" and Mexico's "Pan's Labyrinth.
  • Sound engineer Kevin O'Connell, who was nominated along with two colleagues for their sound mixing work on "Apocalypto" extended his losing streak to 19 nominations. This put him in the record book for most Oscar losses without a win. The Oscar went to a trio of sound engineers who worked on "Dreamgirls."
  • "Happy Feet," the story about a dancing penguin in Antarctica, won the Academy Award for best animated feature.
  • Oscar for best live action short film went to "West Bank Story" a musical satire about duelling Arab and Israeli falafel stands.

Comedian and talk show host Ellen DeGeneres was the host of the Academy Awards show at Hollywood's Kodak Theater, making her only the second female host -- after Whoopi Goldberg -- to present the annual telecast solo.

DeGeneres, who wore a burgundy tuxedo to open the show, struck a casual tone with her opening monologue, gently mocking some nominees but mostly celebrating the occasion.

She also skipped any major Billy Crystal-style song and dance routine -- instead, she simply shook a tambourine while a gospel choir sang and rushed through the aisles.

The 79th annual Oscars featured their most diverse lineup ever, with stars and stories that came from the four corners of the globe.

"What a wonderful night. Such diversity in the room,'' said DeGeneres, "in a year when there's been so many negative things said about people's race, religion and sexual orientation.

"And I want to put this out there: If there weren't blacks, Jews and gays, there would be no Oscars,'' she said, adding: "Or anyone named Oscar, when you think about that.''