The documentary Searching for Sugar Man, about the singer Rodriguez, whose musical star faded without a trace until he was rediscovered by South Africans, won the best documentary Oscar on Monday.
The documentary was made by first-time director Malik Bendjelloul, who first discovered Sixto Rodriguez while travelling for six months in Africa in 2006, and was fascinated by his story.
Another first was US First Lady, Michelle Obama, making a surprise and unprecedented appearance via telecast to present the award for Best Picture, the first time a president or first lady has ever presented an Academy Award, for Argo.
Searching for Sugar Man tells the story of Rodriguez, who made two albums in the early 1970s, but then quit music – and who knew nothing about his fame on another continent.
The award was accepted by Bendjelloul and producer Simon Chinn, who explained why Rodriguez did not attend the Oscars show at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood.
“He didn’t want to take any of the credit himself. That just about says everything about that man and his story that you want to know,” Chinn said.
Bendjelloul said he learnt that Rodriguez was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1942, but his music career ended almost before it began, while all other stars around him were making music history in Motown.
But while his records failed to take off at home, a bootleg copy somehow made it to South Africa, where it struck a chord with progressive young whites exasperated with the apartheid system.
His success here was such that, given the fact that the artist himself was not around, bizarre stories began to emerge about him, including one that claimed that he had committed suicide by setting himself on fire on stage.
Other Oscar nominees “made us laugh, made us weep and grip our armrests just a little bit tighter”, said Obama, appearing live on screen from the White House in Washington, almost 4 800km from the ceremony in Hollywood.
Wearing a silver evening dress, Obama praised the work of the movie industry before announcing the Iran hostage drama Argo as the Best Picture winner.
Obama said: “They reminded us we can overcome any obstacle if we dig deep enough and hard enough. They are especially important for young people.
“Every day they engage in the arts, they learn to open their imaginations... and strive to reach those dreams.”
Argo director and co-producer Ben Affleck said he felt like he was “sort of hallucinating” when Obama presented the award.
“The fact that it was the first lady was an enormous honour... it was very cool,” Affleck said backstage after collecting the trophy.
Ang Lee was a surprise choice for Best Director for Life of Pi. It was the first time since Driving Miss Daisy in 1990 that a film won the top prize at the Oscars without its director also being nominated.
Daniel Day-Lewis made Oscar history and won a long standing ovation on becoming the first man to win three Best Actor Oscars.
He collected the golden statuette for his intense performance as US President Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln.
“I really don’t know how any of this happened,” said Day-Lewis, who has dual Anglo-Irish citizenship.
Jennifer Lawrence was named Best Actress for playing a feisty young widow in the comedy Silver Linings Playbook, tripping up on her dress while approaching the stage.
She beat Jessica Chastain and France’s Emmanuelle Riva, 86, in one of the closest Oscar contests this year.
Taiwanese director Lee beat front runner Steven Spielberg in the directing race, in a controversial year that saw four of Hollywood’s leading names omitted from the Academy Award directing shortlist.
Spielberg’s account of Lincoln’s battle to abolish slavery and end the US civil war went into the three-hour plus ceremony with a leading 12 nominations. But it ended up winning just two.
Argo also won best film editing and best adapted screenplay for its gripping and often comedic tale of the CIA mission to rescue six US diplomats from Tehran shortly after the Islamic Revolution. It has been criticised for not being a realistic portrayal of the events.
In other contests, Anne Hathaway won her first Oscar, while harrowing Austrian film Amour was voted Best Foreign Language Film.
Hathaway, who starved herself and chopped off her long brown locks to play tragic heroine Fantine in Les Misérables, was considered the overwhelming favourite for supporting role in the screen version of the popular stage musical.
“It came true,” she said, looking at the golden statuette.
“Here’s hoping that some day in the not too distant future the misfortunes of Fantine will only be found in stories and not in real life,” Hathaway added.
Amour, the heart-wrenching tale of an elderly couple coping with the wife’s debilitating stroke, had dominated awards shows in Europe and the US for months.
Also, Austrian, Christoph Waltz, was the surprise winner of the closest contest going into the ceremony.
He took Best Supporting Actor honours for his turn as an eccentric dentist turned bounty hunter in Quentin Tarantino’s slavery revenge fantasy Django Unchained.
A jubilant Tarantino also won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and credited the actors who brought the characters in all his films to life.
“And boy this time, did I do it!,” he said.
The winners were chosen in secret ballots by some 5 800 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. – Reuters, Sapa-AFP