WINNER: Director Ang Lee reacts after winning the Oscar for best director for Life of Pi in Hollywood on Sunday. Picture: REUTERS
WINNER: Director Ang Lee reacts after winning the Oscar for best director for Life of Pi in Hollywood on Sunday. Picture: REUTERS

THE documentary Searching for Sugar Man, about a singer whose musical star faded without a trace until he was rediscovered in South Africa, on Sunday won the Oscar for best documentary feature.

At the glamorous awards ceremony in Los Angeles, Iran hostage thriller Argo won the best-picture Oscar, the highest honour in the movie industry, while Ang Lee was a surprise choice for best director for Life of Pi.

Searching for Sugar Man tells the story of Detroit-based folk musician Sixto Rodriguez, who made two albums in the early 1970s but then quit music, knowing nothing about his fame on another continent.

Though his records had failed to take off at home, a bootleg copy made it to South Africa, where it struck a chord with progressive young whites exasperated with the apartheid system.

The documentary was made by first-time director Malik Bendjelloul, who first heard of Rodriguez while travelling in Africa in 2006 and was fascinated by his story.

The award was accepted by Bendjelloul and producer Simon Chinn, who explained why Rodriguez did not attend the Oscars show at the Dolby Theatre. "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.

Rodriguez’s success in South Africa was such that, in his absence, bizarre stories began to emerge about him, including one that claimed he had committed suicide by setting himself alight on stage.

‘Great films’

"There are eight great films that have as much right to be up here as we do," said Argo producer and director Ben Affleck when he received the award for best picture.

The not-so-unexpected win for Argo was announced in one of the biggest surprises in the history of Oscar telecasts as US First Lady Michelle Obama made an unprecedented appearance from the White House to declare the film the top winner of the evening.

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 the film 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 Sunday’s 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.

Awards for Hathaway, Amour

In other contests, Anne Hathaway won her first Oscar and 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 her 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."

Amour, the heart-wrenching tale of an elderly couple coping with the wife’s debilitating stroke, gave Austria the best foreign-language film award after it had dominated awards shows in Europe and the US for months.

Another 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.

It was Waltz’s second Oscar, after winning for the Tarantino movie Inglourious Basterds in 2010.

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.

Brave, the Pixar movie about a feisty Scottish princess, took home the golden statuette for best animated feature.

Singer Adele won the Oscar for best original song for the track Skyfall, off the soundtrack of the James Bond movie of the same name.

The Oscar winners were chosen in secret ballots by about 5,800 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Reuters and Sapa