LOS ANGELES - They slew beasts, toppled tyrants and destroyed a ring of ultimate evil, becoming lords of the Academy Awards for their troubles.
In an all-around predictable evening at the Oscars, the ragtag heroes of "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" hoisted the fantasy genre to a new artistic high Sunday, earning a record-tying 11 awards, taking best picture and sweeping each of its categories.
Television ratings for the show rebounded, up 17 percent from last year in Nielsen Media Research's overnight measurement of the nation's 55 largest markets. Last year, when "Chicago" won best picture, viewership was at an all-time low because of the Iraq war.
When final ratings are in, the Oscars should have a viewership of about 42.5 million, estimated Larry Hyams, ABC research chief. That should put the show on par with 2002 (41.8 million) and 2001 (42.9 million).
"Anytime you get a 17 percent gain versus a year ago, you have to be pleased," Hyams said.
Peter Jackson, who shepherded J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth saga to the screen, won the best director Oscar and shared the adapted-screenplay award with his two co-writers.
"I think the fact that we had goblins and trolls and wizards and everything else made it hard for people to take it seriously," Jackson said backstage. "I appreciate that the academy and voters tonight have seen through all that."
Tolkien's themes - "forgiveness, courage, faith, friendship" - are "themes that go straight to the heart," Jackson said.
All four acting front-runners won, each claiming their first Oscar. Sean Penn took the best-actor prize as a vengeful father in "Mystic River," and Charlize Theron won for best actress as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in "Monster."
Supporting-performance Oscars went to Tim Robbins as a man emotionally hamstrung by childhood trauma in "Mystic River" and Renee Zellweger as a hardy Confederate survivor in "Cold Mountain."
Theron joked that since everyone in New Zealand - where "Lord of the Rings" was shot - had been thanked, she had to thank everyone in her home country, South Africa.
"And my mom," said Theron, who gained 30 pounds for "Monster" and was unrecognizable behind dark contact lenses and unflattering makeup. "You have sacrificed so much for me to be able to live here and make my dreams come true, and there are no words to describe how much I love you. And I'm not going to cry."
Penn - who has been dismissive of awards in the past but graciously accepted after skipping the Oscars the three previous times he was nominated - was taken by surprise when the audience gave him a standing ovation.
"I did arguably feel I was there to debunk the notion that it was a popularity contest," Penn said backstage. "But they took that away from me in the room."
Sofia Coppola's Oscar victory for original screenplay for "Lost in Translation" made her family the second clan of three-generation Oscar winners, joining Walter, John and Anjelica Huston. Her father is five-time winner Francis Ford Coppola, who was an executive producer on "Lost in Translation," and her grandfather, Carmine Coppola, won for musical score on "The Godfather Part II."
"I never thought my dad would be watching me get one," Coppola said. "So it's just a thrill."
Oscar voters saved the best for last on "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, showering the final installment with prizes after parts 1 and 2 won only technical or music awards. The sense from the time "The Fellowship of the Ring" hit theaters in 2001, followed by "The Two Towers" a year later, was that academy members would withhold their big accolades for the concluding chapter.
"There's a 7-year-old kid in me that used to make films in my parents' back garden, and I never dreamt I'd be here," Jackson, 42, said backstage alongside some of his "Lord of the Rings" collaborators.
"Return of the King" also won for song, musical score, visual effects, editing, makeup, art direction, costume design and sound mixing.
Composer Howard Shore took his second Oscar for writing "Lord of the Rings" music, having won two years ago on "Fellowship of the Ring."
"Into the West," the wistful tune of farewell from "Return of the King," won the best-song Oscar. The song was written by Fran Walsh, the film's co-screenwriter, Shore and Annie Lennox, who sings the tune.
Only a handful of fantasy films have been nominated for the top Oscar - "Fellowship of the Ring" and "Two Towers" among them - but none had won until now.
Jackson's trilogy has proven to be box office gold, with global ticket sales of $2.8 billion for the three films. "Return of the King" has topped $1 billion alone, the No. 2 box-office draw behind "Titanic" at $1.8 billion.
Jackson labored for seven years to adapt Tolkien's trilogy - first convincing Hollywood bankers to stake him to the tune of $300 million, then marshaling a cast and crew of 2,000 to shoot the three films and land them in theaters just a year apart.
The result was a 9 1/2-hour saga that seamlessly blended live action and computer animation. Real actors credibly shared the screen with flying beasts, hulking trolls, and walking, talking "tree shepherds."
"It was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life, but ever since I was a kid, I wanted to be a filmmaker, so what better film to work on than `The Lord of the Rings?' It was a privilege every day. It nearly killed me, but right now it feels absolutely fine," said Jackson, whose next project is a "King Kong" remake.