In the end, it was a moral victory for The Artist, the French silent film that has seemingly reignited the film industry's love of its own happy-go-lucky origins. Although the statistics will say that it earned the same amount of Academy Awards – five – as its main Hollywood rival, the 3D kids fantasy adventure Hugo, the fact that The Artist earned three of the top awards, including best picture, meant that it earned a place as the Oscars' favourite film of 2012.
The evening began with all the attention focused on Hugo. One of its stars, Sacha Baron Cohen, found himself being escorted (at a very leisurely pace) from the red-carpet area outside the Hollywood and Highland Center, after carrying through his threat to turn up in full fake-beard and uniform, along with a pair of female "bodyguards" and a jar supposedly containing the ashes of Kim Jong-il, the late leader of North Korea.
The Academy had told him it would take a dim view of any stunt to promote his new film, The Dictator, and so it proved, with Baron Cohen being led away – slowly – but not before emptying his urn over entertainment reporter Ryan Seacrest.
Once the ceremony itself got underway, Hugo shot rapidly into the lead, picking up five awards in quick succession, all in technical categories, to The Artist's one. A brilliant visual tour de force, Hugo scored Oscars for best cinematography, art direction, sound editing, sound mixing and visual effects; it could also easily have won costume design, where Britain's own Sandy Powell was batting for the Hugo team. But that award instead went unexpectedly to The Artist – a vital win, as it turned out.
Hugo looked like it had an impregnable advantage, but over the course of the evening, The Artist chipped away at it. First, Ludovic Bource won best original score, defeating not only two entries from John Williams (War Horse and Tintin) but also Howard Shore's music for Hugo.
Then, at the business end of the evening, when the main awards were being dished out, The Artist came thundering into the home straight. Martin Scorsese might have won his second best director Oscar, but The Artist's Michel Hazanavicius had taken the Bafta, the Golden Globe and the Directors' Guild awards; he was not to be denied here.
The Artist's competition in the best actor category did not come from Hugo – such an intricate construction of a film did not provide a showcase for its actors – but from The Descendants. But despite the kerfuffle over the dubious posters for his new film, Jean Dujardin saw off George Clooney.
And when the big one was called, to close the night, the momentum was irresistible: The Artist took home best picture. The entire team bounded on stage to collect it, and director Hazanavicius made an emotional tribute to his wife, Bérénice Bejo, who he said inspired the whole thing. It was an apt little Oscar moment as Bejo was up for an award no one expected The Artist to have a chance in: best supporting actress.
That one, as expected, went to Octavia Spencer of The Help much earlier in evening, who provided the first proper Oscar meltdown of the night. "I'm freaking out" she shouted, after an emotional thankyou speech.
In truth, this was not an Oscars that sprang many surprises, or even, Spencer aside, any particularly off-message behaviour on the part of the winners. We got actorly wit of the well-turned variety: when Christopher Plummer became, at 82, the oldest Oscar winner at the 84th Academy awards, he addressed his statuette for best supporting actor thus: "You're only two years older than me, darling. Where have you been all my life?"
Perhaps Woody Allen's victory in the best original screenplay category – defeating The Artist as well as popular favourite Bridesmaids – was the nearest we got to an upset, but Allen's Midnight in Paris was by some distance his best ever commercial success, and the Academy likes to reward a trier.
Nor were there even any particularly egregious fashion disasters a la Bjork's swan dress in 2001 – quiet good taste seemed to rule, even though Angelina Jolie's slashed-to-the-waist frock seemed to cause rather a stir on Twitter after she presented the two screenplay awards.
Nearly all of the entertainment on offer was of the ruthlessly professional variety. Billy Crystal had been reinserted into the host's tuxedo, and his big-room wisecracking was designed, if nothing else, to efface the memory of last year's disastrous attempt to woo the younger generation with James Franco and Anne Hathaway, and Eddie Murphy's recent about-turn over doing the job himself.
Crystal did his usual routine: he had himself edited into film clips with the nominees, laughed regularly at his own jokes, and struck a characteristic note of insouciant insensitivity: "Nothing can take the sting out of our economic worries more than millionaires presenting themselves with little gold statues."
Cirque du Soleil, meanwhile, provided a movie-inspired bit of trapeze-work, and there was a nice little short purporting to show a test screening way back in the 30s for The Wizard of Oz. (Funny it was, but it also underscored the thinly-disguised contempt Hollywood has for "civilians" – its audience.)
It wasn't a great night for Britain, whichever way you look at it. A thin presence in the top awards, and none standing a realistic chance. The Margaret Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady won two Oscars, but they were all about Meryl Streep, Hollywood royalty par excellence. In truth, the UK was almost entirely shut out: the most high profile British winner was Belfast's Terry George, the Hotel Rwanda director, who picked up an Oscar for his live action short, The Shore.
The glee of The Artist people notwithstanding, this was a serious Academy awards for a serious time. Perhaps the most resonant moment came early on, when Iranian director Asghar Farhadi came up to accept his Oscar for best foreign film for A Separation. Unfolding a large piece of paper, he read out a carefully worded plea for peace "at the time when talk of war, intimidation, and aggression is exchanged between politicians."
Iran, he said "is spoken here through her glorious culture, a rich and ancient culture that has been hidden under the heavy dust of politics." His film has been used as a political football by the regime back home in its struggles with the west. It may finally have been allowed to do some diplomatic good.