By People Staff
Updated February 26, 2007 12:45 AM

Helen Mirren and Forest Whitaker took the top acting prizes at Sunday night’s 79th annual Academy Awards, with Mirren thanking the Academy for “biggest and the best gold star that I have ever had in my life” and a visibly moved Whitaker, who played Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, thanking everyone from his ancestors to the people of Uganda.

But perhaps the happiest person in the room was The Departed director Martin Scorsese. The mob drama won four awards, including Best Picture a Best Director for Scorsese, who had been nominated – and lost – five times before.

“Could you double-check the envelope?” he said, accepting his Director prize to a standing ovation. “I’m overwhelmed with this honor. … I just want to say too that so many people over the years have been wishing this for me. I go into a doctor’s office, an elevator … .” After thanking a long list of colleagues and family members, he gave a final shout-out to his 7-year-old daughter Francesca: “Jump up and down and make a lot of noise in the hotel. I’ll see you in the morning.”

Whitaker took a few seconds to compose himself while accepting his award for Best Actor. Growing up in South Central Los Angeles, he said, “the only way I saw movies was from the backseat of my family’s car at the drive-in and it wasn’t my reality to think I would be acting in movies.”

Though she was the odds-on winner almost since Dreamgirls was first released, Jennifer Hudson was still overcome with emotion when her name was announced as Best Supporting Actress. “I have to just take this moment,” she told the crowd. “I cannot believe this. Look what God can do.”

She continued tearfully, “If my grandmother was here to see me now – she was my biggest inspiration for everything. She was a singer. She had the passion for it but she never had the chance. But I’m so grateful to have my mother here celebrating with me, my boyfriend, my sisters and my brothers. … Thank you all for being with me.”

Alan Arkin, who edged out favorite Eddie Murphy to win Best Supporting Actor for Little Miss Sunshine, placed his Oscar on the floor as he read his brief acceptance speech. (The show’s set designer opted not to place a podium on the stage.)

“More than anything,” he said, “I am deeply moved by the openhearted appreciation our small film has received.” He also credited the offbeat comedy’s cast and crew “for creating the same sense of joy and trust and community that the film speaks about.”

Little Miss Sunshine also won for Best Original Screenplay by Michael Arndt, who had to quit his job as – who knew? – Matthew Broderick‘s assistant to write the film.

Pan’s Labyrinth, which won three Oscars in all, started collecting awards early in the evening and ended up with trophies for Art Direction, Makeup and Cinematography – but, in an upset, lost the Foreign Language Film prize to Germany’s The Lives of Others.

Last year’s top box-office hit, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest won a single award, for Visual Effects.

Host Ellen DeGeneres kept the evening’s mood friendly and droll. At one point, she approached Scorsese in the audience and said she just happened to have a screenplay on her that she’d like to give him. “It’s sort of a cross between Goodfellas and Big Momma’s House,” she said. “It’s Goodmommas.

Later, she chatted up Clint Eastwood. “Do you have a screenplay for me?” he asked. “No,” she said. “I want a picture of the two of us for MySpace. Would someone take our picture?” Looking up, she spotted Steven Spielberg – and handed him her digital camera.

The ceremony, which ran 10 minutes short of four hours, began on a low-key note with a video of nominees talking about their reactions to the news that they were up for awards. Peter O’Toole was awestruck that he’d been nominated as Best Actor eight times but had won “zilch.” Eddie Murphy simply stared at the camera, while Melissa Etheridge, up for Best Original Song for “I Need to Wake Up” from Al Gore‘s documentary about global warming, boasted, “I was able to rhyme ‘inconvenient truth’ – with youth.”

That song ended up winning the Oscar – shutting out “Our Town” from the animated feature Cars and a whopping three contenders from Dreamgirls: “Listen,” “Love You I Do” and “Patience.”

After the first few awards were doled out, Will Ferrell, Jack Black and John C. Reilly performed a song about how comic actors never get Academy Award nominations and how, one day, they’d prove their dramatic chops and take home an Oscar – and Helen Mirren.

Al Gore also provided a running gag for the evening. After he and Leonardo DiCaprio revealed that the Oscars had gone green this year, DiCaprio asked the former veep if he wanted to “make a major, major announcement.”

Gore assumed a serious expression, pulled out a piece of paper and began to read: “My fellow Americans, I’m going to take this opportunity here and now to formally …” Just then, he was cut off by the orchestra – the signal that his time was up.

Later, presenter George Clooney cracked, “I was just backstage with Jack Nicholson and Vice President Gore, drinking. … I don’t think he’s going to run!”

Gore got the last word, however – and turned the joke into something serious. Accepting the Best Documentary Feature award for An Inconvenient Truth, he intoned, “My fellow Americans, people all over the world,” then continued, “[global warming is] not a political issue. It’s a moral issue. We need to solve the problem.”