Austrian actor Christoph Waltz and animated movie Brave took home early Oscars on Sunday as Seth MacFarlane mocked both himself and Hollywood's A-listers in his debut as host of the movie industry's biggest night.
In one of the closest contests going into the ceremony, the Best Supporting Actor went to Waltz for his turn as an eccentric dentist-turned-bounty-hunter in Quentin Tarantino's slavery revenge fantasy Django Unchained.
"We participated in a hero's journey, the hero here being Quentin. You scaled the mountain because you're not afraid of it," said Waltz, who has now won two Oscars for roles in Tarantino films.
Waltz beat veterans Robert De Niro, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Alan Arkin and Tommy Lee Jones.
'Brave,' the Pixar movie about a feisty Scottish princess, took home the golden statuette for Best Animated Feature.
MacFarlane opened the show with three song and dance numbers, barbed quips about some of Hollywood's biggest stars and running jokes about his own suitability to host the Academy Awards.
"I honestly cannot believe I am here. It's an honor that everyone else said 'no'," said the creator of edgy animated TV series Family Guy.
But his biggest laugh came in a reference to director Ben Affleck's snub in the directing race for his Iran hostage thriller Argo.
"The story was so top secret that the film's director was unknown to the Academy!" MacFarlane quipped.
Presidential drama 'Lincoln' went into Sunday's three-hour plus ceremony with a leading 12 nominations, including a directing nod for double Oscar winner Steven Spielberg.
But its front-runner Best Picture status has been dented by the six-week victory streak enjoyed at other Hollywood awards by Argo.
The thriller, once considered an underdog when Affleck was overlooked in the Oscar directing category, is now thought to have the edge.
Best Picture, the top prize, will be announced at the end of the roughly three-hour live ceremony at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood.
If 'Argo' does prevail, it will be the first movie to win Best Picture without its director even getting a nomination since "Driving Miss Daisy" in 1990.
Musical Les Miserables, comedy Silver Linings Playbook, shipwreck tale Life of Pi, Osama bin laden thriller Zero Dark Thirty, slavery Western 'Django Unchained,' indie film 'Beasts of the Southern Wild,' and 'Amour' round out the contenders for the best film of 2012.
After several years of nominating little-seen movies, this year's nine Best Picture contenders have pulled in more than $2 billion in tickets worldwide.
Oscar producers hope the popularity of the leading movies, together with a show packed with musical numbers and a James Bond movie tribute, will make for a big TV audience for broadcaster ABC.
Upsets could be in store later on Sunday by France's Emmanuelle Riva, 86, in the Best Actress contest.
Riva, star of the harrowing Austrian entry Amour, emerged as a dark horse in the past few days in a race that had been seen as a battle between Zero Dark Thirty actress Chastain and Jennifer Lawrence of Silver Linings Playbook.
A win by Riva would make her the oldest person ever to win an acting Oscar.
Amour, the story of how an elderly couple cope with the effects of the wife's debilitating strokes, won the Best Foreign Language film.
Few surprises are expected in the Best Actor race and Best Supporting actress categories.
Daniel Day-Lewis as U.S. President Abraham Lincoln is considered an unstoppable force to become the first man to win three Best Actor Oscars.
Anne Hathaway, who starved herself and chopped off her long brown locks to play tragic heroine Fantine in "Les Miserables," is considered the overwhelming favorite to win her first Oscar for her supporting role in the screen version of the popular stage musical.
The Oscar winners were chosen in secret ballots by some 5,800 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.