A triumphant evening for the Coen brothers – but American actors go home empty-handed

Tilda Swinton said her Oscar's buttocks reminded her of her American talent agent. The best original screenplay award went to a tattoo-covered former stripper. It was a fine night for the Brits, not to mention the French and the Spanish.

And, as had been widely expected, Hollywood – with its penchant for the young and attractive – proved it was indeed No Country For Old Men. The 2008 Academy Awards may have been muted by the recently concluded screenwriters' strike; by the almighty rush to get the show on the road after the strike was over; and by the continuing threat of an actors' walkout sometime in the next few months. Still it did not want for glamour, or – in a year when the main categories had seemed all but sewn up – a handful of surprises.

Julie Christie lost the best actress race to Marion Cotillard, the young French star of La Vie en Rose who offered the evening's largest number of heart palpitations per minute but completely forgot to thank the man whose campaigning on her behalf brought her to the podium – that redoubtable worker of Oscar magic, Harvey Weinstein.

Christie, whose role as a woman with Alzheimer's in the independent Canadian movie Away From Her has scooped up the lion's share of awards this season, looked like she didn't mind a bit.

Swinton, meanwhile, won the best supporting actress award for her turn as an over-achieving corporate lawyer in Michael Clayton, beating not only the favourite, Cate Blanchett (I'm Not There), but also the second favourite (the veteran African American actress Ruby Dee, for American Gangster).

She looked stunned as her name was read out, mouthed "wow" more than once, but arrived at the podium utterly unflustered and proceeded to make fun of both her agent and her co-star, George Clooney. "Seeing you climb into that rubber bat suit from Batman and Robin," she deadpanned, "the one with the nipples, every morning under your costume, on the set, off the set, hanging upside-down at lunch – you rock, man."

Clooney took it all on the chin. After all, he was fussed over like a diva the rest of the night. When Daniel Day-Lewis won his universally expected best actor Oscar, the first thing he did before marching to the stage was to give Clooney a kiss on the cheek.

Like Swinton, Day-Lewis upped the evening's intelligence quotient considerably – providing poetry in place of Swinton's tongue-in-cheek comedy. "My deepest thanks to the members of the Academy for whacking me with the handsomest bludgeon in town," he said, clearly still half-inhabiting his ruthless, violence-prone oil baron character from There Will Be Blood. He described the film as a "golden sapling" springing from the "mad, beautiful head" of the film's writer-director, Paul Thomas Anderson.

The 80th Academy Awards almost didn't happen at all because of the writers' strike, and were frankly overshadowed – certainly in Hollywood – by the excitement over the Democratic presidential primary battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

Jon Stewart, the TV news satirist, did his best on extremely short notice to work the strike, the election and the usual absurdity of Oscars glitz into his opening monologue, making amiable jabs at Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson and saying of Christie's performance: "It's a movie about a woman who forgets her own husband. Hillary Clinton called it the feel-good movie of the year."

His efforts were undermined by a slew of pre-prepared footage of previous Academy Awards ceremonies, whose crushing dullness was mitigated only by the knowledge that, had the strike still been on, this was all the ceremony would have had to offer.

Still, the night provided a few quirks. It was the first time since 1964 that American performers were shut out from the acting awards (Swinton and Day-Lewis are Brits, Cotillard is French, and Javier Bardem, who won best supporting actor, is Spanish). It was the first time an avowed former exotic dancer – Juno's screenwriter Diablo Cody – had hit Oscar gold. And it was the first time two brothers – the Coens – picked up a shared award for best director.

It was the Coens' night all round. No Country For Old Men, their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel, won four Oscars in all, including best picture. It was a remarkable triumph, not least because the Coens are seen in Hollywood as consummate outsiders. They previously won for their screenplay for Fargo (1996), but have otherwise found little in the way of Oscar love.

Ethan, the quiet one, said little more than thank you. Joel, the louder one, told a hilarious story about the two of them making a Super-8 movie in Minneapolis airport when they were not even teenagers. It was, he said, about shuttle diplomacy, and they called it Henry Kissinger: Man on the Go. (Since this was a Coen brother talking, you should believe that at your peril.) "Honestly," he added, "what we do now doesn't feel that much different from what we were doing then."

Scott Rudin, the co-producer of No Country, clasped his Oscar at the end of the night and proclaimed it a "complete surprise". Which only proves that top Hollywood players lie even when they have won it all.

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