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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman ever to win a best director Oscar on Sunday for her hard-nosed work on "The Hurt Locker," the Iraq war film about a team of U.S. soldiers who defuse bombs.
In a true Hollywood twist, Bigelow edged out her ex-husband, "Avatar" filmmaker James Cameron, and both were widely considered the front-runners for the honor.
Singer and filmmaker Barbra Streisand, who once saw her 1991 movie "The Prince of Tides" nominated for a best picture Academy Award, announced that Bigelow had won with the words, "Well, the time has come."
After accepting the Oscar, Bigelow called it "the moment of a lifetime."
"I'd just like to dedicate this to the women and men in the military who risk their lives on a daily basis in Iraq and Afghanistan and around the world, and may they come home safe," Bigelow said.
Bigelow was only the fourth woman ever nominated for a best director Oscar in the Academy Awards' 82-year history.
The previous woman nominees were Sofia Coppola, Jane Campion and Lina Wertmuller. Directing has long been the domain of men in Hollywood, with women enjoying fewer opportunities.
Women directed only 7 percent of the 250 top-grossing films in the U.S. and Canada in 2009, a figure hardly changed in more than two decades, according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film at San Diego State University.
Bigelow won her nomination after earning a reputation for taking risks with bold film projects.
With "The Hurt Locker," her gamble involved making a movie about the Iraq war when other projects about the conflict fared badly with audiences and critics.
In making low-budget "The Hurt Locker," Bigelow shot in Jordan to gain a realistic setting that looked like Iraq. She often filmed near the Iraqi border.
The independent film focuses on a team of three U.S. soldiers who defuse roadside bombs.
While the job comes with plenty of risks, team leader William James makes it even more dangerous by de-activating bombs by hand and chasing after insurgents.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has praised the film.
Hollywood watchers say "The Hurt Locker" has won over movie industry players who run the Oscars because it focuses on the heroics of U.S. soldiers, and avoids politics.
The film's success with audiences has been more limited, and it has made about $21 million in global ticket sales.
Aside from Bigelow and Cameron, the other directors nominated for an Oscar were Quentin Tarantino for "Inglourious Basterds," Lee Daniels for "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push" by Sapphire" and Jason Reitman for "Up in the Air."
During their opening comedy routine, hosts Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin joked about the Oscar race between the two formerly married directors, Bigelow and Cameron.
"She was so pleased to be nominated with him she sent him a beautiful gift basket -- with a timer," Baldwin said.
Bigelow was trained as a painter and entered filmmaking from the art world. She married Cameron in 1989 and the two divorced in 1991.
Her previous films include the 1991 cult favorite "Point Break" about bank robbing surfers.
She and Cameron remained on friendly terms after their divorce, and he produced and co-wrote Bigelow's 1995 science fiction movie "Strange Days," which bombed at the box office.
For "The Hurt Locker," Bigelow this year won a Directors Guild of America trophy and a slew of critics' choice awards.
Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Sandra Maler and Mary Milliken