LOS ANGELES — To the audible shock of many inside Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre, the cool, calm and collected journalism procedural “Spotlight” won the Academy Award for best film of 2015. Director and co-writer Tom McCarthy’s superb docudrama beat out the heavy favorite “The Revenant,” although to the surprise of no one, Leonardo DiCaprio won his first best actor Oscar, as early 19th century trapper Hugh Glass.
On paper, this year’s tussle for the best picture Oscar was closer than any in years. In the run-up to the Oscars, “The Big Short” won the Producers Guild of America award; “Spotlight” won the Screen Actors Guild prize; and “The Revenant” won the Directors Guild of America citation. In retrospect that three-way split among the trade guilds spelled no sure thing, certainly not for “The Revenant,” which went into the weekend the front runner.
Highlights from the 2016 Academy Awards
We’ll never know how close it was. But perhaps “Spotlight,” about the Boston Globe’s investigation of the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse cover-up, became the beneficiary of the Oscar ballot’s preferential voting tally, which many have tried to explain in plain language but, to date, no human on planet Earth has been able to fully comprehend. Maybe it went like this: “Spotlight” simply garnered enough number two votes, along with its number ones, to sail to the top and into the Oscar history books.
For those who resisted the bludgeon of “The Revenant,” the rapier wielded by “Spotlight” was more gratifying. And, for the Academy, apparently, more worthy.
The “Spotlight” upset capped an unusually fresh and urgent Oscars ceremony, hosted by Chris Rock, and fueled by several weeks of controversy following the January announcement of the Oscar nominations. In all 20 acting slots, the nominations were white as all get-out, leading to boycotts threatened and changes made within the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Most years at the Oscars, the political content of an opening monologue and the more fervent acceptance speeches is something to be tolerated. Not this year. It was demanded; the 88th Oscars were destined for an acknowledgment of the tradition’s most obvious problems. The #OscarsSoWhite imbroglio demanded a full-on assault, and master of ceremonies Chris Rock would’ve been a chump not to seize the day.
The result was the loosest, sharpest opening monologue in years, as Rock addressed “this whole no-black-nominees thing.” Even the drive-by asides (“We’re black” instead of “We’re back,” coming back from a commercial) did the trick. And Rock went all the way out on the limb, joking that the “In Memorium” tribute to lives lost would be dedicated to “black people who were shot by the cops on the way to the movies.”
All night, Rock made hay while the cameras kept cutting away to reaction shots of white faces, laughing. Rock’s best material early on proved bracingly harsh, as when he joked (but seriously) that “we had real things to protest” during the Civil Rights era — more substantive matters than broadening the racial and ethnic scope of the Oscar nominations.
“We were too busy being raped and lynched to worry about who won best cinematographer,” Rock said. That was an unusually edgy punchline, but the feeling ran underneath the show all evening.
Earlier this year, following the first wave of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs announced changes to the nominating processes, affecting who in the Academy’s 7,000-plus membership gets to vote. And, crucially, what that membership looks like in the coming years.
She said from the Dolby stage Sunday: “It’s not enough to just listen and agree” that the film industry, and the Oscars, are too white. “Everyone in Hollywood has a role to play” in diversifying the ranks.
Rock, earlier in the evening, said simply: “We want black actors to get the same opportunity as white actors. That’s it. That’s it. And not just once.”
The first two Oscars of the evening went to “Spotlight” (original screenplay) and to “The Big Short” (adapted screenplay), fulfilling most predictions.
“Spotlight” co-writer and director Tom McCarthy said from the Dolby stage that the film, about the Boston Globe’s investigative reporters’ dogged pursuit of a Boston sexual abuse cover-up within the Catholic Church, was made for all the journalists who “hold the powerful accountable.”
“Big Short” co-writer and director Adam McKay took his moment to warn viewers not to vote for presidential candidates in the thrall of big money and the major banks.
As expected, the first three design and technical awards (costumes, production design, makeup and hairstyling) went to a film that, unlike its more restrained competitors, demanded attention every second.
Aussie Margaret Sixel won for film editing, while Oscar winning costume designer Jenny Bevan took a moment to remind the audience that “Mad Max: Fury Road” wasn’t just for kicks. Director George Miller’s extravagant festival of screeching tires, Bevan noted, could be “horribly prophetic” if we don’t “stop polluting our atmosphere.” So it’s a weird spiritual cousin to Miller’s earlier, popular animated hit “Happy Feet,” which contained cautionary environmental messages designed to rattle audiences of all ages.
For the third year running (following “Gravity” and “Birdman”), cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki scored the best cinematography award, for “The Revenant.” Three’s a record, by the way.
It was an especially rich year for this category, with Oscar nominee Ed Lachman having shot “Carol” on supple, textured Super 16 millimeter film stock; fellow nominee Robert Richardson shooting the widescreen “The Hateful Eight” with antiquated Ultra Panavision lenses; and Roger Deakins, one of the greats and one of the Great Perpetual Skunked in this category, filming “Sicario” digitally.
By the show’s presumptive midpoint, when “Fury Road” had already snagged six Oscars, there wasn’t what you’d call an upset until “Ex Machina” beat out “The Revenant,” “Fury Road,” “The Martian” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” in the visual effects category. A nice surprise: The picture with the smallest budget won, proving that money can’t buy everything in modern moviemaking.
There was more than one bear story going on Sunday. Bearwise, in the first-ever Oscar win for a Chilean project, the animated short film “Bear Story” joined its more conspicuous bear-movie cousin “The Revenant.”
In the least shocking development of the evening, Disney/Pixar’s “Inside Out” took home the feature animation prize. Co-director Pete Docter credited his kids with inspiring the picture’s development, and for reminding him of the emotional craziness all kids experience. His advice to the younger viewers: “Make films. Draw. Write. It’ll make a world of difference.”
Sentimental favorite Sylvester Stallone took a metaphorical punch when he lost the supporting actor statue to “Bridge of Spies” co-star Mark Rylance. Both performances were understated in utterly different ways; Stallone’s reprisal of Rocky Balboa, mellower and a touch grayer, showcased the familiar lug’s truest acting in a long, up-and-down career. But Rylance’s subtle mastery won the day. Adept in Shakespeare, French farce and so much more on stage, Rylance made a huge impression on the Academy with his meticulous portrait of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel.
No surprises with the supporting actress category: Alicia Vikander, in what amounted to a co-lead, scored the gold for her work opposite Eddie Redmayne in “The Danish Girl.”
The political strain of the 88th Oscars took a notable turn toward the realm of national politics with the appearance of U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden.
Movingly, he introduced Lady Gaga’s performance of “Til It Happens to You,” a song sung from the perspective of a sexual assault survivor, written for the documentary “The Hunting Ground.” Encouraging the global audience to take a pledge of intervention by way of www.itsonus.org, Biden looked forward to a day when “no abused woman or man” stays silent.
The maestro and the speed-writer: Eighty-seven-year-old composer Ennio Morricone finally won an Oscar (his first, after five previous nominations) for his “Hateful Eight” score. The man who created the soundscape of so many classic Sergio Leone Westerns received the single warmest ovation of the ceremony. In Italian, speaking through a translator, he thanked writer-director Quentin Tarantino and dedicated the award to his wife.
The “Spectre” ditty “Writing’s On the Wall” netted British superstar Sam Smith his first Oscar, for original song. “I stand here tonight as a proud gay man,” he said, dedicating the win to the worldwide LGBT community. Smith has claimed in interviews that he wrote the song in 20 minutes.
Finishing his acceptance speech up against the Oscar orchestra’s hurry-it-up rendition of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” Alejandro G. Inarritu made history with his best director win for “The Revenant,” joining a very short list (the other names on it being John Ford and Joseph L. Mankiewicz) who have won back-to-back Oscars for direction. Last year Inarritu won three Oscars for “Birdman.”
In his speech he noted the sub-theme of his bloody survivalist saga: racial prejudice. We must “liberate ourselves from all prejudice, and this tribal thinking,” Inarritu said, noting that “the color of our skin” should be as “irrelevant as the length of our hair.”
As expected, “Room” star Brie Larson’s fierce portrayal of an abduction survivor raising her young son in captivity aced out Cate Blanchett (“Carol”), Jennifer Lawrence (“Joy”), Charlotte Rampling (“45 Years”) and Saoirse Ronan (“Brooklyn”). Larson thanked the Telluride and Toronto film festivals, the launching pads for “Room” late last summer.
“Climate change is real,” said best actor winner Leonardo DiCaprio. In his first Oscars acceptance speech, the “Revenant” star characterized his film as an illustration of “man’s relationship to the natural world.” A well-known environmental activist, DiCaprio noted that the lengthy, arduous and expensive production of “The Revenant” was required to leave one continent (North America) for another (South America) in order for the director Inarritu to find the right snow.
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