‘Spotlight’ triumphs in Oscar ceremony focused on diversity issues

Some unexpected winners during a bumpy show

What can you say about the 88th Academy Awards? It may have been a bit long. It may have featured too many impromptu speeches. It may have even been slightly bumpier than The Academy or producers Reginald Hudlin and David Hill hoped for, but it was nothing but memorable.

[A complete list of this year’s Oscar winners]

There will be time later this week for another edition of “new awards season rules,” but let’s take a moment to soak in “Spotlight’s” win. The Tom McCarthy directed drama won just two honors: Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture. To capture the latter with just one other win is remarkable. It also pulled off the top prize without winning the DGA or PGA precursors. It won the SAG ensemble and earned two acting nods that was a demonstration of huge actors branch support.  And, as a competing consultant had been telling me for months “it’s the big player that has the most genuinely emotional ending.”* Sure, “Big Short” probably made you mad about what happened during the economic crisis, but were you close to crying?  “The Revenant,” on the other hand, was uniformly criticized for not being emotional enough. So, yes, this pundit is kicking himself for switching to “The Revenant” at the last minute (at least I wasn’t the only one). “Spotlight” also becomes the 11th straight film to win Oscar’s top prize that wasn’t released in December (trend alert), but, again, more on that later in the week.

*This is obviously taking “Brooklyn” and “Room” out of the mix both of which had separate issues that stalled their Best Picture campaigns.

It was apparent that “The Revenant” might be in trouble with “Mad Max: Fury Road” took more below the line Oscars than many of us expected. While George Miller was likely robbed in the Best Director category his critically acclaimed masterpiece took home six Oscars, more than any other film. And when “Ex Machina” came out of nowhere to win Visual Effects (even the winning team was stunned) and “Revenant” missed out on both sound categories it proved the epic’s support below the line wasn’t as dominate as many, including myself, thought it would be. Granted, that’s not to say the New Regency and 20th Century Fox blockbuster didn’t have its moment in the sun. Leonardo DiCaprio finally earned his first Academy Award (using his speech to focus on the environmental issues close to heart), Alejandro G. Iñárritu became the first director to win in consecutive years since Joseph L. Mankiewicz did so in 1950 and 1951 and Emmanuel Lubezki became the first person to take home three consecutive Cinematography Academy Awards. Those are pretty significant milestones in the history of cinema’s greatest honor.

The night’s other big surprises came in the Best Supporting Actor and Best Original Song categories. “Bridge of Spies’” Mark Rylance took the former over expected winner Sylvester Stallone. Now, some are saying this is because Sly made as many enemies in the business as Eddie Murphy and Burt Reynolds (favorites who also lost in this category) supposedly did, but it’s probably not that simple. A legendary stage actor who won three Tony Awards and has been a regular at Shakespeare’s Globe theater in London for almost 20 years, Rylance likely had a lot of support from both the UK and New York members of the Academy. And as my old colleague Kris Tapley noted to me earlier in the evening, you can also question how many members actually saw or watched “Creed” (a difficult discussion for another day).  Moreover, Ruffalo and Bale may have had more support prompting a much tighter race than many observers initially thought.

As for Best Original Song, Sam Smith and Jimmy Napes winning for “Writing’s On The Wall” from “SPECTRE” wasn’t just a cringe-worthy upset, but a public relations disaster for Smith that at the time of this publication he still hasn’t rectified. Smith, who upset favorites Diane Warren and Lady Gaga (not to mention the more deserving The Weeknd), proceeded to anoint himself the first openly gay Oscar winner during his acceptance speech. He was corrected in the press room only to think he was somehow the second out winner (a claim he repeated on the Vanity Fair party red carpet). In fact, Elton John, Melissa Ethridge, Stephen Sondheim, Pedro Almodovar, Alan Ball, Scott Rudin, Adam Elliott, Bill Condon, Dustin Lance Black, John Schlesinger, Bruce Cohen and Dan Jinks are just the beginning of a list of out men and women who won Academy Awards.

The rest of the night’s winners it sort of played out as expected. Brie Larson took home Best Actress for “Room.” Alicia Vikander won Best Supporting Actress for “The Danish Girl”(proving the Kate Winslet buzz probably wasn’t real) and Cannes Film Festival premieres “Son of Saul,” “Inside Out” and “Amy” took Foreign Language Film, Animated Feature and Best Documentary. And the shorts? Honestly, they are always tough. You get some right (“Bear Story” for animated) and you get some wrong (“Stutterer” and “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness”).

The show itself was something else. Chris Rock started off with a scathing monologue that finally had someone calling out Jada Pinket Smith publicly for her “boycott” (“Isn’t she on a television show?”), joked that the In Memoriam package was just going to be black people shot on the way to the movies, noted that Hollywood is sorority racist (the best description of the problem yet) and referred to the show as “The White People’s Choice Awards.” It was funny, it was insightful, it was tough and the Academy took it and laughed as best they could. And then they took it again. If the show had one problem (and it had a bunch) it was that the point was made again and again and again. Most of Rock’s comedy bits focused on it (and many of them were funny, especially the visit to a Compton movie theater) and a number or presenters spent airtime commenting on it.  That meant, however, that when Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs stepped on stage to appeal to the membership to embrace the changes the Board of Governors recently implemented it simply felt like overkill. Moreover, the discussion was focused too much on just the lack of African-American actors on screen. The industry has an issue with minority representation across the board and Iñárritu for one simply wouldn’t get played off the stage during his acceptance speech because he wanted to talk about the plight of all people of color.

Hudlin and Hill also took a page from the 81st Academy Awards where the aforementioned Condon and Larry Mark structured the show around the making of a movie.  Condon and Mark’s execution was more dramatic and built to something more engaging, but bringing it back at least gave the night a theme beyond addressing the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. Based on the rumors circulating that this year’s producing team didn’t see eye to eye its hard to see them returning in 2017 (the show’s 3 hour and 37 minute length won’t help either), but it would be nice to see Rock back in what one hopes will be a happier context. Although, as always, the show’s ratings and the reaction from the members in the room will likely influence that decision.

What did you think of this year’s Oscars? Share your thoughts below.

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With over a decade of experience in the movie industry, Ellwood survived working for two major studios, has written for Variety, MSN and the LA Times and co-founded HitFix, Inc. serving as its first Editor-in-Chief and President. Ellwood spends his time relaxing hitting 3’s on the basketball court and following his beloved Clippers.

Awards Campaign provides commentary and insight on the movie industry. It's also the current online home of Gregory Ellwood, an industry veteran who has covered the movie business and Oscar campaigns for over a decade. For more information including partnerships and advertising opportunities please E-mail info@awardscampaign.com.