Surprises were expected at this year’s Oscars. The Academy did not disappoint.
Billed as the most unpredictable race in memory, there were upsets aplenty at the 88th Annual Academy Awards – which honored the best of film from 2015 – capped off by the gasp-inducing blindside of Spotlight winning Best Picture.
How did that even happen? Here’s the most logical theory. Spotlight was considered the least-likely of the top three contenders, with bets being placed primarily on nomination-leader The Revenant and, right behind it, intelligentsia favorite The Big Short. Here’s where the Academy’s “preferential ballot” comes into play. Because of passionate followings, The Revenant and The Big Short likely had the most #1 votes throughout the Academy. But since these two front-runners were also a bit polarizing, haters of each film likely had them at the bottom of their lists.
Then you have Spotlight, a movie that few voters passionately loved or hated but that everyone respected and admired. Or, in numerical terms, it probably had the lion’s share of #2 and #3 votes across Oscar ballots. When you add that to whatever #1’s it received, Spotlight ended up with the best overall average even if it received less #1 votes than the two top favorites (and possibly more). That kind of win generally goes to a mediocre softball of a movie, but thankfully Spotlight is anything but. Far from being Oscar bait pablum, Spotlight is a worthy and uncompromising successor to timeless issue-based journalisitc classics like All The President’s Men and Network.
At the end of it all, Spotlight finished with just 2 Oscars (a minuscule total for a Best Picture winner), The Revenant collected 3, while the night’s biggest haul went to Mad Max: Fury Road; the post-apocalyptic epic captured 6 in a near-sweep of the tech and design categories. On that count, Mad Max: Fury Road will be the Oscar winner from 2015 to ride eternal, shiny and with Oscar gold.
In pulling off the biggest shocker since Crash‘s upset over Brokeback Mountain ten years ago, Spotlight became the Best Picture winner with the fewest Oscars in the modern age. Its grand total of 2 also included a statuette for co-writer/director Tom McCarthy‘s original screenplay. The last time a Best Picture winner finished with just one trophy other than the big one was 63 years ago in 1952 when The Greatest Show On Earth garnered the Best Story Oscar to go with its top prize.
The fact that we haven’t seen such a paltry total since then just goes to show how improbable – and incredible – Spotlight‘s ultimate victory really was. Not only did it lack tech category wins to fuel a full academy embrace; it didn’t even have those category nominations. Plus, when you compare the box office take of The Revenant ($170 million and counting) with Spotlight ($39 million), it’s clear that more people (and likely more voters) actually saw the epic DiCaprio endurance test (although the Spotlight victory should be a clear indicator that voters are actually watching their screeners, especially of serious contenders). Bottom line: Spotlight defied all metrics and precedents that had been followed for six-plus decades.
We’ll get into the rest of 2015’s upsets in a bit, but first – Chris Rock and #OscarsSoWhite.
Based on the temperature of the watch party I was with, as well as comments from texts and my Facebook feed, I’m going to express what may be a minority opinion, but here it is:
I thought Chris Rock did a fantastic job.
He had the thankless no-win burden of having to be the black man to represent frustrated African-Americans while also representing the Academy who hired him, while also needing to make people laugh with edgy, confrontational humor that still didn’t alienate them. And you know what? He pulled it off. I didn’t think it was possible to thread that needle, but Chris Rock did it.
His material was solid. He was funny, even hilarious. Pointed. An equal opportunity offender and defender. He called out Academy members in some jokes while mocking African-American Oscar boycotters in others, then offering sympathetic jabs for each side of the debate too. Better still, the jokes were actually sharp and witty, even insightful. They always resonated, and were never cheap.
Most important of all: Rock’s whole demeanor and delivery was light-hearted, not mean-spirited.
Think of it this way: imagine the same exact material (re-watch the monologue here) delivered by Ricky Gervais. Now that would’ve been a disaster. He’d have smothered each comment in a sarcastic, condescending, and truly unbearable snarkiness. But Rock had an affable, not belittling, way of communicating the truth. He made deep cuts but never openly loathed his Hollywood targets, which is what Gervais is infamous for. Rock’s bold yet perfectly tempered approach required the Academy to face its #OscarsSoWhite issue without shoving it in their faces or rubbing their noses in it.
The one miscalculation? After tackling the issue head-on throughout the monologue (as he should’ve done), Rock kept going back to the well of #OscarsSoWhite for the entire show. Mind you, his material actually remained pretty smart and hysterical (Tracy Morgan as The Danish Girl!) but it became too much. I mean, even the In Memoriam song was “Blackbird”. I KID!
But seriously, Rock and the telecast went from addressing the elephant in the room to beating a dead horse, which led to some jokes landing like duds (the brief Stacey Dash bit especially). Yet despite that overkill, Rock not only stepped up and delivered in this particularly challenging stint; he was actually one of the better hosts of recent memory – something to be applauded under any circumstance, and especially in this year’s politically charged atmosphere.
If people want to complain about something with this year’s Oscar show, it has to be the music selections: the interstitial transition underscores throughout the show, not the nominees. An odd thing to nitpick, perhaps, but in both song choices and timing, the music ranged from odd to rude. Largely driven by hits from the 80s (why?!), these cuts didn’t merely serve as transitional bumpers but actually underscored many winners’ walks to the stage. In moments that should’ve been meaningful, the music was kitschy when it needed to be classy. Worst of all, the go-to cue to rush winners off the stage when their speeches ran too long was the bombastic classical piece “Ride Of The Valkyries”. It was as if the show’s producers were openly mocking winners during one of the most important moments of their lives.
The choice was particularly disrespectful to Best Director winner Alejandro G. Iñárritu as “Valkyries” bold brass began to drown out his most deeply-felt sentiments. The music was so offensively tactless (ushering off Best Foreign Film Winner Son Of Saul – about the horrors of the Holocaust – to “Valkyries” composer Wagner, a German!) , the only logic to the show’s bizarre set list was that the producers had lost some kind of bet. The one winner they didn’t dare interrupt? Leonardo DiCaprio. Under no circumstances were the producers going to offend Leo, the one powerful untouchable, during his long-time-coming victory speech. He deserved the respect, mind you, but so did everyone else. The lone Leo exception aside, the producers weren’t just mindbogglingly tone deaf; they should actually be ashamed of themselves.
Okay, end of rant. Back to the upsets.
The evening started out predictably enough as the screenplays went to pre-show locks Spotlight for Original and The Big Short for Adapted. Tremors began to shake, however, as the tech awards quickly became a landslide for Mad Max: Fury Road. When none of them were split between nomination leader The Revenant, numbers-minded prognosticators (like myself) began to question if that odds-on favorite had enough momentum left in the tank – particularly when indie sci-fier Ex Machina stole the Best Visual Effects prize from The Revenant, Mad Max: Fury Road, *and* Star Wars: The Force Awakens. A win for cinematography finally breathed some life into The Revenant‘s hopes, but it was still on shaky ground as the night’s biggest categories approached – and more upsets with them.
While not a major category, the Original Song competition ended up providing one of the bigger upsets as Sam Smith‘s “Writing’s On The Wall” – possibly the most bland Bond song ever – stole the prize from the impassioned (and personal) power ballad “Til It Happens To You” by Lady Gaga and songwriting legend Diane Warren, about college campus sexual assaults. To top off the embarrassment, Smith boasted in his acceptance speech that he was the first openly gay man to ever win an Academy award. Except that he wasn’t. Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black was very-out, and vocal, during his 2009 acceptance speech for his winning screenplay to Milk. Elton John and screenwriter Bill Condon would also likely jump to challenge Smith’s short-sighted claim. And like salt in the wound, the Smith win came soon after Gaga performed her song (backed by rape survivors, holding hands in solidarity) and sparked a standing ovation, with tears streaming. It proved to be the night’s emotional peak, only to see its songwriters denied.
The Original Score category provided the other big emotional moment, as 87-year-old legendary composer Ennio Morricone (known primarily for the Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone revolutionary “spaghetti” westerns of the 1960s) won his first Oscar for the score to Quentin Tarantino‘s western throwback The Hateful Eight. Despite needing to communicate through a translator, the overwhelming emotion from Italian native Morricone was not lost. Visibly choking up and struggling to speak, the win was clearly a deeply meaningful recognition for the revered industry icon.
Where the night took its biggest shift – and showed that it may not go entirely to script – was the announcement for Best Supporting Actor. The Academy loves a great narrative to go with their Oscar wins, ones that can culminate in memorable – even timeless – speeches, which is why Sylvester Stallone was considered a virtual lock for his moving reprisal as Rocky Balboa in Creed, 40 years after the original Rocky took Best Picture. But it was not meant to be. Instead, the upset went to the category’s most understated performance: Mark Rylance in Bridge of Spies. A very worthy win, to be sure, from one of the premiere (if not famous) actors on the planet. But it undoubtedly took the wind out of the sails for most viewers at home (myself included) who were rooting for Rocky in the hearts. Unbeknownst to most film fans, Stallone is actually not a particularly beloved star in the industry. That sentiment (or lack thereof) apparently caught up with him on what was probably the last biggest night of his storied career.
After people recovered from that upset, things settled back in as nominees completed their clean sweeps of major categories. Brie Larson Best Actress for Room? Check. DiCaprio Best Actor for The Revenant? Check again. Alejandro G. Iñárritu as Best Director for The Revenant? Check yet again. With the Iñárritu/DiCaprio 1-2 punch, any thought of an upset in Best Picture seemed all but shut down. The Revenant appeared destined to make Alejandro G. Iñárritu the first filmmaker ever to win both Best Director and Best Picture two years in a row (he won those categories last year for Birdman).
And then he didn’t.
As presenter Morgan Freeman held the winning card in his hand, he looked at the result, took a particularly long pause, smiled, and said in his definitive baritone, “Spotlight”. Viewers inside the Dolby Theatre, along with millions across the country, gasped in surprise. Spotlight hadn’t been called since the evening’s first category, Original Screenplay. And yet here it was not just bookending the night, but also the most unpredictable Oscar race of the modern era.
So how did I fare with my predictions? Horribly, finishing just a notch above 50% in a measly 13-for-24 showing. But I’ll gladly take it when the result is an Oscar ceremony that has actual drama and suspense. This is how it should be.
Nevertheless, I failed where most ballots are won and lost: the shorts categories (Documentary, Live Action, and Animated). I predicted the ones that were among the best made; the Academy instead followed its recent trend of choosing the most sentimental (although doc short winner A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness – about a young Pakistani muslim woman who survived an attempted “honor killing” by her father – had the virtue of being both sentimental and well made). Note to self: go with the most tear-jerking shorts for the foreseeable future. The more shamelessly manipulative, the better.
THE 88TH ANNUAL ACADEMY AWARDS
BEST PICTURE – Spotlight
BEST DIRECTOR – Alejandro G. Iñárritu, The Revenant
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR – Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS – Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY – Spotlight (Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer)
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY – The Big Short (Charles Randolph and Adam McKay)
BEST ANIMATED FILM – Inside Out
BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM – Son Of Saul (Hungary)
BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
BEST ORIGINAL SCORE – The Hateful Eight (Ennio Morricone)
BEST ORIGINAL SONG – “Writing’s On The Wall”, Spectre
BEST FILM EDITING
– Mad Max: Fury Road
BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY – The Revenant (Emmanuel Lubezki)
BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN – Mad Max: Fury Road
BEST COSTUME DESIGN – Mad Max: Fury Road
BEST MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING – Mad Max: Fury Road
BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT – Stutterer
BEST ANIMATED SHORT – Bear Story
BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT
– A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness
BEST SOUND MIXING – Mad Max: Fury Road
BEST SOUND EFFECTS EDITING – Mad Max: Fury Road
BEST VISUAL EFFECTS – Ex Machina