Oscars: 'Spotlight' Ultimately Prevails Over 'The Revenant' and 'Mad Max'

The 'Spotlight' director and cast celebrating a best picture win.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

While host Chris Rock addressed the diversity controversy head-on, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brie Larson took top acting honors.

Amid much talk about the need for more diversity in film, which became the dominant theme of the 88th annual Academy Awards, Spotlight, which recounts journalistic efforts to expose child abuse in the Catholic Church, was named best picture of the year on Sunday night.

Following an awards season in which no preordained winner ever emerged, the Oscars ceremony itself reflected the seesaw natjonure of the contest. George Miller’s apocalyptic Mad Max: Fury Road swept through the crafts categories, winning six awards; The Revenant, Alejandro G. Inarritu’s cinematically stunning survival tale, then moved to the fore, claiming the awards for best cinematography, directing and actor, which went to Leonardo DiCaprio. But then, at the last moment, Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight — which won the first statuette of the night, best original screenplay, and then appeared shut out of the proceedings — rallied and took home the top prize.

“Wow,” exclaimed Spotlight producer Michael Sugar. “This film gave a voice to survivors, and this Oscar amplifies that voice, which we hope will become a choir that resonates all the way to the Vatican. Pope Francis, it’s time to protect the children and restore the faith.”

The night also saw other winners promote causes, from protecting the environment to gay rights to eliminating honor killings of women. But in the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, which greeted the announcement back in January of an all-white lineup of acting nominees for the second year in a row, diversity was front and center as emcee Chris Rock set the tone with his first words as he walked onto the stage at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood on Sunday night following a package of film clips from last year’s movies.

Confronting the issue head-on while simultaneously also managing to somewhat defuse it, Rock began, "Man, I counted at least 15 black people in that montage." He went on to welcome the audience to the Oscars, "otherwise known as the White People’s Choice Awards." Rock then launched into a bravura monologue that took Hollywood to task while also putting the whole #OscarsSoWhite issue into perspective.

Observing that while there were plenty of years during the 1950s and 1960s in which there were no black nominees, he said there wasn’t an accompanying protest then, “because we were too busy being raped and lynched to worry about who won best cinematographer.” Turning serious toward the end of his riff, Rock got spontaneous applause for saying, “We want opportunity. We want black actors to get the same opportunity as white actors.”

In fact, the diversity controversy appeared to offer the show’s producers, Reginald Hudlin and David Hill, a theme, which they ran with. They served up a package of film parodies in which Whoopi Goldberg, Tracy Morgan and Leslie Jones played bit characters who were cut out of the finished films, and Angela Bassett offering a tongue-in-cheek Black History Month tribute to Jack Black. Kevin Hart, who was the target of some of Rock’s more good-natured jokes, offered his own comments when, appearing to present The Weeknd’s performance of “Earned It” from Fifty Shades of Grey, he gave a shout-out to the black actors who weren’t nominated. He concluded, “Let’s not let this negative issue of diversity beat us.”

And although she didn’t venture into specifics, Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs used her appearance to call on the audience to bring “about the vital changes the industry needs so we can accurately reflect the world today.” She went on to say, “Inclusion only makes us stronger,” and added, “Each of you is an ambassador who can influence others in the industry.” Exhorting the crowd, she said, “We must take action.”

But it was another issue, sexual assault on college campuses, that provided the night with one of its most stirring moments. Vice President Joe Biden made an appearance to introduce Lady Gaga’s performance of “Til It Happens to You,” the nominated song she co-wrote with Diane Warren for the documentary The Hunting Ground. Biden urged viewers to take the pledge, found at ItsOnUs.Org, to step in and “intervene in situations where consent has not or cannot be given.” He vowed, “We must and we can change the culture.” Gaga’s fierce performance, which concluded with survivors of sexual assault, both male and female, joining her onstage and linking arms, had the audience on its feet.

It came as something as a surprise then when, just minutes later, the best song Oscar went to Jimmy Napes and Sam Smith for their ballad “Writing’s on the Wall” from the James Bond movie Spectre. Smith used his moment at the mic to raise the rainbow flag — although he incorrectly suggested no openly gay man had ever previously won an Oscar — saying, “I want to dedicate this to the LGBT community all around the world. I stand here tonight as a proud gay man, and I hope we can all stand together as equals one day.”

Another of the night’s standing ovations was bestowed on 87-year-old Ennio Morricone, the legendary Italian composer, who received his first Oscar for Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight after five previous nominations.

The Revenant helmer Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki both made history with their wins. Inarritu became only the third director to win back-to-back Oscars. (The others are John Ford, who won for 1940’s The Grapes of Wrath and 1941’s How Green Was My Valley, and Joseph L. Mankiewicz for 1949’s A Letter to Three Wives and 1950’s All About Eve.) The Mexico-born filmmaker used his acceptance speech to speak out against intolerance. “I am very lucky to be here tonight, but unfortunately many others haven’t had the same luck,” he said. “So what a great opportunity to our generation to really liberate ourselves from all prejudice, and, you know, this tribal thinking, and make sure once and forever the color of the skin becomes as irrelevant as the length of our hair.”

Lubezki, for his part, secured his place in the Oscar history books by becoming the first director of photography to win the best cinematography award three years in a row, following previous nods for Birdman and Gravity.

DiCaprio, whose walk to the stage was accompanied by another standing ovation, used his best acting win for playing a mountain man who survives unbelievable odds in The Revenant to thank Inarritu, saying, “As the history of cinema unfolds, you have forged your way into history these past two years.” But the actor, clutching the first Oscar of his career, became most passionate when speaking of the environment, noting that 2015 was the hottest year in recorded history.

“Climate change is real,” said DiCaprio. “It is happening right now. It is the most urgent threat facing our entire species, and we need to work collectively together and stop procrastinating. We need to support leaders around the world who do not speak for the big polluters or the big corporations, but who speak for all of humanity, for the indigenous people of the world, for the billions and billions of underprivileged people who will be most affected by this, for our children’s children, and for those people out there whose voices have been drowned out by the politics of greed. I thank you all for this amazing award tonight. Let us not take this planet for granted. I do not take tonight for granted. Thank you so very much.”

By contrast, Brie Larson, who also won her first Oscar for playing the fiercely protective mom in Room, reserved much of her thanks for the movie's fans, beginning with those who saw and supported the film at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals. And she gave a special shout-out to her young co-star Jacob Tremblay, calling him “my partner through this in every way possible.”

British actor Mark Rylance defeated hometown favorite Sylvester Stallone in the best supporting actor category, winning for his performance as a taciturn Russian operative in Bridge of Spies. He paid tribute to both the film’s director, Steven Spielberg, and its star, Tom Hanks. Praising Spielberg as a man “who leads with such love,” Rylance referred to his character’s catchphrase in the movie, “Would it help?” saying, “If you ever wondered about acting with Tom Hanks, would it help? The answer’s clearly yes.” 

Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, who was sitting with her mother, Maria Fahl-Vikander, who is herself a well-known actress in Sweden, was tapped as best supporting actress for playing the artist-wife of Eddie Redmayne’s transgender pioneer in The Danish Girl. She thanked Redmayne, saying, “You raised my game,” and, acknowledging her mother and father, added, “Thank you for giving me the belief that anything can happen, even though I would never have believed this.”

In a break with tradition, the trophy giveaways this year began with the screenwriting categories, with presenters Emily Blunt and Charlize Theron explaining that the order of the awards would track the making of a movie.

Spotlight claimed the first Oscar when Josh Singer and McCarthy won for best original screenplay. In the first of the night’s political statements, McCarthy said, “We made this film for all the journalists who have and continue to hold the powerful accountable, and for the survivors whose courage and will to overcome is really an inspiration to all. We have to make sure this never happens again.”

The Big Short took the Oscar for best adapted screenplay for the work that Charles Randolph and Adam McKay did translating Michael Lewis’ book about the 2008 fiscal crisis to the big screen. McKay also struck a political note by saying, “If you don’t want big money to control government, don’t vote for candidates that take money from big banks, oil or weirdo billionaires. Stop!”

Hungarian movie Son of Saul was voted best foreign-language film. Director Lazslo Nemes said of the pic, set in the Auschwitz death camp, “Even in the darkest hours of mankind, there might be a voice within us that allows us to remain human. That’s the hope of this film.”

Pixar’s Pete Docter earned his second Oscar for directing the animated film Inside Out, sharing the award the film's producer, Jonas Rivera. (Docter’s previous win came for 2009’s Up.) “This film was really born from watching our kids grow up, which is not easy,” he said during his time onstage.

Gabriel Osorio and Pato Escala, the filmmakers behind Bear Story, a stop-motion animated short film about a bear who has lost his family, celebrated their victory and saluted their country of Chile for what, they said, was its first Oscar win.

Amy, Asif Kapadia’s documentary about the late singer Amy Winehouse, was hailed as best documentary feature. “Really, this film is all about Amy,” said Kapadia. “This is all about showing the world who she really was, not her tabloid persona — the beautiful girl, the amazing soul, funny, intelligent, witty, someone special, someone who needed looking after. We just wanted to make a film to show the world who she really was.”

“This is what happens when determined women get together,” Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, picking up her second Oscar, exclaimed as she accepted the award for documentary short subject for A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, which tells the story of a Pakistani woman who survived an honor killing. “This week the Pakistani prime minister said he would change the law about honor killing after watching this film. That is the power of film.”

Mad Max: Fury Road captured the first wave of crafts awards in a remarkable winning streak, taking home the Oscars for makeup and hairstyling, production design, sound editing, sound mixing and costumes. While the orchestra threatened to play her off, winning costume designer Jenny Beavan held her ground to deliver a warning that the movie’s apocalyptic vision was not pure sci-fi. “It could be horribly prophetic, Mad Max, if we’re not kinder to each other and if we don’t stop polluting our atmosphere,” she said.

That streak was broken only when Ex Machina, at $15 million easily the least expensive movie in its category, beat out big-budget movies Mad Max, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Martian and The Revenant to win the award for best visual effects.

In terms of distributors, Open Road Films scored key victories with its two Spotlight wins, while Warner Bros. collected the most trophies, thanks to Fury Road's six statuettes. 

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