A movie starring this guy won more Oscars than any other this year
It’s weird thinking about Spotlight’s Best Picture win as a huge upset when you consider everyone thought it was a sure thing back when it was making its theatrical run in October. Oscar season is a funny thing, a long and drawn out pageant of countless awards shows and announcements (Globes, SAGs, PGAs, DGAs, WGAs, BAFTAs, a billion critics circles) that all serve as a precursor to what happened at the Dolby Theater last night. It’s a horse race with constantly shifting pacesetters and late surges, especially in a year like this where all three major guilds gave their award to three different contenders. The Revenant won its awards first and last, opening the season with a win over Spotlight at the Golden Globes, and closing the pre-Oscar glut with back to back wins at the DGAs and BAFTAs, seeming to signal that not only would Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu cruise to a second straight Best Director award, but his film would give him a second straight Best Picture statue as well. That is, until it didn’t.
Spotlight opened the ceremony with a win for Original Screenplay (this in itself was a bit of a surprise, not Spotlight’s preordained win, but the choice to not lead with Best Supporting Actor as has been tradition), and then was largely forgotten over the next three hours, losing all the categories it was expecting to lose (the two supporting categories, Director, Editing), and with Iñárritu and Leo winning the two awards leading up to the finale, all the momentum was heading in the bear’s direction (bears were so hot this year that upstart animated short Bear Story beat out both Sanjay’s Super Team and World of Tomorrow). And when Morgan Freeman announced Spotlight had won the prize (making it the first Best Picture award winner to only take home two awards since the 1950’s), it seemed to take a few seconds for everyone to react. The SAGs were kingmakers once again.
I’m glad Spotlight won not just because The Revenant (and, more importantly, The Big Short) did not, but because it’s a very good movie that deserves praise. A person with my outlook on movies can only get such a moment so often (Before last night, I would count 12 Years and Slave and The Hurt Locker as the only two Best Picture winners I could get behind since No Country for Old Men won), and I’ve become used to that crushing feeling of resentment when The King’s Speech beats The Social Network (or Black Swan) and Birdman beats Boyhood. And it’s tough to deny the good will I feel from seeing a deep dive print journalism procedural film be recognized as the whole concept of print journalism has essentially died on the vine. It feels like a bit of vindication for All the President’s Men losing all those years ago (to Rocky, no less).
And speaking of Rocky, we come to one of the two major upsets and my favorite moment of the night, Mark Rylance prevailing over juggernaut Sylvester Stallone in the Best Supporting Actor category. I can’t adequately put into words how much I loved Rylance’s measured, wry, tender and confident performance in Bridge of Spies, and actually almost jumped out of my seat when his name was read. Rylance was the clear number two pick in the category, so his winning was technically not nearly as surprising as if, say, Tom Hardy had won, but the trends were so heavily tipped in Sly’s favor that no one really thought Rylance had a chance.
The other big surprise, one that I personally wouldn’t have chosen but was tickled that it actually won, was Ex Machina’s surprise victory for visual effects. Facing down big time candidates with huge budgets and explosions like Mad Max and Star Wars: The Force Awakens (generally an afterthought at this show despite making, like, the most money ever), Ex Machina had a budget of about $15 million, and took place in a house. The visual effects of Ex Machina don’t call attention to themselves the way the other nominees in the category do, but the care with which the film transformed Alicia Vikander into an android is the sort of work that so often goes unrecognized by the Academy.
Visual Effects ended up being one of only two technical awards not won by Mad Max: Fury Road. Indeed, the first 90 or so minutes of the program could have been rechristened “The Mad Max: Fury Road Fun Time Variety Hour,” with George Miller’s post-apocalyptic acid nightmare winning six out of seven consecutive awards (only taking a backseat to Emmanuel “I Win Every Year and People Will Soon Be Sick of Me” Lubezki for Cinematography), a veritable tsunami of Australians storming the stage to extoll the virtues of their septuagenarian fearless leader as the director of the telecast attempted to set a world record for the most amount of times they cut to the same person in the audience at an awards show. The tone was set by now two time Academy Award winning costume designer Jenny Beavan, who chose to wear a black leather jacket bedazzled with Immortan Joe’s flaming skull insignia on the back. There was a renegade aspect to the technical section of the night, with a film that couldn’t feel less like an Academy movie if it tried parading its way across the stage and taking no prisoners. It felt...different. For a time, at least.
Of course, no one was thinking about Mad Max: Fury Road by the time Morgan Freeman announced the winner for Best Picture. It had been a good two hours since the film had won gold, taking a back seat once the “real” awards were handed out.
As always, it felt like two ceremonies, one filled with craftsmen and short film directors and other people who aren’t casual millionaires. Louis CK summed up this phenomenon best when presenting the Documentary Short Subject award, remarking that the winner of the category would be taking the statue home in a Honda Civic. This is the true vitality of the Oscars, the two men accepting the award for Bear Story looking up into the far flung balcony for their supporters and talking about the pride they felt for winning the first Academy Award for a film made in Chile. The artisans behind Mad Max: Fury Road were the bigger fish in this small pond, but just like everyone else in that middle section of the ceremony, their excitement and their pride was infectious. You’re not going to get the same sentiment from Alicia Vikander or Jennifer Lawrence or Leonardo DiCaprio (we must remind ourselves that Leo spends the majority of his life hanging out on yachts with supermodels and going to Laker games with Tobey Maguire). I’m sure he appreciates getting his first Oscar after many high profile near misses. And I’m sure he appreciated the opportunity to speak out about climate change. But there is an unmistakably different tenor to the proceedings. You have to put the tech categories early because if everyone knew who won Best Picture in the 45th minute, no one would stick around for them, but the process of putting all the prestige awards at the end turns the last hour into an interminable aristocratic bore. Not to mention the fact that the show is usually running behind at that point, so the interstitial bits that keep things fresh in between presentations are liable to be trimmed, if not cut entirely (personally, I would have loved to see Leslie Jones mauling DiCaprio right after he won his award).
Humorously enough, the folks behind making the Oscars run, whether it’s the writing staff, orchestra, director, or even the host, face as thankless and unrewarding a task as most of the technical artisans who aren’t even thought of beyond a four minute span of time one night a year. They must find a way to amuse, please and lightly poke fun at the most humorless and deathly serious audience in the world, a group of unbelievably famous people who think they’re winning Nobel Prizes and turn up their nose at a costume designer wearing a leather jacket, while taking care not to push the envelope too much (as Rock himself supposedly did in 2005), thus finding their jokes falling on the deafest of ears and the stonest of faces. And Rock’s monologue was a bit shaky, possibly due to the need to excoriate Hollywood for their lack of diversity, while at the same time not excoriating them too much, as the real movers and shakers in Hollywood, those making the decisions that led to two straight years of all white acting nominees, were sitting in the theater that night. Rock seemed much more at home after getting through the monologue (though the less that can be said about Stacey Dash, the better), with his pre-recorded bits providing some of the undeniable highlights of the night while steering directly into the controversy. I’d have to imagine the whole process of hosting is usually exhausting, but must have been exponentially more so for Rock this year. He did a good job, but will the Academy share that sentiment? We'll see, I guess.