LOS ANGELES — In an underdog win for a movie about an underdog profession, the newspaper drama “Spotlight” took best picture at a 88th Academy Awards.
Tom McCarthy’s film about the Boston Globe’s investigative reporting on sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests won over the favored frontier epic “The Revenant.” McCarthy’s well-crafted procedural, led by a strong ensemble cast, had lagged in the lead-up to the Oscars, losing ground to the flashier filmmaking of Alejandro Inarritu’s film.
But “Spotlight” — an ode to the hard-nose, methodical work of a journalism increasingly seldom practiced — took the night’s top honor despite winning only one other Oscar for McCarthy and Josh Singer’s screenplay. Such a sparsely-awarded best picture winner hasn’t happened since 1952′s “The Greatest Show On Earth.”
The night, however, belong to host Chris Rock, who launched immediately into the uproar over the lack of diversity in this year’s nominees, and didn’t let up. “The White People’s Choice Awards,” he called the Oscars, which were surrounded by protests (including one outside the Dolby Theatre by the Rev. Al Sharpton) and boycotts.
Streaks, broken and extended, dominated much of the evening. After going home empty-handed four times previously, Leonardo DiCaprio won his first Oscar, for a best actor in “The Revenant” — a gruff, grunting performance that traded little on the actor’s youthful charisma. DiCaprio, greeted with a standing ovation, took the moment to talk about climate change.
“Let us not take our planet for granted,” he said. “I do not take tonight for granted.”
His director, Inarritu won back-to-back directing awards after the triumph last year of “Birdman.” It’s a feat matched by only two other filmmakers: John Ford and Joseph L. Mankiewicz. “The Revenant” also won best cinematography for Emmanuel Lubezki, who became the first cinematographer to win three times in a row (following wins for “Gravity” and “Birdman”), and only the seventh to three-peat in Oscar history.
Inarritu, whose win meant three straight years of Mexican filmmakers winning best director, was one of the few winners to remark passionately on diversity in his acceptance speech.
“What a great opportunity for our generation to really liberate ourselves from all prejudice and this tribal thinking and to make sure for once and forever that the color of our skin becomes as irrelevant as the length of our hair,” said Inarritu.
The night’s most-awarded film, however, went to neither “Spotlight” nor “The Revenant.” George Miller’s post-apocalyptic chase film, “Mad Max: Fury Road” sped away with six awards in technical categories for editing, makeup, production design, sound editing, sound mixing and costume design. Roundly acclaimed for its old-school craft, Miller’s “Mad Max” was assured of becoming the evening’s most awarded film.
“Us Mad Maxes are doing OK tonight,” said editor Margaret Sixel, who’s also Miller’s wife. The flurry of wins brought a parade of Australian craftsmen onstage, including sound editor Mark Mangini, who celebrated with a loud expletive.
Best actress went to Brie Larson, the 26-year-old breakout of the mother-son captive drama “Room.”
But the wins at times felt secondary to the sharp, unflinching hosting of Rock, in his second go around. His much anticipated opening monologue left few disappointed.
“Is Hollywood racist? You’re damn right it’s racist,” said Rock, who also sought to put the issue in perspective. “Hollywood is sorority racist. It’s like: We like you Rhonda, but you’re not a Kappa.”
Rock had stayed quiet before the ceremony as the controversy raged over the second straight year of all-white acting nominees, leaving Hollywood and viewers eagerly awaiting his one-liners. He confessed that he deliberated over joining the Oscars boycott and bowing out as host, but concluded: “The last thing I need is to lose another job to Kevin Hart.”
There was another major surprise Sunday. The supporting actor win for Mark Rylance over Sylvester Stallone drew gasps. Stallone, nominated a second time 39 years later for the role of Rocky Balboa, had been expected to win his first acting Oscar for the “Rocky” sequel “Creed.” He instead lost to the famed stage actor who co-starred in Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies.”
Adam McKay and Charles Randolph took best adapted screenplay for their self-described “trauma-dy” about the mortgage meltdown of 2008. McKay thanked Paramount Pictures for taking a risk on a movie about “financial esoterica.” Best known for broader comedies like “Anchorman” and “Step Brothers,” McKay gave an election-year warning to power of “big money” and “weirdo billionaires” in the presidential campaign.
Talk of election was otherwise largely absent the ceremony, though Vice President Joe Biden (whose presence added even greater security to the Dolby Theatre) was met by a standing ovation before talking about sexual assault on college campuses before introducing best-song nominee Lady Gaga.
Best supporting actress went Alicia Vikander for the transgender pioneer tale “The Danish Girl.” Vikander, the 27-year-old Sweden-born actress was ubiquitous in 2015, also winning awards for her performance in the sci-fi “Ex Machina.”
Best animated feature film went to “Inside Out,” Pixar’s eighth win in the category since it was created in 2001. Asif Kapadia’s Amy Winehouse portrait, “Amy,” took best documentary. Hungary scored its second best foreign language Oscar for Laszlo Nemes’ “Son of Saul,” a harrowing drama set within a concentration camp.
“Even in the darkest hours of mankind, there might be a voice within us that allows us to remain human,” said Nemes. “That’s the hope of this film.”
The Academy Awards, normally decorous and predictable, were charged with enough politics and uncertainty to rival an election debate. Down the street from the Dolby Theatre, Sharpton led several dozen demonstrators in protest against a second straight year of all-white acting nominees.
“This will be the last night of an all-white Oscars,” Sharpton vowed at the rally.
The nominees restored the hashtag “OscarsSoWhite” to prominence and led Spike Lee (an honorary Oscar winner this year) and Jada Pinkett Smith to announce that they would not attend the show. Several top African American filmmakers, Ryan Coogler (“Creed”) and Ava DuVernay (“Selma”) spent the evening not at the Oscars but in Flint, Mich., raising money for the water-contaminated city.
Aside from pleading for more opportunity for black actors, Rock also sought to add perspective to the turmoil. Rock said this year didn’t differ much from Oscar history, but black people in earlier decades were “too busy being raped and lynched to worry about who won best cinematographer.”
In a quick response to the growing crisis, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, president of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, pushed ahead reforms to the academy intended to diversify its overwhelming white and male membership. But those changes (which included stripping older, out-of-work members of their voting privileges) precipitated a backlash, too. A chorus of academy members challenged the reforms.
In remarks during the show by the president — usually one of the sleepiest moments in the broadcast — Boone Isaacs strongly defended the changes, quoting Martin Luther King Jr. and urging each Oscar attendee to bring greater opportunity to the industry. She was received politely, if not enthusiastically, by the audience.
“It’s not enough to listen and agree,” said Boone Isaacs. “We must take action.”
How the controversy will affect ratings for ABC is one of the night’s big questions. Last year’s telecast, hosted by Neil Patrick Harris, slid 16 percent to 36.6 million viewers, a six-year low.
Derrick J. Lang contributed to this report.