The weeks leading up to the 88th Academy Awards have come with no shortage of controversy. The ceremony itself concluded with much less intrigue; second-time host Chris Rock partially addressed the pressing issues of diversity faced by the Academy in a variety of gags that were hit or miss. Rock’s opening monologue was scintillating and focused on the racial disparity, as were prerecorded video segments that featured black actors superimposed into scenes from the best picture nominated films.
Where these bits functioned as necessary social commentary, an early moment featuring Stacey Dash, a black actress who publicly denounced Black History Month and BET, took a step back, as evidenced by a decisive audience groan. Rock fine-tuned a balanced attack with a few major hiccups, including the appearance of Dash and poking fun at Asian children who were led on-stage mid-ceremony.
That being said, Rock proved to be the right man for the job, and the Academy made it a point to couch the issue as the foundation of the ceremony, while still forging on with the celebration of films' actors and craftspeople.
Coming into the ceremony, Alejandro G. Innaritu’s wild tale of survival, “The Revenant,” had the most steam with 12 nominations. The film went on to win some of the most memorable awards of the night, including best director for Innaritu, a third Oscar in as many years for cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and the much-anticipated, although not unexpected, best actor win for favorite Leonardo DiCaprio. DiCaprio capitalized on his sixth nomination in a relatively weak category, receiving mild competition from Michael Fassbender’s portrayal of Steve Jobs in the biopic titled after the late Apple CEO. DiCaprio offered one of the more substantive acceptance speeches of the night in a moment that many viewed as in-the-making for the better part of a decade.
“Climate change is real, and it’s 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 and for those people out there whose voices have been drowned out by politics and greed … Let us not take this planet for granted – I do not take tonight for granted,” DiCaprio said in his acceptance speech to a standing ovation.
The biggest winner of the night was dystopian epic “Mad Max: Fury Road,” as it nearly swept the technical categories and added a handful of production Oscars, taking home six prizes on the night. The film began the night with a win for makeup and hairstyling, but went on to capture awards for production design, sound editing, sound mixing, costume design and an upset win over “The Big Short” for editing. Many of these categories were tight races, and for “Max” to prevail in nearly all of them is a huge accomplishment, missing out only on a speculated win for the aging director George Miller.
The concentration of awards largely did not extend past “The Revenant” and "Mad Max: Fury Road,” as many films received solitary wins. In acting, the Academy favored the young, as Brie Larson snagged the leading role title in “Room” over a sultry performance by Cate Blanchett in “Carol,” and Alicia Vikander’s emotional portrayal in “The Danish Girl” proved to be too much for Kate Winslet’s supporting role in “Steve Jobs.” The supporting actor category rejected this trend by awarding Mark Rylance of “Bridge of Spies” the Oscar over sentimental favorite and Golden Globe winner Sylvester Stallone, and the startlingly convincing evil of Tom Hardy’s “The Revenant” performance.
The award for original score was given to Hollywood darling and rightfully emotional Ennio Morricone, who had previously been nominated five times and received an Honorary Award in 2006, this being the first time he was able to break through for his work on Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight.” Following one of the most impactful performance of the evening, Lady Gaga’s song “Til It Happens to You” about sexual violence from the film “The Hunting Ground” was overtaken by Sam Smith’s James Bond anthem, “Writing’s on the Wall,” from the franchise’s latest installment, “Spectre.”
The stigma of the less glamorous categories of shorts and documentary was pointedly acknowledged by presenter Louis C.K., who said, “This Oscar [best documentary short] is going home in a Honda Civic … It’s going to be the nicest thing they ever own in their life. It’s going to give them anxiety to keep it in their crappy apartment."
The prize was given to the eye-opening film “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness” by director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and was followed by a well-received acceptance speech. The feature documentary Oscar was awarded to tout favorite “Amy,” about the life of late singer Amy Winehouse, while animated short film went to “Bear Story” and live action short was given to “Stutterer.”
The visual effects category was awarded to “Ex Machina,” upsetting larger scale epics like “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” “The Martian” and “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Best foreign language film went to the Hungarian filmmakers behind “Son of Saul,” and one of the final major winners was “The Big Short” for adapted screenplay.
The biggest and most notable upset of the night was in the race for best picture. A stacked category favorited Innaritu for a back-to-back win for “The Revenant,” while films like “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Room” were also making a push. Ultimately, the award went to “Spotlight,” a film that won earlier in the night for best original screenplay. The true story of the Boston Globe’s uncovering of a widespread Catholic priest child molestation scandal was captivating and raw and proved to be a more important film than the others in the category.
The Academy Awards found themselves in a position that forced them to make a change in their voting in the hopes that the industry as a whole will offer more opportunities for people of color in film and used the platform as a means of doing so.
Cheryl Boone Isaacs, president of the Academy, offered a statement during the show, saying, “Everyone in the Hollywood community has a role to play in bringing about the vital changes the industry needs so we can accurately reflect the world today. The Academy board of governors recently took concrete action and sent a message that inclusion only serves to make us all stronger.”
With that, another chapter closed in an Academy Award ceremony, filled to the brim with social insight, politically sharp speeches, a few mishaps and another good, if controversial, year at the movies.