The 88th Academy Awards set its tone before host Chris Rock could grab the mic. As Rock, dressed in a sharp ivory tux, strode to center stage, the orchestra sat on their hands and the sound system blasted a snatch of Public Enemy's "Fight the Power." The stealthy 15-second instrumental was a fitting moment for a controversial awards race dominated by what people did — or didn't — say, from Best Actress nominee Charlotte Rampling dismissing a question about Oscar quotas as "racist to white people" to Best Supporting Actor contender Sylvester Stallone forgetting to thank both his Creed director and his co-star at the Golden Globes.
No wonder Rock refused all interviews before Hollywood's big night. Too risky.
But once under the Dolby Theatre's spotlight, Rock put everyone on blast: the Obama-voting liberals who still "don't hire black people," the outrage culture that burns more energy on gold statues than on actual racism, and even the black actors and activists who demanded that Rock join their Oscar boycott.
"It's not about boycotting anything," he insisted. "We want opportunity. Leo gets a great part every year." With shade doled out like Girl Scout cookies, the Academy Awards exhaled and cut to their first commercial break. The orchestra took the temperature of the room and burst into another apropos song choice: “Bittersweet Symphony.”
When Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs took the stage, that word appeared again: opportunity. “The Oscars celebrate the storytellers who have the opportunity to work in the powerful medium of film," emphasized Isaacs, stressing each syllable.
In other words: Don't blame us for #OscarsSoWhite — at least not entirely.
Yet she has a point. The Oscars can only nominate films that exist. Standing before a rainbow of colored lights, Isaacs reflected that harsh glare back at the filmmakers in the crowd. With the tact of a former publicist — Isaacs was the first African-American female to run a studio marketing department — she called on Hollywood to diversify. "Each of you is an ambassador who can influence others in the industry," urged Isaacs. For now, however, only The Martian's Jeff Daniels and Kristen Wiig appeared to reprise their movie characters in the sketch that replaced white roles with black actors, pretending they don't see a stranded black astronaut and leaving him to starve.
For another bit, Chris Rock returned to a Magic Johnson multiplex to interview black moviegoers about this year's crop of of nominees, or really, about everything besides this year's crop of nominees, largely unseen by those theatergoers. He did that bit the last time he hosted the Oscars in 2005. Eleven years ago, the joke was on the Academy for obsessing over movies like Sideways and Finding Neverland that didn't register with a swath of Americans. This year was more of the same, except for the woman who shocked Rock by enjoying Angelina Jolie's By the Sea, which made just $3.3 million in theaters — as much as Deadpool probably earned during the four hours the Oscars were on TV.
But there was one beautiful twist. A decade ago, when Rock gave his civilians a real Oscar and a chance to give an acceptance speech, everyone simply thanked their families. Today, they had something substantial to say. "This should be not just white," insisted one man. "It should be Asian, Hispanic — there's so much talent out there of all races." Lectured a woman, "You give black actresses more awards because they work hard and they deserve it just like anybody else." An impressed Rock kept quiet and grinned. She soldiered on. "How 'bout that, America?"
Mad Max: Fury Road, one of the two blockbuster Best Picture nominees that regular moviegoers might have seen, didn't win the biggest Oscars. However, it did win the most Oscars — six in total — enough to ride eternal, shiny and gold. So, too, will an immortal GIF of Fury Road costumer Jenny Beavan, seconds after trouncing The Revenant, bouncing past director Alejandro González Iñárritu, who refused to applaud, his arms crossed like a salty pretzel.
It was a night of awkward gaffes. Chasing award winners off the podium with Wagner's "Flight of the Valkyries" was tongue-in-cheek until the Holocaust drama Son of Saul won Best Foreign Language only to be cut short by Hitler's favorite composer. Presenter Louis C.K. joked that the Documentary Short directors, a safe category to tease, were broke, Honda Civic–driving nobodies, only to give the award to Pakistani journalist Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, who acidly informed the never-nominated actor from Blue Jasmine, American Hustle, and Trumbo that she'd now won two Oscars. Stallone's Best Supporting Actor clip began with his Rocky Balboa grunting, "I don't even know what I'm doing here." The line dangled like a humblebrag until the night's first shocker: sure-thing Sly lost to underdog Mark Rylance, a three-time Tony-award winner. Suddenly, the line felt all too true, as the audience shook off the sentimental spell that nearly won Stallone an undeserved statuette.
Brie Larson and Alicia Vikander took home unassailable wins. So did the screenplays for The Big Short and Spotlight. Bad blood was saved for Best Animated Short, when Bear Story triumphed over Don Hertzfeldt's adored World of Tomorrow, giving Chile its first-ever Oscar. While the nation celebrated on Twitter, Bear Story's Wikipedia was amended to read, "the film was garbage but was a critical success." That same anonymous editor went on an anti-ursine spree, hacking into The Revenant's page to falsely ID Leo's CG bear co-star as "Fuzzy Wuzzy."
As the night marched on, the orchestra got more emotional. "My Heart Will Go On" begat "Up Where We Belong," which begat "Take My Breath Away." The crowd followed suit. Three hours into the broadcast, it finally leaped to its feet for the night's first standing ovation for Joe Biden, the first vice-president to attend the Academy Awards since 1931. Biden urged people to change the culture that silences victims of sexual assault and to visit ItsOnUs.org. Then he turned the stage over to Lady Gaga, who performed the Best Song nominee "'Til It Happens to You" before a silent chorus of survivors who stood bravely behind her white piano holding out their right arms, on which they'd Sharpied phrases such as "You are loved" and "We believe you." At the end of the song, Rachel McAdams, eyes shining, jumped up to applaud. So did everyone else, including Brie Larson, who hugged every single person as they walked off the stage.
Once roused, the crowd couldn't stay seated. They stood up and cheered for 87-year-old composer Ennio Morricone, winning his first Best Original Score statuette for The Hateful Eight. And they practically levitated when Leonardo DiCaprio finally won Best Actor. (No matter that at 41, hungry, hungry DiCaprio is half Morricone's age.)
Over wolf whistles, presumably from his Pussy Posse, DiCaprio strode onstage and deftly turned his acceptance speech into a political rally, tying The Revenant's brutal shoot to global warming. “Climate change is real,” declared DiCaprio. "We need to support leaders around the world who do not speak for the big polluters, but who speak for all of humanity."
By then, the political floodgates were open. Sam Smith applauded himself for being the first openly gay Oscar winner. (Not true, but his heart was in the right place.) Iñárritu's Best Director speech was a call to arms to "make sure for once and forever that the color of the skin becomes as irrelevant as the length of our hair"; Spotlight producer Michael Sugar used his Best Picture moment to beg Pope Francis to protect children in the Catholic Church. Clutching a box of Thin Mints, Rock closed the show by cutting the comedy to simply shout, "Black lives matter!"
As the credits rolled, the Oscars again cued up "Fight the Power" — this time with the words. Finally, the Academy Awards had found its voice.
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