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‘Parasite’ makes Oscars history as the first foreign-language film to win best picture

South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” won four Oscars, including best picture and best director.
South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” won four Oscars, including best picture and best director. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)
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“Parasite,” the genre-bending South Korean movie about a poor family that tricks its way into the employ of a wealthy one, won the Oscar for best picture at the 92nd Academy Awards on Sunday, becoming the first non-English-language film to take Hollywood’s top prize.

During a ceremony shadowed by criticism about the lack of diversity in the major acting categories, “Parasite” became the first film to win with an entirely Asian cast. It was one of only 11 films not in English to have been nominated for best picture in the history of the Oscars.

Its writer-director, Bong Joon-ho, was also named best director.

In all, the film, which combined drama, dark comedy, horror and social commentary, won four Oscars, the most of the evening, in what amounted to a historic upset of the Hollywood elite. The movie brushed aside works by such acclaimed directors as Martin Scorsese (“The Irishman”) and Quentin Tarantino (“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood)” as well as the much-lauded World War I epic “1917.”

The 2020 Academy Awards belonged to “Parasite.” The South Korean film won four Oscars, including the biggest prize: Best picture. (Video: The Washington Post)

The night’s biggest flop may have been “Joker,” the dark and violent film about a social reject who descends into madness and murder. It came into the ceremony at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood with 11 nominations, more than any film. It won two awards.

One of those, however, went to its star, Joaquin Phoenix, in the best actor category, for his bombastic portrayal of the title character.

Phoenix gave a typically rambling acceptance speech, saying, “I think we’ve become very disconnected from the natural world. . . . We go into the natural world and plunder it for its resources. We artificially inseminate a cow and steal her baby [and] take her milk and put it in our coffee.” He then said, “I think that when we use love and compassion as our guiding principles we can develop and implement systems of change” beneficial to humanity.

The best actress award went to Renée Zellweger for portraying the drug-addicted and dying Judy Garland in “Judy,” as she rallies for a series of triumphant concert performances in London. Zellweger mounted a Hollywood-style comeback of her own, winning the best actress Oscar after leaving filmmaking for six years.

Both Phoenix and Zellweger were the heavy, even prohibitive favorites, having swept the Golden Globe, British BAFTA, Screen Actors Guild and Critics’ Choice awards in recent months.

Bong, a widely respected director among cinephiles but previously little known to general audiences, shared the best original screenplay award with “Parasite” co-writer Han Jin Won. His film also won — again, predictably, given its worldwide acclaim — in the best international feature film category (formerly known as best foreign film).

“I’m ready to drink tonight,” quipped the shaggy-haired Bong, speaking in English for the first time as he accepted the international trophy. Later, as he accepted his award for best director he acknowledged Scorsese and Tarantino in what was perhaps a symbolic passing of the torch.

Brad Pitt and Laura Dern, two Hollywood veterans, took home the best supporting acting Oscars, the first acting Oscars for each of them in their storied careers.

Several presenters referred, if only indirectly, to the lack of diversity among the acting nominees; only one actor of color — Cynthia Erivo, star of the biopic “Harriet” — was nominated in the major acting categories. And none of the South Korean actors from “Parasite” were nominated.

The dominance of men among the directing and technical nominees was also repeatedly referenced, most explicitly by Hildur Guonadottir, who won for original score for “Joker.” Accepting the award, she said, “To the girls, to the women, to the mothers and the daughters, please speak up. We need to hear your voices.” She received a standing ovation.

Pitt was recognized for his portrayal of the laid-back stuntman in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Tarantino’s story about the last days of Hollywood’s Golden Age, set in 1969. It was also a kind of career achievement award for Pitt, who had won an Oscar for producing but never for acting.

In his acceptance speech, Pitt made one of the few explicitly political comments of the night, taking a shot at Senate Republicans, who voted last week to acquit President Trump at his impeachment trial. Pitt said he had only 45 seconds to speak onstage, noting that this was “45 more seconds than the Senate gave John Bolton this week” to testify at the trial. Republicans voted not to hear testimony from Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, who has alleged that Trump abused his power in his dealings with officials in Ukraine.

Dern’s award — for playing a tough-talking divorce lawyer in “Marriage Story” — was also in part a recognition of her many years as a film and TV actress. She thanked her parents, actors Diane Ladd and Bruce Dern, whom she called her “acting heroes, my legends.”

Academy voters twice passed over Scarlett Johansson, who was nominated in two categories — actress in a leading role in “Marriage Story” and best supporting actress in “Jojo Rabbit.” Nevertheless, Johansson’s achievement was a rare feat: Since the Oscars began in 1929, only 12 actors and actresses have been nominated for the best acting and best supporting actor awards in the same year. She was only the fifth — after Sigourney Weaver in 1988, Emma Thompson in 1993, Julianne Moore in 2002 and Cate Blanchett in 2007 — to leave the ceremony empty-handed.

The academy also stiffed director Greta Gerwig, whose “Little Women” was nominated for best picture although Gerwig herself was left off the list of director nominees, leaving an all-male slate. Gerwig is only one of five women who have ever been nominated in the directing category (for her 2018 feature “Lady Bird”) in the 92-year-history of the event. Gerwig was also nominated for best adapted screenplay for “Little Women.”

Chris Rock noted the lack of diversity among the nominees in an opening monologue, joking that Erivo did such a good job playing Harriet Tubman, who aided fugitive slaves in pre-Civil War America, that the academy hired Erivo “to hide all the black nominees.”

In the documentary-feature category, the winner was “American Factory,” about a factory outside Dayton, Ohio, that was acquired by a Chinese billionaire and the cross-cultural conflicts that result. The documentary was released by Netflix under its deal with Michelle and Barack Obama’s Higher Ground Productions.

Among the other predictable winners were the legendary British cinematographer Roger Deakins for his work on “1917” and the storied songwriters Elton John and Bernie Taupin for best original song, “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again,” from the Elton John biopic “Rocketman.”

For the second year in a row the awards had no host, just presenters. The film industry dispensed with its traditional host format after comedian-actor Kevin Hart dropped out amid criticism for homophobic tweets.

The blockbuster Pixar film “Toy Story 4” won the animated feature film category.

And “Hair Love,” a seven-minute film about an African-American father’s struggle to style his young daughter’s hair, won the animated short film category. It was written and directed by Matthew Cherry, a former NFL player.

One winner, Andrew Buckland, who won for sound editing on “Ford v Ferrari,” noted a symbolic fact: His movie will be among the last released by Twentieth Century Fox, one of the film industry’s most storied studios. The studio was sold last year by a company controlled by media mogul Rupert Murdoch to Disney, which rebranded it last month as 20th Century Studios.

The three-hour-plus TV presentation included the first presentation by an actor with Down syndrome, Zack Gottsagen, who starred in “The Peanut Butter Falcon.” Gottsagen presented an award with actor Shia LaBeouf, who co-starred in the movie, for the best live-action short film.