Size and noise are fun, but restraint counts for something, too.
That was the message at the 88th Academy Awards ceremony, where such loud, large-scale spectacles as “The Revenant” and “Mad Max: Fury Road” might have earned the most prizes, but the taut, restrained journalism drama “Spotlight” wound up taking top honors for best picture, as well as best original screenplay.
In a year in which nominees were exceptionally well balanced between populist box office extravaganzas and smaller, artier films, the awards ceremony itself followed a similar seesaw pattern. Whereas the hyperkinetic road picture “Mad Max” swept the proceedings early, earning Oscars for sound, production design, editing and makeup and hair, it was soon joined by “The Revenant” — an ambitious survival tale of a man crawling his way back to life and revenge after a bear attack. “The Revenant” received an award for Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography, as well as director Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s second Oscar in a row for directing and Leonardo DiCaprio’s first Oscar ever.
As in every year, the Academy Awards served as an index of what the film industry thinks of itself and, not incidentally, the audience it seeks to serve. The year’s most popular film, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” was nominated for the usual slew of technical awards reserved for the special-effects spectacles that form the spine of Hollywood’s business model (and lost them all).
“Spotlight,” about the Boston Globe’s 2001 investigation of child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, had been favored to win since premiering at the Venice Film Festival last year. But “The Revenant” began to look like more of a sure thing in recent weeks, the product of DiCaprio’s tireless campaigning and the creative team portraying the production in terms every bit as arduous as the real-life events it dramatized. An enormous success at the box office, “The Revenant” perfectly straddled the two business models that define movie marketing: It embodied the kind of look-at-me spectacle that Hollywood specializes in hyping, as well as the artistically ambitious, auteur-driven film that gains valuable visibility during an Oscar campaign.
With “The Revenant” taking on the contours of a sure thing, far more suspense resided in how the ceremony’s host, Chris Rock, would address the controversy that dominated the Oscars conversation for a second year. Once again, no actors of color were nominated, and “Creed” and “Straight Outta Compton” — both directed by and starring African American artists — were nominated for the contributions of a white cast member and screenwriters, respectively. (Neither wound up taking home awards.)
In addition to Rock’s interstitial skits, the evening’s most powerful moment having to do with marginalized groups was when sexual assault survivors joined Lady Gaga on stage after a galvanizing performance of the song she wrote for “The Hunting Ground,” a documentary about campus rape.
Whether the discussion was swirling around race or gender equality, this year’s Academy Awards crystallized an industry in the midst of the same cultural changes and anxieties that are roiling society and politics at large. Last year, best-actress winner Patricia Arquette made an impassioned plea for pay equity during her acceptance speech; the ensuing year has brought study after study examining the disproportionately small number of women working in front of and behind the camera, as well as the dearth of stories in which they’re subjects and not objects or bit players. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission even saw fit to launch an investigation into gender discrimination within the industry.
In some ways, “Spotlight” winning best picture seemed to reward the whitest, malest movie of the bunch (the film’s lone female actor, Rachel McAdams, was nominated for her supporting performance). But the film would never have been made were it not for the tireless efforts of its two female producers, Blye Pagan Faust and Nicole Rocklin. And, coming just moments after Lady Gaga’s emotional performance, “Spotlight’s” victory felt like a vindication — for smart, unpretentious, socially engaged filmmaking and people in privilege using their power to do the right thing. In spreading the Oscar wealth across films of such disparate subjects and aesthetic approaches, the Academy indicated that it’s capable of wielding its power in unexpected ways. Whether it will fully internalize the lessons learned this year remains to be seen.