For a movie that had won just about every critics’ award at the end of last year, “Spotlight” was looking like an also-ran going into Academy Awards night. “The Revenant” had all the momentum, with big wins at the Golden Globes and the Directors Guild of America, and bookies giving it 4/9 odds. Especially going into the final minutes of the Oscars ceremony, “Spotlight” seemed cemented as a runner-up: Nominated for five other Oscars, it had only won one Best Original Screenplay all night long.
Veteran Oscar watchers know that’s usually the kiss of death. After all, if a movie can’t win all the other awards, why should it get the big one?
Instead, “Spotlight” became the first Best Picture winner in 63 years to walk away with only two Oscars. Not since “The Greatest Show on Earth” won for 1952 has a movie won the top prize and only one other Oscar.
We’re used to seeing the Best Picture winners cart off huge armfuls of golden men. Like when “The Hurt Locker” won six at the 2009 Oscars . . .
Or when “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” won all 11 Oscars it was nominated for from 2003, breaking a record.
In fact, in the 88 years of the Academy Awards, only six other Best Pictures before “Greatest Show” won so few Oscars.
“Wings” (1927) and “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930) each won only one other Oscar, while “Broadway Melody” (1929) and “Grand Hotel” (1932) only won Best Picture. Of course, there were far fewer categories in those early years, fewer than 10 trophies awarded annually to feature films back then. Later, Best Pictures “You Can’t Take It With You” (1938) and “Rebecca” (1940) both walked away with only two Oscars.
While a win like “Spotlight’s” is incredibly rare, in recent years we have seen more low-tally Best Pictures — presumably as academy voters choose to share the wealth among a multitude of movies.
It’s been seven years since a Best Picture winner won as many as eight trophies: “Slumdog Millionaire” in 2008.
Meanwhile, “The King’s Speech” (2010) and “Birdman” (2014) won only four Oscars including the top prize, and both “Argo” (2012) and “12 Years a Slave” (2013) won only three Oscars total, same as “Crash” a decade ago.
The trend highlights the academy’s tendency to gravitate toward smaller, less flashy movies — which therefore are not in the running to vacuum up all the technical awards, like the effects-laden “Mad Max: Fury Road,” which won six Oscars last night.
“Spotlight” also fell into another recent academy trend: the willingness of voters to give the Best Director prize to a different film than the Best Picture, in this case “The Revenant’s” Alejandro G. Iñárritu.
Beyond that — well, the best way to explain “Spotlight’s” unconventional win is that, obviously, the academy really liked it. Our critic Ann Hornaday describes the five ways a little film about journalism outwitted the conventional wisdom about movies of its type: