Monday, February 29, 2016

Best picture 'Spotlight,' a welcome upset

Host Chris Rock scored big in the opening as Oscar lumbered its way through a controversial year.

In the end -- and the end was a long time coming -- the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did the right thing: It awarded the best picture Oscar to the best picture. Spotlight, which did not have a stellar night otherwise, walked away with the evening's biggest prize.

I have to admit that I was surprised. Most prognosticators thought The Revenant would win best picture: I expected The Big Short to pull off an upset because it was both entertaining and meaningful. The Academy went me one better, and recognized Spotlight. I've never been happier to be wrong about an Oscar prediction.

As for the rest ...

It was an OK but typically labored evening that was guided by a mostly sharp Chris Rock, whose opening monologue lived up to just about everyone's expectations. I could spend time quoting lines from it, but I don't need to. I'll refer you instead to a link at which you can read his entire opening.

Suffice it to say that Rock was trenchant when he needed to be, immediately addressing the elephant in Oscar's room, the diversity issue that has dominated this year's awards season.

Once it got rolling, the program pretty much conformed to the standard model, receiving an energy boost from the lone upset that broke the tedium of watching Mad Max: Fury Road clean up in the costume, make-up, editing, sound and production design categories. As a fan of Ex Machina, I was particularly glad to see that movie win an Oscar for visual effects.

Mark Rylance's win in the best supporting actor category counts as another of the evening's surprises. Sylvester Stallone, who reprised his role as Rocky Balboa in Creed, had been the sentimental favorite.

Could voters have been reluctant to acknowledge Stallone in a year when there was much complaining about the fact that Creed's star -- Michael B. Jordan -- was ignored by the Academy?

That's not to say that Rylance wasn't deserving. He gave a fine performance as a Russian spy in Bridge of Spies.

If you're of a cynical bent, you might think the evening's many black presenters were on hand to counter the #OscarsSoWhite campaign that's been raging since the nominations were announced.

Some recipients -- notably Alejandro G. Inarritu, who won best director for The Revenant -- called for more opportunity for people of color.

In some ways, though, Oscars are only the tip of Hollywood's institutionally white iceberg.

A real increase in inclusion depends on diversifying the ranks of those who make key decisions at studios, as well as on breaking down stereotypical casting habits.

As is customary, there were bits that didn't work, notably the production number that accompanied Earned It, the nominated song from 50 Shades of Grey. As he sang, The Weekend was encircled by dancers who looked as if they were auditioning for 50 Shades of Victoria's Secret.

It's nearly impossible this time of year to go to the supermarket without being asked to buy Girl Scout cookies. Now, the Girl Scouts have invaded the Oscars. About midway through the proceedings, Rock brought out a troop of Los Angeles Girl Scouts who sold cookies to the audience, raising more than $65,000.

In what surely was a lapse in judgment, Rock neglected to say whether Tagalongs outsold Samoas.

What else? Showing lists of those who were being thanked at the bottom of our screens was a dumb idea. Without people to thank, most recipients had little to say.

An exception: Brie Larson, who won best actress for her performance as a kidnapped young woman in Room. Larson thanked both the Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals, which served as launch pads for her movie. In an additional display of Oscar graciousness, she also thanked those who went to see her movie.

I suppose it's important to mention Joe Biden. The vice president introduced his "friend" Lady Gaga who sang 'Til It Happens to You, the emotional song from The Hunting Ground, a documentary about rape on college campuses. That song lost to Writing's On the Wall, the theme from Spectre, a tune I hope never to hear again.

And, of course, there was Leo. Leonardo DiCaprio finally won his Oscar for his physically challenging performance in The Revenant.

That, and a considerable amount of Oscar fatigue, leads me to the real moral of last night's Oscars: One never should underestimate the power of crawling inside a dead horse. You never know what good will come of it.

For a complete list of winners, try ABC News.

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