You could have guessed that controversy would produce one of the best Oscars for years, but the proof will be in the pudding. Or any other item in the extravagant guest bags.
Sunday night threw up some just rewards and a handful of genuine, if light, surprises – but its legacy will be the floodgates that were pushed far wider than pre-ceremony controversy suggested.
“You want diversity, we got diversity”
In the early hours, The Independent was already exclaiming that Chris Rock had pummelled the elephant in the room. ‘Pummelled’ was an understatement. I doubt many of those shy, docile, wall hugging Elephantidae survived – from every barb at the boycotters “Jada boycotting is like me boycotting Rihanna’s panties. I wasn’t invited” to the blunt jab of truth, “… Too busy being raped and lynched” to the flipsides of the harsh reality of being a black actor. Yes, it is hard, but then… “It’s also not fair that Will was paid $20 million for Wild West, okay?” It was a tour-de-force, a skewering tour-de-force that put Rock’s stand-up front and centre. It was assured, it was substantial and it was far reaching. It wasn’t derailed by advert breaks (“We’re black!”) and ran unrelentingly through to Rock’s final shout, amid the stage invasion of the Spotlight cast and crew: “Black lives matter”. It did and will have an impact, and that was exactly what the 88th Academy Awards needed. But it also set the right tone for a wealth, or poverty, of prime issues to unravel over the next three and a half hours.
The scope of Rock’s opening wasn’t just that central issue of racism, boycotts and #OscarsSoWhite that had swamped the build-up. He imagined Robert De Nero sitting atop unisex acting categories that is clearly not “track and field”, thinking “I better slow this acting down so Meryl Streep can catch up”. “Everything’s not sexism, everything’s not racism” he said, and so the ceremony proved.
With awards loosely structured around the production process, although that was easy to forget until Liev Schreiber popped up to mumble-remind us after an hour, the ceremony managed to get most of its comedy right where it could. But for everything that hit, including most of Rock’s work, there were misguided moments like the Doctor Who Prom acknowledgement of John Williams. After many speeches had gone to highlighting the issues on everybody’s lips, three droids rolled, glided and tottered on for the humiliation of C3P0. Accidentally better was the seating that bundled all the composer nominees in their own box (a music box? Staved in?) so that Williams practically had to stand up to let a gracious Ennio Morricone claim a competitive Oscar at long last. That was the justice of the night. Thank goodness that Tarantino convinced him to take a trip with The Hateful Eight. It’s a major reason to catch 70mm showings of that horror film, and listen out for his gallant repurposing of themes from The Thing and the Exorcist II, now rewarded in their own right.
Less lucky or lauded was Britain’s own Sam Smith, picking up the award for Best Original Song against expectation. The backlash against Writing’s on the Wall has been staggering, much of it apparently based on him not being Adele. In my view, it’s a fine song with a lyrical edge over Skyfall if not the same zeitgeist swagger. In introducing his performance, Sarah Silverman’s dissection of James Bond (SPECTRE’s consigned Bond back to dinosaur status once again; he was a particularly odd subject for this ceremony) was full of vim, even when she resignedly pointed out, “I’m here to introduce an artist who through no fault of his own, sang the latest Bond theme”. A tough act to follow, and Smith rustled up a stark performance early on which seemed to lengthen the odds of his victory yet further even considering the vote was well closed. But still, he triumphed, beating the standing ovation that met Lady Gaga’s later emotive performance and The Weekend’s confident showing. In doing so, he accidentally opened a whole can of worms by misquoting Sir Ian McKellen’s recent comments that no openly gay actor has ever won the Best Actor prize. It was clumsily paraphrased, although there’s no doubt his intention was sound. Unfortunately incorrect in the assertion that came across he was chief proof that a small portion of the path to Hell is paved with Oscar statuettes. While he did clarify the veracity of his recollection at the time it was too late, obscuring the fact that he was simply intending to highlight another issue of discrimination in a year of diversity. Considering the prior backlash he can hardly have considered himself enough of a favourite to memorise a speech, but once he’d opened his mouth the following days’ responses were on the wall.
Yes, much hinged on the music at this ceremony, not just when Morricone’s name was read out or the utterly bizarre orchestral segues that had a Winehouse classic ready for Amy’s award but judged it okay to bridge Holocaust drama Son of Saul and Lady Gaga’s powerful shift onto sexual abuse with some sprightly Indiana Jones. Still, that wasn’t as bad as that C3P0 moment. Worse was chasing down every speech down with Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries. Savagely employed, even Pierre Boulle’s legendary acceptance speech of “Merci” would have clipped a bar or two. That was until the closing awards when Iñárritu’s determined plea for liberation from tribal thinking made the rising score retreat. By the time Leo walked to the stage it had been scared off completely. Not one single Valkyrie made a whimper as one of the greatest living American actors seized his moment.
Leo of course took an impassioned stand on the environment, the most powerful but not the first mention of that huge issue in a ceremony that saw a wonderful, brilliant prism of campaigns shine through short acceptance speeches. Mainly from the rowdy and off-centre Mad Max bunch.
It took a good 50 minutes for Mad Max Fury Road to commence its domination of the technical categories. Starting when costume designer Jenny Beavan claimed her second of 10 Oscar nominations she set a great standard with her dry “What another lovely day” and then a quick plug for her agent (necessary it seems, considering the petulant refusal of many she walked past to applaud her; instead many stared her up and down). Then on and on they came, the British, Australian, American acolytes of George Miller each with a new message about the film: A call against pollution from Beavan, an overriding call for of diversity, feminism, mental health, and the ultimate power of the edit. Miller’s Wife, Margaret Sixel carried that last message, seizing the Best Editing award, rightly, as a key reason for Fury Road’s success. As Miller said at the time he hired his wife, Sixel’s appeal came from the fact she’d never previously cut an action film so the end result couldn’t look conventional… Earlier, the Aussies had also brought us the best screaming “fuck yeah” from one of the winning production designers.
“It was the year of our lives in the Namibian dessert”
One of the finest parts of Max’s night “of fire and blood” was when the obligatory Best Picture excerpt came for Fury Road gratifyingly included the trademark Miller eye-popping effect. Mad Max, topically relevant, inspirationally visionary, is a serious prospect in modern Hollywood. And no one once said, “The Aussies are coming”
In election year, there was little chance America could avoid its pressing political issues. Trump couldn’t be ignored, but perhaps it’s surprising that it boiled down to Adam Mackay’s early and pointed reference to “Weirdo billionaires”. Then later Mark Rylance, himself an hugely deserved outsider for Best Supporting Actor as America wrapped itself up in the thought that Stallone could claim the prize (both a furthering and an exacerbation of the pre-controversy), pointed towards US politics after gushing praise on Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. Perhaps most overt was the stunning standing ovation a clearly embarrassed but typically slick VP Joe Biden received when introducing his “friend” Lady Gaga.
Most of the night’s comedy hit, helped massively by Rock’s strong opening monologue and his continual ability to keep the issue in focus. Spilling from the start was the impressive sequence that slotted Whoopi Goldberg into Joy and made the brilliant Tracey Jordan assume the role of The Danish Girl. Those sketches were laugh out loud funny, while the Black History Minute aside continued to skewer Will Smith. The ‘Suge Knight’ cameo was surreal while the “Should have been nominee” Michael B. Jordan was honest. Perhaps the Compton vox pops were Rock’s best dissection of the issue. Nicely played, its findings oddly recalled the awkward horror of Neil Patrick Harris’ pointed references to Selma the year before. That was hurdle dodged. But Rock didn’t get away scot-free. His pointed live skit on Asian accountants was awkward on stage and responses are rumbling on, although the parting shot clearly placed it in the same line of skewering he’d followed all night.
The constant voiceover was right to deter channel changing (“no flicking” as Larry Sanders used to say) with the simple “Coming up, more from Chris Rock”. From the off Rock was on fine fettle and streets beyond recent hosts. What he had to say was never forced, although the jaws never let go of the scruff. And there are certainly comedy pretenders waiting in the wings should Louis CK’s hilarious introduction be anything to go by.
As Max stole ahead with six awards, there was that very real possibility George Miller could steal the biggest shock by taking a major award for his road warrior. But it was a lighter shock that came with Spotlight’s award. That capped off a one of the most entertaining and fascinating Academy Awards for some time, and the second time that Michael Keaton had taken the final stage in two years – a feat as brilliant as Iñárritu and Emmanuel Lubezki’s history making in 2016. Although only one of those thanked the Beatles on the thank-you-ticker (a system ripe for subversion). While it’s no great thing that this year’s edge came from controversy on one level it was saved by Chris Rock being in the right place at the right time. And on a greater level it was enhanced by the lack of stand-out films. Perhaps that could have been combatted by nominations for Compton, Creed and more, but as it stood there was a void and tinsel town filled it.
It’s easy to see how this year’s most lauded films reflect America’s country’s state of mind, and in several cases were inspired by it. There’s the unrelenting danger of The Revenant recalling the mountain men of frontiership, and Mad Max putting dystopia on the damaged table. Then there’s the self-analysis of The Big Short and Spotlight. The latter proved the strongest, inspiring the final prolonged appeal of the night, with an appeal to Pope Francis inspired by its subject. An ensemble piece that sometimes struggled with the dramatic interpretation of a real-life story, it’s pulled from TV movie by an incredible cast and onto Oscar winning heights by some incredibly deft film-making by Tom McCarthy.
The six awards and the sheer power of messages conveyed by Mad Max made that the real story of film this Oscars. But as the constantly unfurling Oscar logo suggested, for just a split second every few minutes when it highlighted the word ‘scars’, there were bigger things afoot.
A day later, the scope of the arguments that had spilled across the ceremony had spilled across the community. From socio-political to gender rights to the environment, many are still sinking in. In many ways, this ceremony could be a tidal change, it has the potential for one. Seeing what emerges as definite and what as mutable will be fascinating, and hopefully fair and for the benefit of film. Chances are, any future involvement from Stacey Dash will be mutable.
Even after the ceremony, many discussion were still missing the real argument around race and exclusion that had dogged the awards, instead undermining a generous film industry that has always welcomed the skills and talent of the world as much as it likes to celebrate itself. Many key awards went to non-Americans, many American nominees went unrecognised. This was in no way the first year of protests and proclamations, but it had a swagger. More people were hitting closer to home. Clearly Hollywood remains a far more complex concept than anyone, least of all those in the mix on Sunday night, realise.
The 88th Academy Awards, 28th February 2016. I always stay contend with the cold, dark and early hours of GMT to watch the Oscars, and in 2016 fractionally cut back on junk food. Fractionally.