The 88th Annual Academy Awards: What an Awkward Day!

| February 29, 2016

Chris Rock

It was a lovely day for some and a not-so lovely day for others at the 88th Annual Academy Awards Sunday night as attempts at correcting the #OscarsSoWhite scandal became a source of humor. No, there were no actors of color for the Oscar this year, but the issue wasn’t swept under the rug either.

First let’s deal with the awards.

Spotlight was the surprise winner for Best Picture. The true story of The Boston Globe’s attempts to unearth the priest sexual abuse scandal from a decade ago won only two awards, for Best Picture and for Best Original Screenplay, but in the top category it toppled the expected winner, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant. Meanwhile Iñárritu took away the prize for Best Director becoming the first since Joseph L. Mankiewicz in 1949 and 1950 to win two consecutive awards in that category – Iñárritu won last year for Birdman. The Mexican-born director spoke passionately about eliminating the barriers of color and diversity as the band tried to play him off before giving up and letting him speak.

Three of the acting winners were no surprise. After six nominations, Leonardo DiCaprio finally won Best Actor for his performance as a fur trapper in The Revenant and turned most of his speech into a plight for the preservation of the environment.

Over in the Best Actress category, newcomer Brie Larson won for playing a woman who spends seven years locked in a tool shed by a sicko in the drama Room.

In the supporting race, Dutch actress Alicia Vikander expectedly took home the award for playing 20s artist Gerda Wegener who endures her husband’s search for sexual identity and then a very risky sex change operation in the period drama The Danish Girl.

Yet, the surprise was English actor Mark Rylance who won the Best Supporting Actor prize for playing American communist Rudolph Abel in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. It was an award that was expected to go to Sylvester Stallone for his seventh go-around as Rocky Balboa in Creed, or as host Chris Rock dubbed it “Black Rocky.” Rylance is only the second actor to win an Oscar in a film directed by Steven Spielberg after Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln three years ago.

Backstage the actor was asked about the uncomfortable moment when his name was announced. Presenter Patricia Arquette said “Mark R . . .” and then paused, causing many to think that the winner was co-nominee Mark Ruffalo. Rylance said he had gotten use to it since the same thing happened at the BAFTA awards a few weeks ago.

The rest was a lovely day for George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road, which swept most of the technical and artistic awards, winning six including Makeup, Production Design, Costume Design, Film Editing, Sound Effect Editing and Sound Mixing. Preventing its clean sweep was the sci-fi epic Ex Machina which picked up the award for Best Visual Effects and The Revenant which picked up the award for Best Cinematography.

On the musical side, Sam Smith received and the Best  Original Song Oscar for “The Writings on the Wall” from the lastest James Bond adventure Spectre.  The singer, who is openly gay, used his speech to bring attention to the LGBT community.  And in a touching moment, the Oscar for Best Original Score went to the legendary Ennio Morricone who won his first competitive Oscar at the age of 87 for Tarantino’s The Hateful EightThe Italian composer has been working in the movie business since 1959.

And yet, the winners had to take a backseat to the elephant in the room. The Academy, having been criticized for its lack of diversity among African-Americans, has been at the center of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy for the past month, leading Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs to make changes in the Academy’s by-laws that are suppose to make it more diverse and inclusive.

On this, the show took a sometimes light-hearted, sometimes heart-felt attempt to address the issue.  The producers of the show sought to include African Americans as presenters and performers clearly in an effort to show that they understood the problem. Did it help? Sort of. It might have been easy for The Academy to sweep the controversy under the rug, but in spending the entire night nervously trying to overturn the problem, their efforts felt both admirable and a little desperate.

Host Chris Rock turned the issue into his entire opening monologue. Putting the controversy into perspective he questioned why this year’s Oscars had to be the one with the controversy. “Why this Oscars? It’s the 88th Academy Awards, which means that this whole no-black-nominees thing has happened at least 71 other times.” Then he reasoned that in the 1960s it wasn’t an issue “Because we had real things to protest at the time.” Taking a stab at the celebrity protesters, he singled out Will Smith: “It’s not fair that Will (Smith) was not nominated for ‘Concussion’. It’s also not fair that Will was paid twenty million for ‘Wild Wild West’”

The controversy brought Rock a wealth of material, from small jokes – returning from a commercial break and quipping “We’re black” – to larger jokes such as placing black actors in some of the nominated films, like Whoopi Goldberg mocking nervous QVC pitchman Jennifer Lawrence in Joy and then placing himself in The Martian. Some jokes worked while others, including an awkward appearance by Stacy Dash – who recently called for the elimination of Black History Month – fell flat. Later, a serious moment came from Vice President Joe Biden who called for an end to the rape scandals at America’s universities. Biden made an attempt to pound the podium but left everyone asking “Why are you even here?”

Overall Chris Rock did a fine job smoothing over what could have been a very awkward evening. While most of his jokes ebbed in the direction of the controversy, others were aimed at making the night more relaxed. Taking a cue from Ellen two years ago, who got pizza for the people in the audience, Rock helped his daughter’s Girl Scout troop by selling cookies and raising $65,000.

Very few of the speeches were all that memorable. Most were a list of names that led into whatever issue was on the winner’s mind at the moment. The most creative was Costume Design winner Jenny Beavan who concluded her speech by reasoning that if we don’t take care of our planet, we’re in danger of making the world of Mad Max a reality.

The producers this year, thankfully, moved away from trying to make the old dinosaur young and hip – they had other issues to deal with. One issue was how to stop winners from running down a list of names during their speech thereby boring the audience and inevitably forgetting to thank important people. This was done by a ticker at the bottom of the screen. Whenever a winner was headed to the stage, the television audience was given a scroll of people that the winner would like to thank. Did it shorten the show? Not a bit.

So, how will this year’s Oscars go down in the history books? Let’s be realistic, take away the controversy and you won’t have much to talk about once the excitement has died down. It was memorable this week. A month from now it will have slipped quietly from your mind. What will be left? Hopefully an industry that will open the doors to diversity, that will make changes to its methods.  But let’s be realistic, this is Hollywood.  It will pay lip service to the diversity issue then slip very quickly back into the same old pattern.  We’ll have new problems to address.  See you next year.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
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