“It’s incredible that two outsiders like Chivo and Alejandro that came from Mexico, came to our industry, were firm in their beliefs artistically, and here we have a two-time winner at the Academy Awards and Chivo a three-time winner… These guys represent everything about what this industry is and what it should be.” The speaker was Leonardo DiCaprio, clutching his long-time-coming Oscar for best actor, as he stood next to director Alejandro Inarritu, who had won the best directing prize the second year a row, for making The Revenant, a work that another of the evening’s surprise winners – the VFX crew from Ex Machina – called “an existential western,” earlier in the same room.
There were a lot of grace notes backstage this year, as winners seemed generous in praising the work of not only their own co-workers, but also their nominated colleagues. Best supporting actor winner Mark Rylance, for his memorable work in Bridge of Spies, allowed that he felt less like a winner at a competition, and more like a “spokesman” for his craft.
All of which made this surprising, controversy-laden 88th Oscars a perfect capper for an award season that seemed to constantly upend expectations, right down to the final envelope.
But if diversity remains a thorny issue for the Academy – and certainly, winners backstage were constantly asked what they thought of host Chris Rock’s opening salvos on the controversy, with most saying they we’re glad of the humorous way he dove right into it – Innaritu wondered aloud if “the debate is not only about black and white people. That now it’s “Oscar so brown” or what? I think we are yellow and Native Americans and Latin Americans. So the complexity of the society of the world is much more than one or the other. I think it’s becoming a little bit polarized, very politicized, without observing the complexity of how this country is so mixed, as my country is mixed, but this is a multi-mixed country. That is the real power of it.”
And certainly, with Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki winning an unprecedented third straight cinematography Oscar for The Revenant, as Inarritu took his second straight in the director’s chair, these immigrants, whose first language isn’t English, seem at home at the Academy, in spite of certain incendiary speeches on the campaign trail.
This year’s challenged Oscars managed some other stabs at diversity, as well. The big below-the-line winner this year was Mad Max: Fury Road, winning six awards – a record for an Australian film. And if you looked at who a lot of director George Miller’s department heads were, you’d have to agree with social commentator Susie Bright’s early award evening Tweet declaring “middle age women making everything happen apparently.”
Among them were the evening’s first craft winner, Jenny Beavan, for her costume work in Mad Max, in a category where four of the nominees were women. She talked about how “incredibly close” the crew had become, living for so many months in Namibia, where the film was shot, “particularly with (make-up winner) Lesley Vanderwalt because, she and I became very good friends. We actually lived on top of each other, but visually, that work between us had to be seamless because, in a way, we both closely created the characters who then went into Colin’s vehicles and Lisa’s set dressing.”
That would be set decorator Lisa Thompson, who also won for her work with production designer Colin Gibson, beating out a strong field that included The Martian and The Revenant.
But then the Max momentum continued when Margaret Sixel won for best editing, prevailing over the latest Star Wars, Revenant again and The Big Short.
When Sixel was asked about women working on action films, she said “you mean are women underrepresented? I guess that’s an understatement. I think there is some prejudice that women can’t cut action, but I’m hoping that will change with the Star Wars girls (fellow nominees Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey) and me… I think it’s already changing, don’t you? That’s my personal feeling. And you just watch. In the next ten years, I think the balance will come back in our favor, hopefully.”
And balance, or at least subtlety, was also touched on by another of the evening’s surprise winners, the visual effects team for the two-humans-and-a-robot chamber piece Ex Machina, which upended Mad Max, The Revenant’s renowned “bear work” and Star Wars, with the revival of the latter being shut out all night.
“I suppose, the thing that’s maybe different about Ex Machina is that it’s pretty rare in visual effects to be asked to do something subtle and delicate,” said VFX supervisor Andrew Whitehurst. “And that was the brief that (writer/director) Alex Garland gave us, and it was a complete pleasure to run with that. So maybe that was the thing that we had that was different. We were less rather than more.”
But they were more representative, in that the winning quartet also included Sara Bennett, who co-founded her own FX shop, Milk Visual Effects. Her confreres mentioned she was the first female nominee in the category in 23 years, and when she was asked about her own take on diversity in VFX, she said, “I’ve been doing it for 17 years. There are a lot of women, a lot of brilliant women doing what I do in our industry. It just so happens you get picked, and you’re nominated for an Oscar or a BAFTA, but there’s a lot of women doing it already. So we just need more.”
When asked about the bigger-budget projects they’d beaten out for the award, Whitehurst said “I don’t think any of us actually felt that there was an issue in looking at the budgets between the films, because looking at all of the nominees this year, they’re all such different movies. You’ve got sort of an existential western. You’ve got us. You’ve got that kind of pop art, feminist action road movie. It’s an amazing range of films this year, and I think to me that was the most exciting aspect of being one of the nominees – just looking at the range of different kinds of movies.”
Of course, the evening’s top prize went to a film that didn’t win a single below-the-line statue. After Inarritu’s director win seemed to indicate the Academy would follow the BAFTAs and Golden Globes and give The Revenant its own best picture award, presenter Morgan Freeman – with the slightest of bemused pauses as he read the envelope – announced that Spotlight had won.
And while the reporters backstage appreciated the fact that the producers of the film – about a group of intrepid Boston Globe reporters who broke the story of the Catholic Church’s covering for sexually abusive priests – went out of their way to laud journalists, it was a Washington Post reporter who said “now, I don’t want to bring you down, but this is a very rare best picture that has won only two awards.”
Indeed, the only other one of the evening was for best original screenplay, by writer/director Tom McCarthy and his collaborator Josh Singer. One of the producers, Blye Pagon Faust, said she thought that was a “huge testament to the Academy, its members recognizing the import of our film, the impact that it’s having and continuing to have. And I think that that speaks volumes to this filmmaking community and to the power of film.”
Which touched on something else Inarritu said earlier, about “knowing there is another story that can teach us a lot. Storytelling is, I think, oxygen for life that protects us.”
And while the Academy honored a wider-than-expected array of stories, out of their particular nominees, and the crafts that went into them, on Oscar night, it is hoped that an ever widening range of filmmakers will be able to breathe in that oxygen.
The winners of the 88th Academy Awards are:
Performance by an actor in a leading role
Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant
Performance by an actor in a supporting role
Mark Rylance in Bridge of Spies
Performance by an actress in a leading role
Brie Larson in Room
Performance by an actress in a supporting role
Alicia Vikander in The Danish Girl
Best animated feature film of the year
Inside Out – Pete Docter and Jonas Rivera
Achievement in cinematography
The Revenant – Emmanuel Lubezki
Achievement in costume design
Mad Max: Fury Road – Jenny Beavan
Achievement in directing
The Revenant – Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Best documentary feature
Amy – Asif Kapadia and James Gay-Rees
Best documentary short subject
A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness – Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy
Achievement in film editing
Mad Max: Fury Road – Margaret Sixel
Best foreign language film of the year
Son of Saul – Hungary
Achievement in makeup and hairstyling
Mad Max: Fury Road – Lesley Vanderwalt, Elka Wardega and Damian Martin
Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original score)
The Hateful Eight – Ennio Morricone
Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original song)
“Writing’s On The Wall” from Spectre
Music and Lyric by Jimmy Napes and Sam Smith
Best motion picture of the year
Spotlight – Michael Sugar, Steve Golin, Nicole Rocklin and Blye Pagon Faust, Producers
Achievement in production design
Mad Max: Fury Road – Production Design: Colin Gibson; Set Decoration: Lisa Thompson
Best animated short film
Bear Story – Gabriel Osorio and Pato Escala
Best live action short film
Stutterer – Benjamin Cleary and Serena Armitage
Achievement in sound editing
Mad Max: Fury Road – Mark Mangini and David White
Achievement in sound mixing
Mad Max: Fury Road – Chris Jenkins, Gregg Rudloff and Ben Osmo
Achievement in visual effects
Ex Machina – Andrew Whitehurst, Paul Norris, Mark Ardington and Sara Bennett
The Big Short – Screenplay by Charles Randolph and Adam McKay
Spotlight – Written by Josh Singer & Tom McCarthy