Spotlight, Tom McCarthy’s real-life drama about a team of Boston Globe journalists who expose a ring of paedophile priests, pulled a final reel surprise at the Academy Awards on Sunday night. The film, whose ensemble includes Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton and Rachel McAdams, snatched best picture from rival contenders The Revenant and Mad Max: Fury Road in the final minutes of the show.
The film had only taken one award – for best original screenplay – in the ceremony until that point, and momentum appeared to be with The Revenant, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s epic western, which had taken best director, actor and cinematography.
2016 Oscars: Spotlight, Iñárritu, DiCaprio and Larson take top awards – as it happened
Chris Rock skewered Hollywood’s race problem. Mad Max: Fury Road monstered the technical prizes. Sam Smith and Ennio Morricone made sweet music. There were supporting gongs for Mark
Morgan Freeman announced the winner to gasps from the audience at the Dolby theatre, after which the cast and crew skipped, amazed, on stage. Accepting the award, producer Michael Sugar said he hoped the film’s message – that institutional silence over child abuse was not to be tolerated – would “resonate all the way to the Vatican”.
He continued with a direct call to the pontiff. “Pope Francis: it’s time to protect the children and restore the faith.”
It was the final call to arms in a ceremony dominated by controversy. In his speech accepting his first ever best actor award, DiCaprio said he hoped audiences would heed what The Revenant said about “man’s relationship with the natural world”.
“Climate change is real,” he said. “It is happening right now. It is the most urgent threat affecting our species. We need to work together and stop procrastinating.”
DiCaprio concluded by urging support for those people whose “voices have been drowned out by the politics of greed”. “Let us not taken this planet for granted,” he said. “I do not take tonight for granted.”
Iñárritu was named best director for the second consecutive year, following his success with Birdman in 2015, and used his speech to reference the race debate that has dominated this year’s awards season, calling it a “great opportunity for our generation to liberate ourselves from prejudice and make sure the colour of your skin is as irrelevant as the colour of your hair.”
But the real success story of the night was the storming performance of George Miller’s belated instalment in the Mad Max franchise, Fury Road, in which Tom Hardy took over from Mel Gibson and starred alongside a shaven-headed, one-armed Charlize Theron.
The movie ran away with the technical categories, taking six awards – three more than any other film – for costume design, production design, hair and makeup, editing, sound editing and sound mixing. The costume award was won by Jenny Beavan – the woman described as a “bag lady” by host Stephen Fry at the Baftas a fortnight ago.
In her speech, Beavan cautioned that the post-apocalyptic wasteland depicted in the film could become reality “if we don’t stop polluting our atmosphere. It could happen”.
The best actress award was won by frontrunner Brie Larson, for her role as a kidnapped mother in Room. But there were further surprises in the supporting categories as Bridge of Spies’ Mark Rylance triumphed over Sylvester Stallone and The Danish Girl’s Alicia Vikander beat Kate Winslet (who had taken the Bafta and Golden Globe in the same category).
The show opened with host Chris Rock engaging head-on with the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, sparked by the lack of acting nominees of colour. Yet rather than overshadowing the event, the controversy was co-opted by Rock, with almost all his monologue and most of his between-awards patter dominated by talk of diversity.
Rock set the tone of the evening by declaring: “You’re damn right, Hollywood’s racist”. But he also poked fun at those who had said they would not attend the event in protest, calling the boycott of Jada Pinkett Smith “like me boycotting Rihanna’s panties: I wasn’t invited”.
He also sought to put the injustice in context, saying that, in the past, “black people had real things to protest”. “We were too busy being raped and lynched to care about who won best cinematographer.”
Sacha Baron Cohen resurrected his character Ali G for the occasion, declaring that he was “representing all those who have been overlooked: Will Smith, Idris Elbow and, of course, the amazing black bloke from Star Wars … Darth Vader”.
Outside the theatre, the night passed with less incident than many anticipated: a small protest headed by Reverend Al Sharpton gathered outside the Dolby theatre, but for the most part, boycotters made their presence felt by their absence. High-profile black film-makers such as Selma director Ava DuVernay and Creed director Ryan Coogler chose instead to attend a fundraiser in Flint, Michigan.
Going into the competition, The Revenant and Mad Max were the frontrunners with 12 and 10 nominations apiece; in third was The Martian, with seven. That film ended the evening empty handed, as did Carol, Brooklyn and Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
It was a good night for British talent; alongside wins for Rylance and Beavan, Asif Kapadia took the best documentary award for his film about the late singer Amy Winehouse, while Sam Smith won best song for Writing’s On the Wall from the James Bond film Spectre.
Referencing an interview Ian McKellen had given to the Guardian about the lack of openly gay men who had won an Oscar, Sam Smith dedicated the award to the LGBT community.
VFX artist Andrew Whitehurst collected the best visual effects award for his and his team’s work on Ex Machina, and the London-set Stutterer took best live action short.
Thirty-nine-year old first time director László Nemes won the foreign language film award for Son of Saul, his ethically and technically ambitious film about a Jewish prisoner forced to work in the gas chambers at Auschwitz. “Even in the darkest hours of mankind, there might be a voice within that allows us to remain human,” he said. “That’s the hope of this film.”
In the end, however, DiCaprio’s much-anticipated best actor win will remain the big story of the 2016 Oscars, with a surge in appreciation in social media and online.