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Oscars' top scenes: Rock tackles race, Leo finally wins

Adam Graham
The Detroit News
Actor Chris Rock presents on stage at the 88th Oscars on Sunday in Hollywood, California.

“Spotlight” won Best Picture and Leonardo DiCaprio finally got his gold statue, but Sunday’s Oscars were dominated by discussion of diversity and inclusion, not awards.

The “Oscars so white” controversy that controlled the conversation leading up the awards became the overriding theme of the night, not only during host Chris Rock’s stinging opening monologue, but throughout the three-and-a-half-plus hour show.

Here are the top takeaways from the 2016 Academy Awards, the most racially conscious Oscar night in history.

Diversity rules: Chris Rock, who took the stage to the sounds of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” wasted no time addressing the elephant in the room. “I’m here at the Academy Awards, otherwise known as the White People’s Choice Awards,” he said at the top of the show, tearing right into the lack of racial diversity among the evening’s acting nominees. “You realize if they nominated hosts, I wouldn’t even get this job? Y’all would be watching Neil Patrick Harris right now.”

Rock went on to discuss the proposed boycott of the show, Hollywood’s racism (“Hollywood is sorority racist. It’s like, ‘We like you Rhonda, but you’re not a Kappa’”), and why the issue was being raised this year of all years (“because we had real things to protest at the time, you know?” he said, about why the same issues weren’t addressed in, say, the 1960s).

But Rock was far from the only person to discuss matters of race and inclusion during the show. Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs said it was the responsibility of everyone in the room to help effect change “to accurately reflect the world of today. It’s not enough to just listen and agree. We must take action,” she said.

Kevin Hart took time to applaud all the actors of color who were not nominated and told them to look to the future. “These problems of today will eventually become problems of the old. Let’s not let this negative issue of diversity beat us,” the actor and comedian said. “Let’s continue to do what we do best and work hard.”

And director Alejandro G. Iñárritu, winning the Best Director trophy for “The Revenant,” said during his acceptance speech it was “a great opportunity to our generation to really liberate ourselves from all prejudice and this tribe of thinking and make sure, for once and forever, that the color of our skin becomes as irrelevant as the length of our hair.”

The night turned into a symposium on race with some awards thrown in the mix, the point being heard loud and clear. Next year’s Oscars will likely look much different, and Sunday just may have been the turning point that ignites the change.

Rock rocks: Beyond his opening monologue, Rock kept the racial discussion alive all night, both in short asides (“and we’re black!” he said at one point, coming out of a commercial), and in pre-taped sketches (one segment imagined Whoopi Goldberg in “Joy,” Tracy Morgan as “The Danish Girl” and Rock himself as the stranded astronaut in “The Martian,” while in another he discussed the year’s nominated films with moviegoers at a theater in Compton). But race wasn’t the only thing on his mind. In a bit that rivaled Ellen DeGeneres’ pizza ordering in 2014, Rock brought out Girl Scouts to sell cookies to the audience to help raise money for his daughter’s troop (and raised, according to him, more than $65,000).

Rock had a high pressure job and a lot of responsibility to deliver, and he did an expert job, both highlighting the racial controversy and putting it into a larger context. He roasted the room but didn’t burn any bridges, pointing out the importance of diversity in Hollywood while not making it a life or death issue. “Everything’s not sexism, everything’s not racism,” he said, addressing our current culture’s obsession with being offended.

He also took shots at Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, two performers who skipped the ceremony over the racial issue. “Jada boycotting the Oscars is like me boycotting Rihanna’s panties,” he said. “I wasn’t invited.”

His only moment that didn’t play out well was an awkward segment when he brought out “Clueless” actress and conservative pundit Stacey Dash as “the new director of our minority outreach program.” The bit fell flat, and was a rare misread of the audience by Rock. But he was otherwise spot-on.

‘Spotlight’ shines: The newsroom procedural “Spotlight” won the evening’s Best Picture award in a slight upset over presumed favorite “The Revenant.” (It also won the Best Original Screenplay award, its two wins opening and closing the Oscar show.) In his speech, producer Michael Sugar spoke of the victims of molestation at the hands of the Catholic priests exposed in the film, which follows a series of reports from the Boston Globe’s investigative team in the early 2000s. “This film gave a voice to survivors, and this Oscar amplifies that voice which we hope will become a choir that will resonate all the way to the Vatican,” Sugar said.

“Spotlight’s” Best Picture victory put it in rare company; to find another Best Picture winner that only won in one other category, you have to go all the way back to 1952’s “The Greatest Show on Earth” — which, coincidentally, is probably what the real life Boston Globe reporters felt like they were watching during Sunday’s win.

Leo triumphs: Heading into Sunday’s show, no one exactly felt bad for Leonardo DiCaprio, who is one of the most respected and popular actors alive. But it still felt good to see him finally get his Oscar, after striking out in his four previous acting nominations, dating back to 1994’s “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.” The pesky orchestra was quick to play off winners throughout the night, but they dared not interrupt Leo’s speech, as he gave an impassioned plea about the importance of recognizing climate change, which has long been his cause of choice. “Climate change is real, it is happening right now,” DiCaprio said. “Let us not take this planet for granted, I do not take tonight for granted.” And after what he went through in “The Revenant” to win that Academy Award, not to mention everything that came before, there’s no reason to doubt him.

‘Mad Max’ stacks wins: Early in the show, “Mad Max: Fury Road” won a small stack of technical awards, racking up wins for Best Film Editing, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing. It dropped the big categories, Best Picture and Best Director (for madman visual stylist George Miller and his uncompromised vision), but it still wound up the evening’s most awarded film with six wins.

Iñárritu doubles down: “The Revenant” director Alejandro G. Iñárritu, who won last year’s Best Director trophy for “Birdman,” took home Best Director yet again, becoming the first director in 65 years to win the award in back-to-back years. (The last to do it was Joseph Mankiewicz in 1949 and 1950, and John Ford before him in 1940 and 1941.) Along with Alfonso Cuarón, who won two years ago for “Gravity,” the award has gone to Mexican directors for three years in a row. Neither of them currently have films on tap for this year, so next year someone else may get a turn at the podium.

Larson, Vikander score: Brie Larson (for “Room”) and Alicia Vikander (for “The Danish Girl”) took home Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively. The two actresses had breakthrough years in 2015 and have bright futures ahead of them, even if their films were little-seen (“Room” has grossed just $13.5 million, while “The Danish Girl” has grossed $11 million). First up, 26-year-old Larson and 27-year-old Vikander will appear in a pair of blockbusters: Larson is currently filming the “King Kong” sequel “Kong: Skull Island” and Vikander recently wrapped the upcoming “Jason Bourne.” Expect to be hearing plenty more from these two in coming years. Vikander, who wasn’t even speaking English in movies until a few years ago, thanked her parents during her acceptance speech. “Thank you for giving me the belief that anything can happen,” she said, “even though I would never believe this.”

Gaga stuns: The telecast’s most emotional moment came from Lady Gaga, who has been everywhere this month: She floored the Super Bowl by belting out the National Anthem, then whiffed at the Grammys with an overly busy tribute to David Bowie. But Sunday she knocked the socks off Oscar viewers by performing a heart-wrenching rendition of her song “Til It Happens to You,” from the campus rape documentary “The Hunting Ground.” Gaga, dressed all in white (and introduced to the stage by Vice President Joe Biden, no less), sat alone at her piano and pounded out the song, and was joined at the close by sexual assault victims who stood together on stage with messages of hope scrawled on their arms. It was an effective, powerful moment, and it seemed like Gaga had the Oscar in the bag — until the envelope was opened, and Sam Smith won for his forgettable James Bond theme “Writing’s on the Wall,” from “Spectre.” (It was the second James Bond theme in a row to win the category, following Adele’s win for “Skyfall” in 2013; prior to that, no Bond theme had ever won an Oscar.)

In his speech, Smith dedicated his award to “the LBGT community all around the world,” and said, “I stand here tonight as a proud gay man and I hope we can all stand together as equals one day.” He also speculated that he was the first openly gay artist to win an Oscar, but Elton John (who won Best Original Song for “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” in 1995) and Dustin Lance Black (who won Best Original Screenplay in 2009 for “Milk”) beat him to the punch. Oh well, his point was made, and not even Rock was willing to undercut his moment. “Congratulations! No jokes there,” Rock said. “Not gonna get me in trouble.”

Rylance shocks: Sylvester Stallone had fought his way through awards season and was considered a heavy favorite to win Best Supporting Actor for his return as Rocky Balboa in “Creed.” But all those years of awful action films seemed to catch up to him, as Mark Rylance, in the night’s biggest shocker, took the prize for his role in “Bridge of Spies.” Rylance, a stage veteran and multiple Tony winner, took his time at the microphone to compliment “Spies” director Steven Spielberg, while also taking a swipe at, who knows, Donald Trump? “Unlike some of the leaders we’re being presented with these days, (Spielberg) leads with such love,” Rylance said. Stallone, meanwhile, was likely going through his head to figure out any other roles he can return to and possibly scare up an Oscar. “Cobra 2,” anyone?

McKay gets gold: Adam McKay, the guy who directed “Anchorman” and who co-founded Funny or Die with Will Ferrell, is now an Oscar winner. He won Best Adapted Screenplay for “The Big Short,” his scathing recession dramedy that he co-authored with Charles Randolph and based off of Michael Lewis’ book. McKay took his chance at the podium to swipe at the banks who were at the heart of the 2008 financial collapse. “If you don’t want big money to control government, don’t vote for candidates that take money from big banks, oil, or weirdo billionaires,” he said. “Stop!” “The Big Short” was up for three other awards but was blanked in its other categories.

A long night: Overall, it was a long, drawn out ceremony that clocked in past the three-and-a-half hour mark; by the time Rock closed the show by shouting out “Black lives matter!” while Kool & the Gang’s “Hollywood Swinging” was cued up in the theater, it was past midnight. Part of the problem is the show didn’t start until 8:30 p.m.; ABC’s red carpet coverage was a full 90 minutes, when 60 would have been more than merciful. The pacing of the show dragged, even as there were less montages in years past, but there seemed to be almost no time for the winners to accept their awards, with most of their “thank yous” scrolling by in a crawl at the bottom of the screen while they made their way to the stage.

But if there’s a bright spot for the Oscars, it seems like a change is in the air. The awards are in transition, and it looks like the old way of doing things is quickly becoming a thing of the past. Here’s to the future.

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama