The 2015 Academy Awards put the “guilt” back in guilty pleasure. If Chris Rock didn’t make you feel ashamed for watching a broadcast (and supporting an industry) which actively promotes discrimination and racism, then Lady Gaga made you feel bad for turning a blind eye to the epidemic of rape on college campuses. If Leo didn’t make you feel bad for polluting our planet, then Sam Smith made you feel bad for following a ceremony that had never previously awarded an openly gay recipient (never mind the historical accuracy of that claim).
Then there were the moments when you really should have felt bad: Alexandro G. Inarritu, the first director to win back-to-back Oscars since the Truman Administration, giving what was clearly the night’s most impassioned and sincere speech, void of any vanity or insincerity . . . only to be abruptly cut off by Wagner’s “March of the Valkyries” (Wagner, Max!). By contrast, Lady Gaga got a warm introduction from her “friend” Vice-President Biden, and five minutes for a song that didn’t even win. Does anyone even remember the name of the film her song was from? But I suppose it could be worse; you could have been one of the two Song nominees (“Manta Ray” or “Simple Song #3”) that wasn’t even invited to perform onstage. It felt reminiscent of Rock’s witty joke about sorority racism – “we like you, but not that much.”
And then there’s the moment that everyone is (or should be) talking about: Stacey Dash. If you had Stacey Dash on your betting slip for person most likely to be talked about after the Oscars, congratulations and I would like to borrow some of your millions. In keeping with the passive aggressive spirit of this year’s awards, many have said that if you didn’t understand the Stacey Dash joke, it’s because you’re an ignorant opponent of #BlackLivesMatter. My response is that I didn’t understand the joke because Stacey Dash actually is an ignorant opponent of #BlackLivesMatter. In theory, it may be funny to suggest that she could serve as a director of minority outreach – but when Dash actually strutted on stage and gave a diabolical laugh like Elle Driver in Kill Bill, the joke became uncomfortable confusion. Was she satirizing herself? Was she in on the joke, making the audience feel like dupes? At a time which Donald Trump’s parody of himself is one of the two people that will be elected President, uncomfortable self-reflexive meta humor has become the norm.
Finally, there was the thing that no one really talked or cared about: the movies themselves, crudely disregarded by the Compton audiences polled on the street by Chris Rock in a sketch which somehow managed to feel mean-spirited toward both black lives as well as the nominated films. Mad Max set some kind of record by winning six Oscars in the first 75 minutes of the broadcast, while the colorful acceptance speeches went a long way in further cementing the unlikely diplomatic ties between Australia and Namibia. Then, a series of surprising upsets woke up the few audience members who actually cared about the identities of the recipients: First, the Mad Max: Fury Road train was abruptly halted when Ex Machina upset it in the category of Visual Effects (eliminating the chance of anyone filling out a perfect Oscar ballot). Then, Oscar voters decided that Creed wasn’t a serious enough film and gave Best Supporting Actor to Mark Rylance as the avuncular, friendly, cute old Soviet spy onscreen for ten minutes in Bridge of Spies. Finally, Lady Gaga didn’t get another platform to talk for five minutes about giving consent when the unmemorable song from Spectre upset it.
The rest of the night followed in predictable fashion: Inarritu’s small fraction of a speech, Brie Larson, Leo, and Morgan Freeman announcing that The Revenant had taken Best Picture. Just like we all thought it would. Except, OH WAIT. Out of nowhere, Spotlight – a film which had only won one prior award, a film with no special effects, historical backdrop or over-the-top acting, a film grossing under $40 million and produced by Open Road – was the name read by a stunned Freeman. Huh? Going into the night, Spotlight certainly had a shot of winning Best Picture . . . but The Big Short was the film fresh off key wins in award season, Mad Max was the film that was dominating the evening, and The Revenant was the heavy overall favorite.
Needless to say, I, along with everyone else (except Terry), was in complete shock. Nothing in the evening had prepared anyone for Spotlight taking the top prize; Mark Ruffalo had lost to Mark Rylance, Rachel McAdams had lost to Alicia Vikander-Saltz, Tom McCarthy had lost to Inarritu, and Spotlight failed to pick up Best Editing (which in the last few decades has become a key predictor of Best Picture). I believe that Spotlight was the right choice, although Mad Max and The Revenant were excellent films in their own right. But it didn’t win the Golden Globe, the Director’s Guild, the Producer’s Guild, or the BAFTA.
The only question left to ask: How shocking was Spotlight’s win? I’ve been watching the Oscars the last two decades and have seen plenty of upsets. So let’s break down Spotlight’s Best Picture win in the context of the biggest Oscar upsets of the last 25 years:
10. 1999 Best Actress: Hilary Swank over Annette Bening
Perhaps it’s not as shocking in retrospect, but it’s worth remembering that American Beauty was the overwhelming favorite in 1999 and for the most part, it absolutely delivered on awards night. Bening was a high-profile actress who, by all accounts, did the best work of her career. Swank was an unknown whose film (Boys Don’t Cry) was made for $2 million and almost wasn’t released. Furthermore, while American Beauty was an uplifting, polished and constantly witty throughout, Boys Don’t Cry was a stark, depressing true story set in a Nebraska trailer park and released in a time when honest depictions of LGBT issues were taboo. Most critics knew that Swank was the more deserving choice, but they had said the same thing about Emily Watson in 1996, Linda Fiorentino in 1994, and Ellen Burstyn the next year in 2000. In other words, the critic’s favorite is usually not the winner at the Oscars. But Swank’s win was a rare bucking in the trend.
9. 2006 Best Foreign Film: The Lives of Others over Pan’s Labyrinth
Foreign Film isn’t exactly the sexiest of categories, and is in fact often really difficult to predict, but Pan’s Labyrinth appeared to be the clear favorite in 2006. It was made by a director who was well-known in the United States (Guillermo Del Toro); it had already won three awards for the evening, and was even nominated for its screenplay; it was a huge hit with critics (see this if you don’t believe me) and fans loved its mixture of lowbrow fantasy and highbrow historical and cultural memory. If it had a “lock” on any category, it was Best Foreign Language Film; but out of nowhere, it was upset by The Lives of Others, a little-known film not yet released in America. Furthermore, it was a German historical drama that wasn’t about the Holocaust. I mean, look at Cate Blanchett’s reaction when she reads the envelope – it is total and complete shock. Today, the award makes a little more sense; The Lives of Others turned out to be just as great as Pan’s Labyrinth. For those who really pay attention to the Oscars, this upset should perhaps rank higher, but again, Foreign Film is a relatively obscure category where upsets aren’t too uncommon or significant.
8. 2002 Best Actor and Director: Adrien Brody over Daniel Day-Lewis, Nicolas Cage, Jack Nicholson, and Michael Caine; Roman Polanski over Rob Marshall.
Yes, I’m cheating a little here but very few people predicted The Pianist to perform as well as it did in the major awards. Best Actor was wide open, with Day-Lewis as perhaps the slight favorite (in Gangs of New York), so perhaps Brody winning was not so much of an upset as much as it was a surprise that he beat the other four actors, each of whom was a towering previous winner. Polanski was a major shock. It’s important to remember that Chicago was a Miramax-backed spectacle in an era right after Moulin Rouge when musicals were hot again. It was nominated for 13 Oscars. The Pianist was financed in Europe, featured an unknown lead actor, and was released in the United States the last week of December. The only reason it wasn’t a bigger shock? Polanski was long overdue for an Oscar (with his scandalous past a distant memory for many voters) and most everyone knew that The Pianist was a better film than Chicago. But ultimately, the voters chose to award style over substance.
7. 2001 Best Actor: Denzel Washington over Russell Crowe
A little like Annette Bening losing to Hilary Swank, except Crowe seemed like even more of a shoo-in than Bening. Coming off a rather undeserving victory the year before for Gladiator, winning Best Actor for the second consecutive year would cement his legacy as the best performer working in Hollywood. Furthermore, his performance in A Beautiful Mind was spellbinding; he’s in 95% of the movie and is unquestionably the biggest reason why the film ultimately won Best Picture. But an ugly little thing called “Oscar politics” began to sneak into the race in January 2002; Crowe received negative publicity for his gruff attitude and unfriendly family image. It didn’t help that A Beautiful Mind got some backlash for deceptively cleaning up the life of an adulterer and communist sympathizer. Enter the all-American Denzel Washington, whose performance in Training Day gave no bones about him being a villain. Training Day had just enough 30-second clips of Washington screaming to satisfy Oscar voters and in a stunning and unjust upset, one of the best performances of the decade was denied an Oscar victory. And nothing against Washington, who is of course a great actor, but Training Day set the benchmark for better performances of his after 2001.
6. 1993 Best Supporting Actress: Anna Paquin over Rosie Perez and Winona Rider
Like 2002 Best Actor, this race was as wide open as any in Oscar history. Perez and Rider were mostly the favorites, since they were well-known young actresses who were on the brink of major stardom. Both Fearless and The Age of Innocence were high-profile, well-reviewed films. The Piano had received more nominations than either film, but Paquin was an unknown first-time performer from New Zealand and was only 11 years old. Her win is generally considered one of the most shocking in Oscar history, but it’s worth remembering that The Piano performed very well at the 1993 Oscars (with additional wins for Best Actress and Original Screenplay). Additionally, Paquin had more screen time in The Piano than anyone else in both her film and her category, and although Supporting Actress was wide open in 1993, none of the performances were that memorable except Paquin’s. It’s always shocking when the Academy honors someone that young, but in this circumstance, the stars aligned perfectly to enable one of the more memorable and entertaining of recent Oscar upsets.
5. 1996 Best Supporting Actress: Juliette Binoche over Lauren Bacall.
This is the first thing that pops in many people’s minds when the words “Oscar upset” are uttered. Let’s run down a few reasons why it wasn’t really all that shocking, albeit with the luxury of hindsight. First, Binoche’s film (The English Patient) was the overwhelming favorite at the 1996 Oscars, and ended the evening with nine wins. It was a historical drama based on a best-selling book that had been praised by critics and audiences all around the world. Bacall’s film (The Mirror Has Two Faces) was a minor romantic comedy (minor even by Barbra Streisand’s standards) which got mixed responses from critics and received only one other nomination, for Best Song. Binoche’s role was a pivotal one in the story, while Bacall’s role was mostly for the purposes of bitchy one-liners and perfectly-timed comebacks. The English Patient was produced by the Weinsteins, while Barbra Streisand’s films had always been well-documented for their repeated failure to receive considerable Academy Award attention (justified or not). Still, it seemed apparent to everyone in the room that night that Bacall would win what was generally tantamount to a lifetime achievement award; instead, the Academy honored Binoche, a well-known actress in the European art house circuit and someone who wasn’t exactly tough to stare at either.
4. 2006 Best Supporting Actor: Alan Arkin over Eddie Murphy
This was a shocker. Dreamgirls was Eddie Murphy’s triumphant comeback, a perfect blend of comedic timing and powerful onscreen presence. The film was well-received (although not overwhelmingly so), but perhaps even more importantly, it was heralded as a breakthrough – the first film to receive considerable award attention with an all-black cast. It was also a musical made in the heyday of the Moulin Rouge/Chicago musical resurgence. It was shocking when Dreamgirls didn’t receive a Best Picture nomination, but the prevailing logic was that acting awards for Murphy and Jennifer Hudson – each of who won practically everything during award season – would compensate. Instead, Hudson won while Murphy lost to Arkin’s rather vulgar and embarrassing turn as the dirty grandpa in Little Miss Sunshine. Maybe Oscar voters didn’t like that the February 2007 ceremony coincided with the theatrical release of Murphy’s follow-up to Dreamgirls, the abominable Norbit. Maybe the writing was on the wall for Dreamgirls when it failed to secure a Best Picture nomination. Maybe they just liked the sight of Arkin swearing. Whatever the case, this was an inexplicable and surprising outcome.
3. 2005 Best Picture: Crash over Brokeback Mountain
The 2005 Academy Awards ended like the infamous Seahawks-Packers “Fail Mary” game: It was extremely controversial and everyone had an opinion about it, one way or another. Looking back on it today, the consensus is that it was a poor decision by the Academy – Crash is remembered as a TV-like diatribe on race relations, with poorly-developed characters getting involved in obvious situations resolved by an overly simplistic liberal message. Meanwhile, Brokeback is revered as the great love story of this generation, with the second-best performance from the most tragic actor of this generation (Heath Ledger). Not awarding it Best Picture was just another example of homophobia destroying what is pure and true in the world. The reality, however, is different and somewhere in the middle. Both are good films, with Crash slightly underrated and Brokeback slightly overrated as a result of the Academy’s vote. It was genuinely surprising – especially considering that Crash was a low-budget film with no A-list talent that had been released in March and had received virtually no prior awards – but critics like Roger Ebert championed it, and the film had momentum heading into the night. There was no single dominant film that year (Crash and Brokeback won three Oscars each, tied for the most). But judging by Jack Nicholson’s timeless expression, a win for Crash was unexpected to say the least.
2. 1998 Best Actor: Roberto Benigni over Tom Hanks, Edward Norton, Ian McKellan, and Nick Nolte.
Here’s the category everyone forgets. Even when people remember the 1998 Oscars, they tend to only remember one thing – Shakespeare in Love upsetting Saving Private Ryan. I didn’t even include that on this list because (A) Shakespeare in Love was backed by Miramax, (B) It had more nominations and wins than Saving Private Ryan, and (C) Saving Private Ryan was released in July while Shakespeare was released in December. No, the great surprise of 1998 was Roberto Benigni beating the likes of Tom Hanks, Edward Norton, Ian McKellan, and Nick Nolte. It remains the only time a non-English-speaking role won Best Actor. So what happened? Nolte was overshadowed in his own film (Affliction) by James Coburn, who won Best Supporting Actor; McKellan’s film (Gods and Monsters) was too small; Norton’s film (American History X) was too violent and threatening for conservative Oscar voters; and Hanks was overshadowed by the visual effects spectacle of Private Ryan. In addition, there were a handful of Best Actor snubs, the most notable of which were Jim Carrey (The Truman Show), John Travolta (Primary Colors) and Warren Beatty (Bulworth). I suppose this meant that the race was up in the air, and even though Life is Beautiful was a hit with audiences and critics as well as a Best Picture nominee, Benigni’s performance was rarely mentioned. On top of that, Best Actor is typically the least conducive category to comedic roles. My theory about this race is that if today’s voters decided the outcome, Norton would be the winner. But at the time, American History X was considered too low-budget, too grisly, too in-your-face. Norton played a profoundly unlikeable character and the movie barely grossed $20 million. But both at the time, as well as in this very moment today, it has to be considered the most shocking upset in Oscar history, until . . .
1. 2015 Best Picture: Spotlight over The Revenant, Mad Max and The Big Short
Spotlight didn’t come out of the blue like Benigni, Paquin, or Arkin. In fact, it was the front-runner for Best Picture for at least a month or two and had all the chops to back it up: Great reviews, depicting not just one but two Important Topics (the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal as well as the collapse of investigative journalism), A-list cast, a shoo-in for Original Screenplay. But once the 2016 award circuit commenced, it was clear that Spotlight had serious shortcomings as a Best Picture contender. Tom McCarthy was not an A-list director (and he was coming off The Cobbler); it was a quiet, talky film with no explosions, sex scenes, or characters who scream (minus one oft-repeated award-bait moment); it was financed by a low-profile studio (Open Road) which couldn’t afford a major campaign blitz; and it became pretty clear that The Revenant and Mad Max would dominate most of awards. Both it and The Big Short were in a similar third-place position heading into last night – topical films with a few big stars that were talky and probably wouldn’t win much. Even with that said, The Big Short had Brad Pitt producing, portrayed a more recent Important Topic (the economic collapse), and won the most predictive of all pre-Oscar awards (the Producer’s Guild Award for Best Picture).
So why did Spotlight prevail? It may have to do with the relatively new balloting system installed by the Academy, a preferential system which benefits films with wide appeal over films which receive the most first-place ballots. In other words, a film like The Revenant may have garnered considerable first-place votes, but it may have also turned off voters who didn’t like the violence or the somewhat preachy and superficial message about colonialism and encounters between settlers and natives. Mad Max surely got many first-place votes, but perhaps also as many lower-place votes as a result of being a summer action movie which was (technically) a sequel. Both Spotlight and The Big Short had excellent reviews, and probably many 2nd and 3rd place votes.
But it still doesn’t answer the question of why it beat The Big Short. And did The Revenant truly contain more uncompromising or potentially divisive content than Inarritu’s previous film, the 2014 Best Picture winner Birdman? Furthermore, Spotlight was having a poor showing for almost the entire night; it’s a wonder that its producers and cast hadn’t bailed out and preemptively exited for the after-parties. Kenneth Turan wrote a good piece today which contends that of the three or four major Best Picture nominees, Spotlight was the most emotionally satisfying. The economy is still in recovery, indigenous people (and the earth’s temperature) are still suffering, and summer action movies still have no place winning Best Picture. But in Spotlight, Goliath (the Catholic church) was defeated by David (ragtag journalists) and at the end of the day, Academy voters prefer emotional uplift and a happy ending. And although I enjoyed Spotlight thoroughly and would have gladly awarded it my first place vote, the shocking conclusion of the 2015 Academy Awards may go down as less Frank Capra and more M. Night Shyamalan.
What were your thoughts? Were there any other moments or awards that deserve attention? Let me know below!