While the 88th Academy Awards had some surprises, the acting awards were not among them and I correctly predicted all four winners. I am yet to see The Danish Girl but hope that Alicia Vikander will avoid the curse of the Best Supporting Actress award and build on her great success of last year. Her Oscar for The Danish Girl culminates her achievements in Testament of Youth, Ex Machina and The Man From U.N.C.L.E., fulfilling the potential of earlier work such as A Royal Affair. Roll on The Light Between Oceans!
Mark Rylance received his award for Best Supporting Actor in Bridge of Spies graciously and generously, especially when he described himself as a spokesman for the nominated actors rather than a victor over them. Brie Larson surprised no one with her Best Actress win, that I consider richly deserved as her performance in Room was utterly captivating. Oh yes, and we can FINALLY say Academy Award Winner Leonardo DiCaprio! While DiCaprio doubtless has many roles ahead of him, it will be interesting to see if he takes easier roles in the future or if he continues to explore strange and interesting parts like that that in The Revenant. I suspect and hope the latter.
In his acceptance speech, DiCaprio spoke eloquently about the destructive attitudes that The Revenant highlights, and emphasised the need to work together against climate change and the politics of greed. He was far from the only political speaker at the ceremony, as various presenters and winners took advantage of the grand stage to urge for political action. Best Director Alejando G. Iñárritu urged for greater respect and recognition for people of all races and ethnicities, while various presenters took shots at the policies of Donald Trump.
After the controversy around diversity in the acting categories, Chris Rock made a serendipitous host. As a black comedian who frequently comments upon race, Rock took full advantage of the opportunity afforded him. His opening monologue exploited his own persona beautifully, and Rock’s jokes about diversity continued throughout the show, possibly to the extent of tedium, but overall he was funny and critical without being mean-spirited or facetious. Rock’s focus upon diversity, which other presenters and winners picked up on as well, hopefully demonstrates a desire to address this problem. But as Rock pointed out, the problem is far wider than the Oscars or the Academy, and Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs’ speech about AMPAS’ programme to improve diversity and support filmmakers of all races and ethnicities suggests genuine action to effect change. But don’t expect multiple people of colour to be nominated next year – change tends to be gradual.
Two other moments were particularly affecting. The first was the winner of the Documentary Short, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy for A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness. Obaid-Chinoy’s speech about the need for and potential to battle inequality was both a sober reminder of this social problem and an inspiring message about the power of film. And in the most startlingly political moment of the night, US Vice-President Joe Biden spoke about sexual assault on university campuses across America, urging Academy members and viewers alike to join the movement against this problem. Biden then introduced Lady Gaga who sang the nominated song ‘Til It Happens To You’ from the documentary The Hunting Ground. Gaga’s performance, combined with the appearance of multiple survivors of sexual assault, was the most moving moment of the night for me. ‘Til It Happens To You’ would have made a fine winner of Original Song, but regardless, it was a magnificent performance.
Back when the nominations were announced, I commented that several of the Best Picture nominees were inward looking and critical, including The Big Short and the eventual winner, Spotlight. For the Academy to reward Spotlight in this way, as well as other films like A Girl in the River, and to have allowed multiple political statements which were not cut off by music (such as DiCaprio and Iñárritu), suggests the Academy’s awareness of film’s potential impact. AMPAS’ response to the diversity controversy, the rewarding of politically charged films and the sensitivity shown towards calls for progressive change was, for me at least, a hopeful and positive sign.