Oscars: Tightest Race in Years Had a Few Surprises in Store

'Spotlight' pulled it out, Leo got his Oscar, history was made and records were set.

Mark Rylance Brie Larson Leonardo DiCaprio
David Fisher/REX Shutterstock

I was asked at an after-party last night what my thought process was throughout the evening as the wins came down for the 88th Academy Awards. You know you have a close race when people are paying attention to the minutiae of what each announcement “means,” whether the signs were pointing to this or that, how the collective was speaking to the big win at the end of the night, etc.

In essence, I was having my view of the best picture race fortified all along. As “Mad Max: Fury Road” began to nab Oscar after Oscar, leaving “The Revenant” in its wake, it became clearer and clearer that Alejandro G. Inarritu’s film wasn’t taking best picture. But as such a divisive film, facing the math of the preferential ballot, that seemed obvious anyway — despite the fact that it was the favorite to win among the punditry. It was more likely that Producers Guild winner “The Big Short” (already the survivor of such a ballot) or early frontrunner “Spotlight” (the critics’ champ) would secure the proper mid-ballot support across the various rounds of voting to pull it off.

In the end, it was “Spotlight,” first proposed as a force on the circuit in this space as it bowed at the Venice Film Festival and segued to Telluride in September. It took a mighty stat down with it, too, becoming the first film in over 60 years to win best picture and only one other Oscar.

It was interesting seeing so many who either picked that or “The Big Short” to win clamor for another category to predict outside of screenplay (which both predictably won early on). “Spotlight” people were thinking surely Mark Ruffalo had to come along for the ride. “Big Short” guessers thought the film’s editing or Christian Bale must be recognized if it was set for best picture glory.

The fact is, particularly in a close race and with a preferential ballot keeping things interesting, this was bound to happen again. And it doesn’t speak to the victor’s weakness elsewhere on the ballot as much as it does a season that kept things spread pretty thin.

That said, “Fury Road’s” six-Oscar haul proved it to be a go-to choice throughout the craft categories, and really, can you blame the Academy? It was a below-the-line marvel, and “The Revenant” just didn’t have the gusto outside of cinematography to really compete.

The visual effects win for “Ex Machina” was the night’s one truly shocking moment, however. To begin with, it became the first non-best picture nominee in the category to win over a best picture nominee since “Tora! Tora! Tora!” toppled “Patton” 45 years ago. But most were predicting that to happen anyway, assuming BAFTA and Visual Effects Society winner “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” would waltz away with it. But no, it went to a film that didn’t even receive a single nomination from the VES this year (a first), an early-year indie release from a scrappy studio in the face of blockbusters and best picture contenders.

How did that happen? It had to be some collection of pooling passion (the film was certainly beloved, and this was one of only two places to support it) and, in the micro, political vote-splitting amid support for vfx houses like MPC and ILM diluting the ticket, allowing for the least likely of the group to emerge. (At something like 80-to-1 betting odds, kudos to anyone who put their money where their mouth was on that.) That plus awards for “Amy” (best documentary) and “Room” (best actress winner Brie Larson) made it a lovely night for A24. Each of the distributor’s films nabbed gold, and they can probably claim at least a fraction of “Ex Machina” star Alicia Vikander’s supporting actress win for “The Danish Girl.” That’s about as good as it gets if you’re in their shoes.

Sam Smith’s victory over Lady Gaga and ever-the-bridesmaid Diane Warren for best original song stood out as well. You have to remember that the ballot only mentions song and film title, not performer or songwriter. Unless voters felt like “Fifty Shades of Grey” needed to be an Oscar winner, “Spectre” was obviously the most recognizable title on the list. Call me crazy but sometimes I think it’s as simple as that. (Though someone really should have let Smith know along the way that gentlemen like Elton John, Bill Condon and Dustin Lance Black came before him.)

The one “surprise” in the acting ranks, if there was one, had to be Mark Rylance trumping Sylvester Stallone for supporting actor. A colleague and I were pondering what that might have meant for “Creed,” if many simply didn’t bother watching the film. But you can’t dismiss passion for “Bridge of Spies,” a film the Academy obviously loved, given its various nominations. This was the best place to show support, and Rylance was Stallone’s competition all along.

And finally, DiCaprio got his Oscar. I have mixed feelings because I think he’s a huge talent who probably should have received one by now (“The Departed” being, for me, the height of his abilities). “The Revenant,” however — for all that was made of a difficult production — never struck me as a showcase of his range. While his commitment to the role is beyond reproach, he has simply been better, in better. But there’s a long tradition of this kind of thing at the Oscars.

(By the way, anyone know what Emmanuel Lubezki’s rate is at this point? It must be sky high. The cinematographer won his third Oscar in a row for the film, after “Gravity” and “Birdman,” and that was a bit of added history as well; he now owns the record among d.p.s, one unlikely to be matched any time soon.)

As for the ceremony itself, it started strong and then began to deflate, honestly. It was nice that it was so geared toward the craft of filmmaking, even if the structure of the show ended up being a blatant rip-off of the Condon/Laurence Mark approach in 2009. Chris Rock’s opening monologue was fantastic, but as the night went on, rumors about behind-the-scenes difficulties putting together much of a show at all seemed to bear out. Stacey Dash? A “Jay-walking” bit in Compton (which wasn’t even really Compton)? Lots of filler oddities that could have left time for, I don’t know, performances of the two nixed original song nominees? Worse, while the diversity rhetoric started off strong, it devolved into racial reductionism, when the issue is much broader than that. Not to beat a dead horse, but for instance, one of the performers shut out of the show is transgender. Keeping the focus on black vs. white undercut the message somewhat, I felt. But in general, that was a tough position for Rock to be in and I thought he handled it masterfully.

But getting back to the results, the Monday after an Oscar ceremony is fascinating because hindsight is 20/20 and you can look at the results and attempt to conform them to whatever model of explanation you wish. The thing is, every year is different. If this is a whole other season with a whole other slew of contenders, maybe “Spotlight” doesn’t even get the nomination. Everything is contextualized in different ways, depending on the zeitgeist, the makeup of the nominations, etc. This was 2015.

And cheers to Open Road Films. Batting around the stats with a publicist last night, it seems — and correct me if I’m wrong — that it’s the first distributor to net a best picture Oscar in its first five years of existence. The curation of their output continues to give it, like A24, its own identity in the fray. Films like “The Grey” (my favorite of 2012), “Nightcrawler” (a fascinating journalistic foil to this year’s winner) and “Spotlight” cast a wide net, and with a best picture Oscar in tow, not only will CEO Tom Ortenberg avoid any awkwardness about spending for the win on Thursday’s conference call with the board, but his company will attract more talent, more projects and hopefully continue to compete in the independent film space, one that needs to thrive now more than ever.

I’ll close by recalling the highlight of the night for me: Ennio Morricone’s best original score victory for “The Hateful Eight.” To say nothing of the fact that it was one of my favorite films, with my favorite score of the year, it was also hugely sentimental. I’m a guy who grew up watching “Once Upon a Time in the West” with my father. It was a seminal film experience for me, in fact, and there’s a special place in my soul for that harmonica. Morricone’s work has reverberated for me, and I’m sure countless others, for decades. It was high time he won a competitive Academy Award to match the honorary Oscar he received nine years ago. Seeing him and John Williams embrace before the maestro took to the stage, two lions in the twilight of their careers — forgive the phrase, but all the feels.