'Spotlight' win at Oscars is rare double play
Morgan Freeman's anouncement Sunday - nearly Monday - that Spotlight won the best picture Academy Award sent Oscar buffs scrambling.
First to bed, since again the Oscars ran far too long. Later to the record books, wondering how many times in Academy Awards history a movie has won so much, yet so little.
Spotlight had a nearly parenthetical night at the Oscars, winning the evening's second prize, for Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer's original screenplay, and the final, most prestigious one.
In-between, McCarthy's party could've headed to In & Out for burgers while Mad Max: Fury Road then The Revenant piled up awards over the next three hours.
When Spotlight snatched the last one, the fact-based investigative journalism procedural became a rarity, a best picture Oscar winner with two or fewer wins overall.
How rare? The last time it happened was 63 years ago, when Cecil B. DeMille's circus extravaganza The Greatest Show on Earth won only two Oscars including "best story," later rechristened best original screenplay.
Only four earlier best picture winners in the academy's history left with two Oscars: The very first honoree Wings in 1929, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), You Can't Take It with You (1939) and Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca (1941).
Three other movies from the era won Oscar's top prize and no others: The Broadway Melody, also in 1930 as the academy settled in an annual pattern, then Grand Hotel (1932) and Mutiny on the Bounty (1935). One and well done.
More Oscars categories and campaigning in modern times appear to have made such narrow acclaim a thing of the dusty, distant past.
Then along comes Spotlight, the awards season's first serious contender after premiering at the Telluride Film Festival last September. (By the way, that makes seven of the past eight best picture winners debuting at Telluride.) Being first isn't always best, and Spotlight's voter appeal was shaken with each shiny new release.
But McCarthy's movie hung in there, always respected for its craft and admired for its conscience, portraying Boston Globe reporters piecing together a Pulitzer Prize winning expose' of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, and cover-ups by the church. Other movies were more dynamic (The Revenant, Mad Max: Fury Road) or entertaining (The Big Short, The Martian) but Spotlight was like its subjects; doggedly on the trail, not flashy but effective.
That's where the academy's complex preferential ballot voting system comes in. Basically a movie doesn't need to be great to win a best picture Oscar, just widely, highly regarded. The Revenant and The Big Short settled in as Spotlight's closest competitors, as awards season progressed. But those turn off a fairly large number of viewers, for being too showy and bloody (The Revenant), or too smart for the room (The Big Short).
Spotlight is solid, supportable, a movie that likely collected plenty of No. 1 rankings from voters on its own, and perhaps more No. 2's, which is how best picture is won in such a voting system. In political terms, Spotlight was the moderate choice.
Years from now, Spotlight's meager yet meaningful Oscars haul will be considered an anomaly, a fluke unlikely to occur for perhaps another seven decades. Yet there's one aspect of Spotlight's double play that hopefully comes back in style.
Mad Max: Fury Road has more Oscars (6), and The Revenant has best actor Leonardo DiCaprio and the dazzling, history-making duo, director Alejandro G. Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki.
In addition to best picture, Spotlight has only an original screenplay Oscar, something to remember when the show's planned theme - not the diversity question - was the process of filmmaking from start to finish.
Both Academy Awards for screenwriting were bumped up from a traditional slot late in the show to being presented first because, we were reminded, it all begins on the page.
Special effects and visceral thrills didn't win the best picture Oscar this year. Trenchant ideas and well-crafted words did. Hollywood should keep that in mind when planning new projects.
Then hire more people of color to act, write and direct them.