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'Spotlight' wins Oscar for best picture in shocking upset over 'Revenant'

Turns out that a revenant was named best picture at Sunday's Academy Awards after all.

The journalism drama Spotlight that had won only one Oscar all evening, as The Revenant and Mad Max: Fury Road piled up prizes, came back from the brink to pull off a shocking upset.

Spotlight traces the Boston Globe's Pulitzer Prize winning expose of sexual abuse by Catholic priests. With only two total wins, Tom McCarthy's drama becomes one of the least decorated best picture winners ever.

As expected, Leonardo DiCaprio won the best actor Oscar, playing The Revenant's fur trapping guide seeking revenge after being left for dead after a bear attack. Brie Larson was named best actress for Room.

One piece of history was made by The Revenant filmmaker Alejandro G. Inarritu, who became the first best director Oscar in consecutive years since John Ford and Joseph L. Mankiewicz in the 1940s and the 1950s.

Inarritu's accomplishment as a native Mexican is notable, given the uproar this year regarding a persistent shortage of culturally diverse nominees.

After weeks of wondering how host Chris Rock would deal with Hollywood's diversity issue and the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, the comedian did exactly what nobody expected.

Rock let Hollywood off the hook.

Gifted with a comedian's dream, a worldwide audience of millions and a gig writing its own punch lines, Rock mostly treated thorny situations with kid gloves. Several jokes took jabs at celebrities complaining about the Oscars' second consecutive year with no acting nominees of color.

"You realize if they nominated hosts, I wouldn't even get this job," Rock said. "Y'all would be watching Neil Patrick Harris right now."

Harris might have been comically harsher on an industry deserving it. No telling what sort of scorched-earth comedy Ricky Gervais would've unleashed. When Rock's monologue concluded, the audience's applause sounded relieved to have been relatively spared.

Apocalyptic fantasy Mad Max: Fury Road led with six wins, all in technical categories such as film editing, production design and sound mixing.

Broadway veteran Mark Rylance pulled off an upset in the supporting actor race, winning over sentimental favorite Sylvester Stallone, who reprised his Rocky Balboa role in Creed. Rylance played a Russian spy swapped for a U.S. pilot in Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies.

"I always enjoyed stories," Rylance said in his acceptance speech, "hearing them, seeing them, being in them. So for me to have a chance to work with, I think, one of the greatest storytellers of our time … has just been such an honor."

Alicia Vikander was named best supporting actress, playing the wife of a transgender artist in the 1920s in The Danish Girl.

Disney-Pixar's Inside Out was voted best animated feature, making it the year's highest grossing Oscar winner ($356.4 million) since Star Wars: The Force Awakens lost its lone visual effects competition to Ex Machina.

Rock's 10-minute monologue contained a few sharp references to the diversity issue, although Rock never found his thematic rhythm, racing past punch lines and shifting topics before an idea could take off. One exception was when Rock wondered why this particular Oscars show sparked such protest.

"It's the 88th Academy Awards," Rock said. "Which means this whole no-black-nominees thing has happened at least 71 other times. … And black people did not protest.

"Why? Because we had real things to protest at the time. … We were too busy being raped and lynched to care about who won best cinematographer. When your grandmother's swinging from a tree, it's really hard to care about best documentary foreign short."

That sort of uncomfortable wisdom is Rock's standup signature, so it was easy to expect Rock to attack Hollywood's lack of diversity like The Revenant's bear-mauled Leonardo DiCaprio.

Instead, Rock garnered safer laughs by renaming the Oscars the "White People's Choice Awards," and name-checking black celebrities such as Kevin Hart and Wanda Sykes who otherwise wouldn't be monologue material. Rock's gag urging celebrities to buy his daughter's Girl Scout cookies was something Ellen DeGeneres might have tried.

In other frustrating moments, Rock let potentially incisive material slip through his fingers.

"Everyone in the world wants to know: Is Hollywood racist?," Rock said, a ripe setup if there ever was one. The punch line, however, was timid for such a usually daring comic.

"You gotta go at that the right way," Rock continued. "Is it burning cross racist? No. Is it fetch me some lemonade racist? No. … Hollywood is sorority racist: 'We like you, Rhonda, but you're not a Kappa.' "

Rock saved his snarkiest jabs for Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith, who called for a boycott of the ceremonies after the all-white acting nominations were announced. Smith's performance in Concussion was one of the performances bypassed by Oscar voters.

"Jada boycotting the Oscars is like me boycotting Rihanna's panties," Rock said. "I wasn't invited."

The only question left at the end of Rock's monologue was how many television viewers would tune out afterward. Public interest in the awards is diminished by the academy's culturally neglectful nominations two years running, at the expense of Straight Outta Compton, Creed and Beasts of No Nation, among others this year.

Without a diversity tempest in 2005, Rock's previous Oscars hosting gig drew 42.2 million viewers, according to Nielsen ratings. That number has been surpassed only once since then, in 2014 when DeGen­eres hosted. Last year's 36.6 million viewers is the lowest Nielsen estimate since 2008.

In 2005, Rock presided over a show with six acting nominees of color, including two slots for best actor Jamie Foxx (Ray, Collateral), plus best supporting actor Morgan Freeman (Million Dollar Baby).

Without such diversity this year, and with #OscarsSoWhite urging a tune-out, Nielsen's overnight ratings will be interesting when released today.

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

'Spotlight' wins Oscar for best picture in shocking upset over 'Revenant' 02/29/16 [Last modified: Monday, February 29, 2016 11:20am]
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