Another year, another Oscars, and while in the early goings of the evening it felt like everything was about to play out as predicted (starting with the Screenplay prizes, which were arguably the most locked down of anything not won by Leonardo DiCaprio), some curveballs were thrown by the end of the night, not least with the final and biggest prize.
As part of our ongoing post-mortem of the 88th Academy Awards, we’ve picked out the six biggest surprises, from the unlikely strength of the evening’s biggest winners, to the behind-the-scenes players who outdid titans like Harvey Weinstein. Take a look below.
1. “Mad Max: Fury Road” was the biggest winner
Even when the film got rave reviews when it opened last May, few would have predicted “Mad Max: Fury Road” would, nine months later, be the biggest winner at the 2016 Oscars. And yet here we are. It became clearer over the season that George Miller’s instant action classic would be a viable awards player, and it seemed to have a few categories sewn up going into the ceremony, most notably production design. But in most of the technical categories, it was thought that the film would be grappling with “The Revenant,” and given that Alejandro González iñárritu‘s film was the Best Picture front-runner, many assumed it would come out victorious in categories like Makeup, and Sound. In the end, though, it was only Cinematography that “The Revenant” won of the below the line prizes, with ‘Fury Road’ near-sweeping the technical categories, and racking up six wins in total, more than any other film this year (in fact, in the last decade, only “Gravity” and “Slumdog Millionaire” have taken more prizes home). It was an early sign that things weren’t going to go the way of “The Revenant” in Best Picture, and more importantly, a chance to honor the amazing achievement of Miller’s team, even if the film didn’t win any big awards.
2. Spotlight won Best Picture
We’ve already discussed the reasons behind the Best Picture win for “Spotlight,” so we’ll keep this brief, but the fact that it won at all was certainly a surprise. This was clearly a three-way race with “The Revenant” and “The Big Short,” even more so than two years back when “Gravity” and “12 Years A Slave” were front-runners with “American Hustle” acting as the dark horse behind them. But most seemed to consider “Spotlight” the longer shot — it had opened before either contender, it was the least obviously sexy, it didn’t have A-list stars or astounding production value. Even Morgan Freeman seemed a little surprised when he announced it. It’s been a while since we had a real Best Picture upset. “Crash” was probably the last real shock, and fortunately, this one was a much more welcome surprise.
3. The Soviet Union finally beat Rocky
We’d written in advance that if it felt like any of the acting categories were primed for a departure from the predestined, it was Supporting Actor. Sylvester Stallone was predicted by most to win for “Creed,” but he wasn’t nominated for BAFTA and SAG, which suggested that he was vulnerable, while certain people had suggested that Stallone’s less-than-glowing reputation might have been a hurdle. The latter probably wasn’t a factor so much (everyone that’s ever won an Oscar has someone that doesn’t like them, and Stallone probably has as many supporters as enemies), but it may have been that not enough Academy voters saw “Creed,” which with only a single nomination, and coming from a dusty old franchise, probably wasn’t a priority to many even. Almost anyone in the category could have been surprised beating him, but in the end it was Mark Rylance, a beloved stage actor who stands out in Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge Of Spies,” likely aided by the large British contingent and by New York voters. His speech, the best of the night, more than vindicated his win.
Best Original Song is almost always a shit-show of a category at the best of times, but it really outdid itself this year. We’ll concede that, on the night, Lady Gaga’s “’Til It Happens To You” wasn’t her best performance of not her strongest song, but complete with introduction from the Vice President and the appearance of real-life sexual assault victims, it proved to be a powerful, tear-jerking moment nonetheless, and in a weak year for the category, felt like the obvious winner. Instead, voters gave it to the song they were most familiar with, Sam Smith’s “Spectre” theme “Writing’s On The Wall,” a song best described as “if Macklemore covered ‘Skyfall’ badly and then you accidentally played it at the wrong speed.” It was something that we feared might happen, but had hoped wouldn’t: it was only made worse when Smith exacerbated things by claiming to be the first openly gay man to win an Oscar (many, many others have, including Elton John and Stephen Sondheim).
5. The cheapest movie won Visual Effects.
The Visual Effects Oscar is most often won by a Best Picture nominee. When it isn’t, it’s because no Best Picture nominee was up for the effects category, and it goes for some hugely expensive blockbuster instead. That’s what made the victory of “Ex Machina” this year such an air-punchingly happy surprise. The film was up against three expensive Best Picture nominees in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “The Martian” and “The Revenant,’ as well as the biggest domestic grosser of all time in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” It opened last April, and was at best a modest sleeper success. It had no exploding airships, CGI bears, hellish dust-storms, spaceships or tiny digital smugglers. It is, in fact, with $15 million in budget, the cheapest movie nominated for Best Visual Effects since “Alien,” which cost $11 million in 1979: it’d be considerably more when adjusted for the inflation. So it was thrilling to see Double Negative’s seamless work on the film triumph… a true, and deserved, underdog success in a category where it rarely happens.
6. The strength of the new distributors
The last decade or two have seen, largely, three companies dominate Oscar season: The Weinstein Company (and before that, Miramax), Focus Features and Fox Searchlight, with the latter company in particular winning big the last two years, and picking up a huge majority of Oscar wins last year thanks to “Birdman” and “Grand Budapest Hotel.” But this year marked, if not a changing of the guard, then maybe some new players getting in the mix. Warner Brothers won the most awards of any company thanks to the six of “Mad Max: Fury Road,” and 20th Century Fox took three for “The Revenant.” But Best Picture was won by Open Road Films, a company who’ve existed for less than five years and who received their first Best Picture nomination this year, while A24, an even newer distributor who’ve been developing a well-deserved cult reputation for their innovative marketing and excellent taste, picked up three Oscars, as many as Fox, thanks to Brie Larson’s Best Actress win for “Room,” the documentary prize for “Amy” and the VFX win for “Ex Machina.” Meanwhile, The Weinstein Company took only a single prize (for Ennio Morricone’s “The Hateful Eight” score), Focus won only Best Supporting Actress for Alicia Vikander‘s turn in “The Danish Girl,” and Fox Searchlight went home empty handed. It’s too much to say that this is a permanent shift — we’re sure the old hands will be bouncing back — but it’s impressive to see the some newcomers make their mark on the Oscars, given how hard it can be to get a foothold.