LOS ANGELES — In an underdog win for a movie about an underdog profession, the newspaper drama "Spotlight" took best picture at the 88th Academy Awards.
Tom McCarthy's film about the Boston Globe's investigative reporting on sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests won over the favored frontier epic "The Revenant." The well-crafted procedural, led by a strong ensemble cast, had lagged in the lead-up to the Oscars, losing ground to the flashier filmmaking of Alejandro Inarritu's film.
But "Spotlight" — an ode to the hard-nose, methodical work of a journalism increasingly seldom practiced — took the night's top honor despite winning only one other Oscar for McCarthy and Josh Singer's screenplay. Such a sparsely-awarded best picture winner hasn't happened since 1952's "The Greatest Show On Earth."
"The Revenant" did not go unrewarded and in fact brought a much-anticipated Best Actor award for its lead, Leonardo DiCaprio.
A white tuxedoed Chris Rock launched into 88th Academy Awards — "the White People's Choice Awards," he called them – at an Oscars where remarks on diversity dominated proceedings, the craft of "Mad Max: Fury Road" sped away from the competition and Sylvester Stallone was knocked out by Mark Rylance.
The night belonged to Rock, whose much anticipated opening monologue left few disappointed. He confronted head-on the uproar over the lack of diversity in this year's nominees, and returned to the topic throughout the show. ("We're black," he said after a commercial break.)
"Is Hollywood racist? You're damn right it's racist," said Rock, who also sought to put the issue in perspective. "Hollywood is sorority racist. It's like: We like you Rhonda, but you're not a Kappa."
Rock had stayed quiet before the ceremony as the controversy raged over the second straight year of all-white acting nominees, leaving Hollywood and viewers eagerly awaiting his one-liners. He confessed that he deliberated over joining the Oscars boycott and bowing out as host, but concluded: "The last thing I need is to lose another job to Kevin Hart."
With the Rev. Al Sharpton leading a protest outside the Dolby Theatre and some viewers tuning out the broadcast, Hollywood's opportunity imbalance often overshadowed the actual awards — though "Mad Max: Fury Road" did its best to command the spotlight.
George Miller's post-apocalyptic chase film exploded with six awards in technical categories for editing, makeup, production design, sound editing, sound mixing and costume design. Roundly acclaimed for its old-school craft, Miller's "Mad Max" was assured of becoming the evening's most awarded film.
"Us Mad Maxes are doing OK tonight," said editor Margaret Sixel, who's also Miller's wife. The flurry of wins brought a parade of Australian craftsmen onstage, including sound editor Mark Mangini, who celebrated with a loud expletive.
There were few surprises Sunday, but the supporting actor win for Rylance drew gasps. Stallone, nominated a second time 39 years later for the role of Rocky Balboa, had been expected to win his first acting Oscar for the "Rocky" sequel "Creed." He instead lost to the famed stage actor who co-starred in Steven Spielberg's "Bridge of Spies."
Best supporting actress went Alicia Vikander for the transgender pioneer tale "The Danish Girl." Vikander, the 27-year-old Sweden-born actress was ubiquitous in 2015, also winning awards for her performance in the sci-fi "Ex Machina."
Alejandro Inarritu's frontier epic "The Revenant," which came in with a leading 12 nods and the favorite for best picture, notched an early, unsurprising win for its maverick cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki. Renowned for his use of natural light in lengthy, balletic shots, Lubezki became the first cinematographer to win three times in a row (following wins for "Gravity" and "Birdman"), and only the seventh to three-peat in Oscar history.
Other early awards went as expected, including two movies seen as the stiffest competition to "The Revenant."
Best original screenplay went to the newsroom drama "Spotlight," an ode to hard-nose, methodical investigative journalism penned by Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer. Backstage, a cord from a light suddenly fell behind the winners, prompting McCarthy — whose film shows the discovery of extensive sex abuse by Catholic priests — to exclaim in mock paranoia: "That is the power of the Catholic Church, ladies and gentlemen!"
Adam McKay and Charles Randolph took best adapted screenplay for their self-described "trauma-dy" about the mortgage meltdown of 2008. McKay thanked Paramount Pictures for taking a risk on a movie about "financial esoterica." Best known for broader comedies like "Anchorman" and "Step Brothers," McKay gave an election-year warning to power of "big money" and "weirdo billionaires" in the presidential campaign.
Talk of election was otherwise largely absent the ceremony, though Vice President Joe Biden (whose presence added even greater security to the Dolby Theatre) was met by a standing ovation before talking about sexual assault on college campuses.
Best animated feature film went to "Inside Out," Pixar's eighth win in the category since it was created in 2001. Asif Kapadia's Amy Winehouse portrait, "Amy," took best documentary. Hungary scored its second best foreign language Oscar for Laszlo Nemes' "Son of Saul," a harrowing drama set within a concentration camp.
"Even in the darkest hours of mankind, there might be a voice within us that allows us to remain human," said Nemes. "That's the hope of this film."
The Academy Awards, normally decorous and predictable, were charged with enough politics and uncertainty to rival an election debate. Down the street from the Dolby Theatre, Sharpton led several dozen demonstrators in protest against a second straight year of all-white acting nominees.
"This will be the last night of an all-white Oscars," Sharpton vowed at the rally.
The nominees restored the hashtag "OscarsSoWhite" to prominence and led Spike Lee (an honorary Oscar winner this year) and Jada Pinkett Smith to announce that they would not attend the show.
Aside from pleading for more opportunity for black actors, Rock also sought to add perspective to the turmoil. Rock said this year didn't differ much from Oscar history, but black people in earlier decades were "too busy being raped and lynched to worry about who won best cinematographer."
In a quick response to the growing crisis, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, president of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, pushed ahead reforms to the academy intended to diversify its overwhelming white and male membership. But those changes (which included stripping older, out-of-work members of their voting privileges) precipitated a backlash, too. A chorus of academy members challenged the reforms.
In remarks during the show by the president — usually one of the sleepiest moments in the broadcast — Boone Isaacs strongly defended the changes, quoting Martin Luther King Jr. and urging each Oscar attendee to bring greater opportunity to the industry. She was received politely, if not enthusiastically, by the audience.
"It's not enough to listen and agree," said Boone Isaacs. "We must take action."
How the controversy will affect ratings for ABC is one of the night's big questions. Last year's telecast, hosted by Neil Patrick Harris, slid 16 percent to 36.6 million viewers, a six-year low.
Story: Jake Coyle / Associated Press