In an underdog win for a movie about an underdog profession, the newspaper drama "Spotlight" took best picture Sunday at an Academy Awards riven by protest and outrage, and electrified by an unflinching Chris Rock.
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." McCarthy's 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."
"We would not be here today without the heroic efforts of our reporters," said producer Blye Pagon Faust. "Not only do they effect global change, but they absolutely show us the necessity for investigative journalism."
The night, however, belong to host Rock, who launched immediately into the uproar over the lack of diversity in this year's nominees, and didn't let up. "The White People's Choice Awards," he called the Oscars, which were protested beforehand outside the Dolby Theatre by the Rev. Al Sharpton, and saw some viewers boycotting the broadcast.
Rock insured that the topic remained at the forefront throughout the evening, usually finding hearty laughs in the process. In an award show traditionally known for song-and-dance routines and high doses of glamour, Rock gave the 88th Academy Awards a charged atmosphere, keeping with the outcry that followed a second straight year of all-white acting nominees.
"Is Hollywood racist? You're damn right it's racist," said Rock. "Hollywood is sorority racist. It's like: We like you Rhonda, but you're not a Kappa."
Streaks, broken and extended, dominated much of the evening. After going home empty-handed four times previously, Leonardo DiCaprio won his first Oscar, for a best actor in "The Revenant" — a gruff, grunting performance that traded little on the actor's youthful charisma. DiCaprio, greeted with a standing ovation, took the moment to talk about climate change.
"Let us not take our planet for granted," said DiCaprio. "I do not take tonight for granted."
His director, Inarritu won back-to-back directing awards after the triumph last year of "Birdman." It's a feat matched by only two other filmmakers: John Ford and Joseph L. Mankiewicz. "The Revenant" also won best cinematography for Emmanuel Lubezki, who 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.
Inarritu, whose win meant three straight years of Mexican filmmakers winning best director, was one of the few winners to remark passionately on diversity in his acceptance speech.
"What a great opportunity for our generation to really liberate ourselves from all prejudice and this tribal thinking and to make sure for once and forever that the color of our skin becomes as irrelevant as the length of our hair," said Inarritu.
The night's most-awarded film, however, went to neither "Spotlight" nor "The Revenant." George Miller's post-apocalyptic chase film, "Mad Max: Fury Road" sped away with six awards in technical categories for editing, makeup, production design, sound editing, sound mixing and costume design.
"Us Mad Maxes are doing OK tonight," said editor Margaret Sixel, who's married to Miller. The flurry of wins brought a parade of Australian craftsmen onstage in an Oscars that was at least internationally diverse.
Best actress went to Brie Larson, the 26-year-old breakout of the mother-son captive drama "Room." The Sweden-born Alicia Vikander took best supporting actress for the transgender pioneer tale "The Danish Girl."
But the wins at times felt secondary to the sharp, unflinching host. Rock 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."
Gasps went around the Dolby when Mark Rylance won best supporting actor over Sylvester Stallone. Nominated a second time for role of Rocky Balboa 39 years later, Stallone had been expected to win his first acting Oscar for the "Rocky" sequel "Creed." But the famed stage actor who co-starred in Steven Spielberg's "Bridge of Spies" won instead.
Adam McKay and Charles Randolph took best adapted screenplay for their self-described "trauma-dy" about the mortgage meltdown of 2008. Best known for broader comedies like "Anchorman" and "Step Brothers," McKay gave an election-year warning to the 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 in an introduction to best-song nominee Lady Gaga.
The composer John Williams ("Star Wars: The Force Awakens") came in with his 50th nod, but lost to Ennio Morricone, who, at 87, landed his first competitive Oscar for Quentin Tarantino's "The Hateful Eight." (He was given an honorary one in 2009.)
Sam Smith and songwriting partner Jimmy Napes picked up the Academy Award for best song for "Writing's on the Wall," from the James Bond film "Spectre."
"I stand here tonight as a proud gay man and I hope we can all stand together as equals one day," said Smith.
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."
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 wouldn't attend the show. Several top African American filmmakers, Ryan Coogler ("Creed") and Ava DuVernay ("Selma") spent the evening not at the Oscars but in Flint, Mich., raising money for the water-contaminated city.
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 that black people earlier 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, led reforms to diversify the academy's 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 was 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.