LOS ANGELES Politics took center stage at the 87th Academy Awards on Sunday, as winners and presenters used the widely watched telecast to draw attention to everything from civil rights to whistleblowing.
“Boyhood’s” Patricia Arquette and “Whiplash’s” J.K. Simmons scored supporting actor honors, winning for their performances as a single mother and a demanding jazz instructor.
Simmons, a journeyman character actor, used his moment on the stage to thank his wife and children, and closed his speech with a plea to viewers to value their parents.
Red Carpet looks at the Oscars
“Tell them you love them and thank them and listen to them for as long as they want to talk to you,” said Simmons.
Arquette had a more polemical speech, delivering a rallying cry to women in the workplace that was in keeping with the character she played in “Boyhood’s” struggles to balance raising children with her professional growth and achievement.
“We have fought for everybody else’s equal rights,” she said. “It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all, and equal rights for women in the United States of America.”
Both Arquette and Simmons had dominated critics, guilds and Golden Globe awards, so their victories were widely expected.
Another favorite, Polish drama “Ida,” scored a Best Foreign Language Film statue. Director Pawel Pawlikowski noted that his film about a woman on the verge of becoming a Catholic nun dramatizes the virtues of quiet contemplation — something in contrast to the sturm und drang of an awards show.
“Life is full of surprises,” he enthused.
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” put itself on the board early, as the quirky comedy scored in key technical categories, earning three Oscars for costume design, production design and for achievement in makeup and hairstyling. “Whiplash” matched “Budapest” as the most-honored picture in the early going, nabbing a best sound mixing and film editing Oscars, in addition to the award for Simmons.
It’s been expected to be a politically charged broadcast given the hack attack at Sony Pictures and the snub of “Selma” in many major categories. Host Neil Patrick Harris didn’t disappoint, kicking off the evening with a reference to the controversy that has dogged the Oscars due to the lack of people of color nominated for acting, directing or screenwriting.
“Tonight we honor Hollywood’s best and whitest…sorry brightest,” joked Harris.
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences President Cheryl Boone Isaacs also addressed the need for diversity in film, pairing it with a plea for freedom of expression that brought to mind the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo and the hacking of Sony Pictures over the release of “The Interview.”
Isaacs said that the group behind the Oscars had “a responsibility to ensure that no one’s voice is silenced by threats,” while calling cinema a “universal language.”
Best song winners John Legend and Common, recognized their work on the civil rights anthem “Glory” from “Selma,” used their acceptance speech to draw attention to issues of importance to the African-American community.
“There are more black men under correctional control than there were under slavery,” said Legend.
The evening’s political bent extended to the best documentary category with “Citizenfour,” a look at Edward Snowden’s exposure of the NSA’s widespread domestic surveillance program, taking home the award despite the fact that popular opinion is widely divided over whether or not the film’s subject it a hero or a traitor.
In her acceptance speech, director Laura Poitras thanked Snowden for his courage in coming forward and also paid tribute to whistleblowers everywhere.
Snowden returned her praise. In a statement released via the American Civil Liberties Union, the NSA whistleblower said, “My hope is that this award will encourage more people to see the film and be inspired by its message that ordinary citizens, working together, can change the world.”
Hotlines were a subject that received a great deal of attention. “The Phone Call,” a 20-minute drama about a woman (Sally Hawkins) working in a crisis center helpline, nabbed a Best Live Action Short honor, while “Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1,” a look at the Department of Veterans Affairs’ 24-hour call center for servicemen and women, earned a Best Documentary Short statue.
“Big Hero 6” was the evening’s big animated film winner. The Disney hit won Best Animated Feature, while “Feast,” a 3D romantic comedy that debuted in theaters with “Big Hero 6,” won Best Animated Short. “The Lego Movie” had been expected to be the animated feature victor, but a strange thing happened on the way from prognostication to nomination — the picture failed to score a nod. Harris alluded to the snub shortly before the category’s winner was called, advising anyone with an arm’s reach of the team behind “The Lego Movie” to distract them.
“Birdman’s” Emmanuel Lubezki scored his second consecutive cinematography Oscar for his work making the backstage comedy appear to unfold in one continuous take. He won last year for “Gravity,” which also featured a bravura tracking shot lasting more than 13 minutes.
The opening of the show also took advantage of Harris’ prowess as a song-and-dance man, pairing him with Anna Kendrick and Jack Black in a musical ode to movies, with a few references to the likes of “Fifty Shades of Grey” and the threats posed by digital technology.
Harris also poked fun at the low-grossing Best Picture nominees, joking that “American Sniper” with its $300 million-plus haul was the “Oprah” among a sea of also-runs. This year’s contenders for the top prize are the weakest in terms of ticket sales since Best Picture expanded from 5 to a possible ten nominees.
It’s Harris’ first time hosting the Academy Awards, although he has had ample opportunities to practice, having previously emceed the Emmys and Tonys. He was certainly game for anything, walking across stage in his underwear in a reference to “Birdman,” and poking fun at his work in the lamentable “Smurfs 2.”
The telecast was a somewhat awkward dance between tradition and the digital future that threatens to upend the entertainment business. The backdrop of the stage at the Dolby Theater was outfitted to look like a classic movie theater, complete with red-hatted ushers opening doors for presenters. At the same time, there seemed to be an urge to acknowledge that the old way of seeing movies is changing. Harris spiced up his jokes with references to social media, Black sang about people watching films on their smart phones and the red carpet coverage leading up to the big event was filled with ABC News reporters gushing about various fashion moments exploding on Twitter and Facebook.
The show’s producers also invited John Travolta back to present the award for best song, along with Idina Menzel, the “Frozen” star whose name he mangled at last year’s telecast, inspiring the meme “Adele Dazeem.” A play, it seemed, at creating another viral moment.
This year’s race is among the tightest in recent history, with “Boyhood,” Richard Linklater’s 12-years-in-the-making coming of age story, and “Birdman,” Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s backstage satire, duking it out for Best Picture. There’s also the possibility that Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper,” the box office champion among this year’s slate of nominees, could prevail. Going into the big night, “Birdman” and Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” boast a leading nine nominations apiece. They are followed by “The Imitation Game” with eight nods and “Boyhood” and “American Sniper” tied with six nominations each.
The stars are expected to be out in force, braving the rainy Los Angeles weather for a chance at Oscar glory. Best Picture isn’t the only contest considered to be a nail-biter. Most of the acting categories have been dominated by the likes of Julianne Moore (“Still Alice”) and Patricia Arquette (“Boyhood”), but Best Actor is seeing as being open to an upset, with both”Theory of Everything’s” Eddie Redmayne and “Birdman’s” Michael Keaton seen as the strongest candidates to take home the prize.