Son of Saul,” the Hungarian Holocaust drama from first-time feature director Laszlo Nemes, won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film on Sunday night’s 88th Academy Awards.
The film, which was partly financed by the Claims Conference, claimed the prize at the annual Oscar ceremony in Los Angeles.
The win is the second straight for a Holocaust film in the category. In 2015, the Polish film “Ida,” about a young soon-to-be nun who learns her parents were Jews killed during the war, took home the best foreign film Oscar.
Set in Auschwitz in 1944, “Son of Saul” tells the story of Saul Auslander, a Jewish inmate forced to escort his fellow prisoners to the gas chambers and help to dispose of their remains. The title role is played by Geza Rohrig, a Hungarian poet and observant Jew who now lives in New York.
The film was heavily favored to win on Sunday, having already claimed the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival in May and the Golden Globe for best foreign film in January. On Saturday, it won the prize for best international film at the Independent Spirit Awards in Los Angeles.
In other Jewish-related wins, Charles Randolph, husband of Israeli actress Mili Avital, won the Academy Award of Best Adapted Screenplay for the film “The Big Short,” along with Adam McKay. Accepting the award, Randolph dropped some Hebrew on the big stage telling his wife, “I love you,” in her native tongue.
Meanwhile “Spotlight,” a film about the efforts of (Jewish) Boston Globe editor Marty Baron to unearth a covered-up child sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, picked up the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and won the night’s big prize of Best Picture, beating out the favored frontier epic “The Revenant.”
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,” he said. “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.
A white tuxedoed Chris Rock launched into the 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 to 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.”
Talk of election was largely absent at 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.
“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.