A thoroughly unpredictable, sometimes mud-slinging, always suspense-filled awards season ended with Green Book, the tale of an interracial friendship, being crowned best picture at the 91st Academy Awards on Sunday night. While the evening saw The Favourite‘s Olivia Colman and Bohemian Rhapsody‘s Rami Malek claim the top acting prizes and witnessed a number of firsts — black craftsmen won Oscars for the first time in the costume and production design categories for their work on Black Panther — Green Book’s victory became the story of the night.
Peter Farrelly’s film — a true-life tale starring Viggo Mortensen as Tony Lip, an Italian-American who was hired to drive pianist Dr. Don Shirley, played by Mahershala Ali, through the Jim Crow South on a concert tour — had picked up precursor awards like a Golden Globe for best comedy/musical and the Producers Guild Award, but an Oscar triumph was by no means guaranteed.
In fact, heading into the final moments of Sunday night’s ceremony, which was broadcast from Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre by ABC, it looked like the winning momentum was with Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma. Universal’s Green Book had racked up two awards by then — one for its original screenplay and the other for Ali as supporting actor. But Netflix’s Roma had claimed three — with Cuaron personally collecting Oscars for best director, best cinematographer and for best foreign-language film.
So when Julia Roberts announced Green Book as the best picture winner, it marked something of a come-from-behind victory for the film. Green Book did establish itself as a crowd-pleaser early on when it debuted in September at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it was the surprise winner of that fest’s audience award, beating out films like A Star Is Born. And its theme of racial reconciliation looked as if it would appeal to the Motion Picture Academy’s long-standing liberal sensibilities, which, in the past, resulted in best picture wins for films like 1967’s In the Heat of the Night and 1989’s Driving Miss Daisy.
But Green Book has also hit some potholes along the way: Some of Shirley’s family members criticized the pic for not accurately reflecting the man they knew. Nick Vallelonga, Lip’s son and one of the film’s screenwriters, had to apologize for an old tweet in which he endorsed Donald Trump’s unfounded 2015 claim that Muslims in New Jersey cheered the destruction of the Twin Towers on 9/11. And Farrelly himself was shut out of the best director category, never a good sign for an aspiring best picture winner.
But all that appeared forgotten as accepting the top prize of the night, producer Jim Burke said, “We made this film with love, we made it with tenderness, and we made it with respect.” And, in the end, that may have been what carried the day.
Still, in the postmortems sure to follow, one of the main questions that will be asked is whether Roma’s association with Netflix may have cost it the gold. True, the Spanish-language, black-and-white film, built upon Cuaron’s memories of his childhood in Mexico City in the early ‘70s, had challenges it needed to overcome if it hoped to take the big prize. It was the 11th foreign-language film to be nominated for best picture — the most recent was the 2012 French film Amour — and none of those other 10 won the top prize, either. Plus, the central figure in the drama, the housekeeper Cleo, was played by a young Mexican woman, Yalitza Aparicio, who had never acted before. The actors branch of the Academy was impressed enough to nominate her for best actress, but the movie itself didn’t have the sort of star power that might have lured in other voters.
But the even bigger question is whether there were simply too many members of the Academy unwilling to hand their most sought-after prize to upstart Netflix, which acquired distribution rights to the film. While Netflix gave Roma a limited theatrical release three weeks before the movie was made available to the streaming service’s subscribers in December, the nation’s biggest theater owners see Netflix as a threat to their very existence and refused to play the film. And some old-guard studio types, arguing that movies belong in theaters and not on the home screen, didn’t want to hand over Oscar to such a disruptive force.
Steven Spielberg himself expressed that sentiment when, in an interview with ITV News last year, he said, “Once you commit to a television format, you’re a TV movie. You certainly, if it’s a good show, deserve an Emmy, but not an Oscar. I don’t believe films that are just given token qualifications in a couple of theaters for less than a week should qualify for the Academy Award nomination.”
That debate is only going to grow more contentious as Netflix commissions more and more films from A-list filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, whose next movie, The Irishman, is coming from Netflix later this year.
For one production company, though, there was plenty to celebrate Sunday night. Participant Media, which specializes in producing socially conscious projects, found itself smack in the middle of the showdown. It backed both Roma, which it then sold to Netflix, and Green Book, which it produced with Spielberg’s DreamWorks, for a Universal release.
Though he was denied the final victory of the night, Cuaron still got to give three acceptance speeches. Accepting the best director award from his pal Guillermo del Toro, last year’s winner in the category for The Shape of Water, he joked, “Being here never gets old.”
Cuaron had already picked up the award for best cinematography, becoming the first director to win the award for shooting his own film. In his thanks, he credited his frequent cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, who was unavailable to shoot Roma, explaining that throughout filming, he constantly asked himself, “What would Chivo Lubezki do?”
And in accepting the trophy for best foreign-language film, where Roma became the first-ever movie from Mexico to win in that category, he noted wryly, “I grew up watching foreign-language films, learning so much from them and being inspired, films like Citizen Kane, Jaws, Rashomon, The Godfather and Breathless.”
Elsewhere, the hostless ceremony, produced by Donna Gigliotti and Glenn Weiss, went about the business of handing out 24 Oscars with a brisk efficiency. And while Green Book, Roma and Black Panther each earned three Oscars, Fox’s Bohemian Rhapsody can claim the biggest night in terms of sheer numbers. In addition to Malek’s award, the rock-filled drama grabbed the Oscars for film editing, sound editing and sound mixing.
Although Malek’s best actor win for playing Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody didn’t exactly come as a surprise — he’d virtually swept the walk-up awards — the thesp still provided stirring moments as he accepted the award, saying, “I may not have been the obvious choice [for playing the role], but I guess it worked out.” Malek thanked Queen for letting him be part of Mercury’s legacy, praised Mercury for “living his life unapologetically,” and concluded, “I am the son of immigrants from Egypt. I am a first-generation American. And part of my story is being written right now, and I could not be more grateful.” Before he left the stage, he also gave a shout-out to Lucy Boynton, his co-star, whom he’s just begun dating, saying, “You have captured my heart.”
On the other hand, when Colman’s name was called as best actress for her performance as dyspeptic Queen Anne in The Favourite, it was a bit of a surprise. While Colman came armed with a Golden Globe and a BAFTA Award, Glenn Close, nominated six previous times without a win, was considered the frontrunner, having picked up a lot of other trophies, including a Spirit Award on Saturday. Appearing a bit flustered, Colman herself acknowledged the situation, addressing Close directly from the stage and saying, “Glenn Close, you’ve been my idol for so long, and this is not how I wanted it to be.”
Regina King earned the first award of the night when she was named best supporting actress for playing a loving and supportive mother in the film adaptation of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk. ”To be standing here, representing one of the greatest artists of our time, James Baldwin, is a little surreal. James Baldwin birthed this baby and [director] Barry [Jenkins], you nurtured her,” she said, before adding, “I’m an example of what it looks like when support and love is poured into someone.”
Having won the best supporting actor award just two years ago for Moonlight, Ali scored his second statuette in that category for playing the late Shirley in Green Book. “I want to thank Dr. Shirley,” he said. “Just trying to capture his essence pushed me to my ends, which is a reflection of the person he was and the life that he lived.”
Spike Lee, who got a shout-out from fellow Brooklynite Barbra Steisand when she introduced a clip from his BlacKkKlansman, was awarded his first competitive Oscar for that movie’s adapted screenplay, which he co-wrote with Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott. He used his acceptance to remind viewers that “the 2020 presidential election is around the corner,” and added, “Let’s all mobilize, let’s all be on the right side of history, make the moral choice between love versus hate. Let’s do the right thing!”
When the award for original screenplay went to Green Book, written by Brian Currie, Peter Farrelly and Vallelonga, Vallelonga hoisted his Oscar high, saying, “Dad, we did it.”
An emotional Lady Gaga — after first joining her A Star Is Born director and co-star Bradley Cooper for a live performance of her song “Shallow” — was the winner of best original song for the tune, which she wrote with Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossomando and Andrew Wyatt. “Bradley,” she said, “there is not a single person on the planet that could have sung this song with me but you.”
The prize for original score went to Black Panther’s Ludwing Goransson, who thanked director Ryan Coogler, recalling how 12 years ago “we were sitting in our dorm at USC writing the score for your first short film and we’re here 12 years later, you know, celebrating one of the most important cinematic moments in history.”
Black Panther also scored back-to-back firsts during the first hour of the show. First, Ruth Carter became the first black costume designer to take home an award in that category when she was awarded the prize for her work in the movie. “This has been a long time coming,” she said, thanking Spike Lee (“I hope this makes you proud”), who gave her her first job in film, before noting, “Marvel may have created the first black superhero, but through costume design we turned him into an African king.”
Her win was immediately followed by that of Hannah Beachler and Jay Hart, who took home the production design award for Black Panther. Beachler, the first black nominee in the category, became its first black winner to tumultuous applause. “I stand her stronger than I was yesterday,” she said as she began her acceptance, her voice cracking as she thanked Coogler for his belief in her, saying he made her “a better designer, a better storyteller, a better person.”
The vertigo-inducing Free Solo was victorious in the very competitive documentary feature category. The husband-and-wife filmmaking team of Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin were accompanied to the stage by Alex Honnold, the fearless rock climber who is the subject of their film about his rope-free climb up the face of Yosemite’s El Capitan. Vasarhelyi thanked National Geographic for supporting the pic “and hiring women and people of color because we only help make the films better,” and concluded her acceptance by extending thanks to Honnold “for giving us courage and teaching us how to believe in the impossible.”
Peter Ramsey, who directed Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse along with Bob Persichetti and Rodney Rothman, racked up another first when he became the first black director to be awarded the Oscar for best animated feature for the movie, which introduced a new Spider-Man, who is half Hispanic and half African-American. Addressing the film’s audience, Ramsey said, “Thank you so much. We love you and we just want you all to know we see you; you’re powerful.”
Greg Cannom, who last won an Academy Award for 2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, won his fourth Oscar, for best makeup, which he shared with Kate Biscoe and Patricia DeHaney, for transforming Christian Bale into Vice President Dick Cheney in Vice.
First Man, the account of the Apollo 11 mission, blasted off with the award for visual effects, denying Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War a win in that category.
Bao, the animated short from Pixar that screened last year in front of Incredibles 2, clinched the animated short category. Domee Shi, who directed the fable about a woman whose love brings a dumpling to life, spoke “to all the nerdy girls out there who hide behind your sketchbooks — don’t be afraid to show your stories to the world.”
The award for documentary short also struck a feminist note when the prize went to Netflix’s Period. End of Sentence., which looks at the women in a village in India who created a business for themselves by manufacturing sanitary pads. “I can’t believe a film about menstruation just won an Oscar,” director Rayka Zehtabchi exclaimed before directing her words to the women in her film, saying, “Know that you are empowering women all over the world to fight for menstrual equality.”
Guy Nattiv’s Skin, which has been acquired by Fox Searchlight and dramatizes a racial clash between two families, won the Oscar for live-action short. “This film is about education,” Nattiv said. “It’s about teaching your kids a better way.”