Rock comes out swinging at Oscars, 'Mad Max' revs up

LOS ANGELES -- 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.

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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 he deliberated over joining the boycott of the Oscars 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 boycotting the broadcast, Hollywood's equality 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" is virtually 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. But 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 favourite 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."

McKay, best known for broader comedies like "Anchorman" and "Step Brothers," gave an election-year warning to power of "big money" in the presidential campaign and government.

Best animated feature film went to "Inside Out," Pixar's eighth win in the category since it was created in 2001.

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 rights) precipitated a backlash, too. A chorus of academy members challenged the reforms. Others have cast doubt on how effective the changes will be.

Isaacs defended the changes on the red carpet ahead of the show. "We are going to continue to take action and not just speak," Isaacs told ABC.

How the controversy will affect ratings for ABC is also one of the night's big questions. Last year's telecast, hosted by Neil Patrick Harris, slid 16 per cent to 36.6 million viewers, a six-year low.


Derrik J. Lang contributed to this report.


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