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Apple’s feel-good ‘CODA’ triumphs

Jake Coyle

LOS ANGELES (AP) After a movie year often light on crowds, the Academy Awards named an unabashed crowd-pleaser, the deaf family drama CODA, best picture on Sunday, handing Hollywood’s top award to a streaming service for the first time in a ceremony that saw the greatest drama when Will Smith strode onstage and slapped Chris Rock.

Sian Heder’s CODA, which first premiered at a virtual Sundance Film Festival in winter 2021, started out as an underdog but gradually emerged as the Oscars’ feel-good favourite.

It also had one very deep-pocketed backer in Apple TV+, which scored its first best picture Academy Award on Sunday, less than three years after launching the service.

It also handed another near-miss defeat to Netflix, the veteran streamer that for years has tried vainly to score best picture. Its best chance, Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, came in with a leading 12 nominations. It won one, for Campion’s direction.

But CODA rode a wave of goodwill driven by its cast including Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur, Emilia Jones and Daniel Durant. It’s the first film with a largely deaf cast to win best picture.

CODA managed that despite being one of the least-nominated films with only three coming into Sunday. Not since 1932’s Grand Hotel has a movie won best picture with fewer than four nods.

Becky G, centre left, and Luis Fonsi, centre right, perform ‘We Don’t Talk About Bruno’ from ‘Encanto’
Billie Eilish, winner of the award for best original song for ‘No Time To Die’ from ‘No Time To Die’ poses in the press room at the Oscars
The cast and crew of ‘CODA’ accept the award for best picture at the Oscars on March 27 at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. PHOTOS: AP/AFP
Will Smith cries as he accepts the award for best performance by an actor in a leading role for ‘King Richard’
Lady Gaga (L) and Liza Minnelli present the award for best picture
Hosts Regina Hall, from left, Amy Schumer and Wanda Sykes appear on stage in pyjamas at the end of the Oscars

Kotsur also won best supporting actor to become the first male deaf actor to win an Oscar, and only the second deaf actor to do so, joining his castmate and CODA co-star Matlin.

“This is for the Deaf community, the CODA community and the disabled community,” said Kotsur, signing from the stage. “This is our moment.”

Many, though, were talking about another moment. After Rock, as a presenter, joked to Jada Pinkett Smith that he was looking forward to a sequel to GI Jane, Will Smith stood up from his seat near the stage, strode up to Rock and smacked him.

After sitting back down, Smith shouted at Rock to “keep my wife’s name out of your mouth.”

When Rock, who joked about Jada Pinkett Smith while hosting the Oscars in 2016, protested that it was just a GI Jane joke, Smith repeated the same line.

“That was the greatest night in the history of television,” Rock said, before awkwardly returning to presenting best documentary, which went to Questlove’s Summer of Soul (…or When the Revolution Was Not Televised).”

The moment shocked the Dolby Theatre audience and viewers at home. At the commercial break, presenter Daniel Kaluuya came up to hug Smith, and Denzel Washington escorted him to the side of the stage. The two talked and hugged and Tyler Perry came over to talk as well.

Smith, who plays Venus and Serena Williams’ father in King Richard, later in the show won best actor, his first Oscar. It meant Smith again took the stage shortly after what seemed likely to be one of the most infamous moments in Academy Awards history. His acceptance speech vacillated between defence and apology.

“Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family,” Smith said in his first remarks. He continued: “I’m being called on in my life to love people and to protect people and to be a river to my people.”

Smith then shared what Washington told him: “At your highest moment, be careful because that’s when the devil comes for you.”

Ultimately, Smith apologised to the academy and to his fellow nominees.

“Art imitates life. I look like the crazy father,” said Smith, chuckling. “But love will make you do crazy things.” Up until then, the show – fashioned as a revival for the Oscars and the movies – had been running fairly smoothly. Ariana DeBose became the first Afro-Latina to win an Academy Award for supporting actress.

Jane Campion won the Oscar best director for The Power of the Dog, her open-plains psychodrama that twisted and upended western conventions.

Campion, who had been the first woman ever twice nominated in the category (previously for 1993’s The Piano), is only the third woman to win best director. It’s also the first time the directing award has ever gone to women in back-to-back years, after Nomadland filmmaker Chloé Zhao won last year.

Best actress went to Jessica Chastain, who also won her first Oscar. Chastain won for her empathetic portrayal of the televangelist Tammy Faye in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, a movie she also produced.

After record-low ratings and a pandemic-marred 2021 show, producers this year turned to one of the biggest stars around – Beyonce – to kick off an Oscars intended to revive the awards’ place in pop culture. After an introduction from Venus and Serena Williams, Beyonce´ performed her King Richard nominated song, Be Alive, in an elaborately choreographed performance from a lime-coloured, open-air stage in Compton, where the Williams sisters grew up.

Hosts Wanda Sykes, Amy Schumer and Regina Hall then began the telecast from the Dolby Theatre.

Sykes, Schumer and Hall breezily joked through prominent Hollywood issues like pay equity – they said three female hosts were “cheaper than one man” – the Lady Gaga drama that Sykes called House of Random Accents, the state of the Golden Globes (now relegated to the memoriam package, said Sykes) and Leonardo DiCaprio’s girlfriends.

Their most pointed political point came at the end of their routine, in which they promised a great night. The first broadcast award went, fittingly, to Ariana DeBose, whose win came 60 years after Rita Moreno won for the same role in the 1961 original West Side Story. DeBose thanked Moreno for leading the way for “tonnes of Anitas like me.”

Encanto, the Disney hit propelled by its chart-topping soundtrack, won best animated film.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, who penned the film’s hit songs, missed the ceremony after his wife tested positive for COVID-19. Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s three-hour Japanese drama Drive My Car, one of the year’s most acclaimed films, won for best international film.

After two years of pandemic, and beneath a warm California sun on Sunday, the Hollywood rite of glamour again got into swing, with a flush red carpet and a COVID-tested audience. Before the exchange with Smith, Rock commented, with relish: “No one’s wearing a mask. Just breathing raw dog tonight.”

To help regain the cultural spotlight, the Oscars leaned heavily on musical performances (Billie Eilish, Reba McEntire), film anniversaries (The Godfather, Pulp Fiction, White Men Can’t Jump) and as many mentions of the Encanto breakout song, We Don’t Talk About Bruno, as possible. The Ukrainian-born Mila Kunis led a 30-second moment of silence for Ukraine. Some stars, like Sean Penn, had lobbied the academy to have Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speak at the ceremony.

But aside from a few blue ribbons spotted on the red carpet, politics were seldom centre stage. The Oscars instead doubled down on razzle dazzle, and the movies as an escape.

Producers brought in the likes of BTS and Tony Hawk to rope in more viewers. Some things worked better than others.

Fan favourite prizes, as voted on by Twitter users were overrun by Zack Snyder fans, who voted up Snyder’s version of Justice League and his Army of the Dead.

Feel-good movies also fared well. CODA also won for best adapted screenplay. Kenneth Branagh’s autobiographical Belfast, an affectionate family drama bathed in nostalgia and shot in black-and-white, took best original screenplay.

Eilish and her brother Finneas, won for their Bond theme to No Time to Die, a song that was released before the pandemic began. The film was subsequently delayed several times.

The Academy Awards got underway on Sunday off-camera, with the first eight awards on the night being handed out at the Dolby Theatre before the start of the ABC telecast. The Dolby was largely full in time for the 7pm EDT pre-show, dubbed the “golden hour” by the academy. Speeches were later edited into the broadcast.

Dune got out to an early lead in those early awards, and it kept it through the night. The biggest blockbusters of this year’s 10 best-picture nominees, Dune won a leading six awards, for production design, cinematography, editing, visual effects, sound and Hans Zimmer’s score.

Greig Fraser’s cinematography win denied one chance for Oscar history. Some had been rooting for Ari Wenger, who lensed Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, to become the first woman to win best cinematography, the sole Oscar category that has never been won by a woman in the Academy Awards’ nine decade-plus history

Best makeup and hairstyling went to Linda Dowds, Stephanie Ingram and Justin Raleigh for The Eyes of Tammy Faye. Chastain had been among the many academy members who thought all the awards should have been handed out live during the broadcast. Chastain hugged each winner as they took the stage.

Behind this year’s telecast changes was alarm over the Oscars fast-falling ratings. While drops have been common to all major network award shows, last year’s show attracted only about 10 million viewers, less than half of the 23.6 million the year before. A decade ago, it was closer to 40 million.