Oscars marred by controversy as feel-good film CODA wins top prize and makes history for Apple

For the past three years, the entertainment world has waited patiently for a full-blown Oscars night of nights, with all the A-listers stepping out for a red-carpet splash and a chance to take home a golden statuette.

As 2500 people packed into the Dolby auditorium in Los Angeles on Monday morning (AEDT), little did they know the biggest shock of the night was going to be the stand-up slap and screaming match between two of the biggest players in the industry.

For a few minutes after stand-up comedian and presenter Chris Rock was slapped in the face by King Richard star Will Smith – after he made a humourless joke about his wife Jada Pinkett Smith – the room was largely stunned.

What just happened?

Rock had referenced the 1997 movie GI Jane, in which Demi Moore shaved her head (Pinkett Smith has publicly spoken about her battle with hair loss).

It wasn’t scripted, it wasn’t in rehearsals and the heated exchange almost derailed the rest of the night, including celebrating which film was going to take home the best-picture gong.

Thankfully, everyone knows how to act in this business and channel that old chestnut “the show must go on”.

A shaky Rock got back on track and a few commercial breaks later, heartwarming movie CODA, about a deaf family with a hearing daughter, won the prestigious best picture prize.

It was the first time a streaming service has taken home the film industry’s biggest prize.

Crowd pleaser CODA was released by Apple TV+ (launched just three years ago), which beat rival Netflix’s contender The Power of the Dog, along with entries from traditional Hollywood studios.

“I really want to thank the academy for recognising a movie of love and family at this difficult time that we need today,” producer Patrick Wachsberger said as the film’s cast stood on stage.

One of CODA‘s stars, Mexican actor and writer Eugenio Derbez, who plays the music teacher who assists a young teenager and daughter of deaf parents in the film get into Berklee College of Music, managed to bring the world back into focus.

With almost 12 million followers on social media, he observed that the winner on Oscar night was “inclusion”, as the deaf community was embraced, best actress winner Jessica Chastain spoke about the LGBTQIA community, and tenderness was brought back to the ceremony with Lady Gaga supporting a wheelchair-bound Liza Minnelli.

“For any of you out there who do in fact feel hopeless or alone, I just want you to know you are unconditionally loved for the uniqueness that is you,” Chastain said.

The glitz and the glamour

After a movie year where cinemas have been light on crowds and theatrical releases have been short lived before landing on streaming services, Hollywood’s most prestigious awards ceremony returned to all-out glitz.

A red-carpet spectacular kicked off the awards day on Monday at 8am in Los Angeles, where temperatures hovered around 21 degrees and crowds packed the streets and stands to catch a glimpse of their favourite stars.

New Zealand’s Jane Campion became just the third woman in the 94-year history of the Oscars to win best director, for her dark western The Power of the Dog.

The film was nominated in 12 categories and took home just one major award.

Best supporting actress went to Ariana DeBose for playing the spirited Anita, who sings America in Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story.

Australia’s Greig Fraser scooped the best cinematography award for Dune, in the process becoming the seventh Australian to win an Oscar in that category.

A symbolic moment in the entertainment industry

According to the Los Angeles Times, Apple paid $25 million for the rights to release CODA, which premiered at a virtual Sundance Film Festival last year, and “it was worth every penny”.

The Times said the film “delivered a major stamp of legitimacy for Apple and its young original film business, snatching yet another victory from rival Netflix to become the first streaming service to land the Oscars’ most-coveted trophy”.

CODA 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 and came home almost empty-handed.

Netflix, which spent millions campaigning for its movies, came to the show with 27 nominations including Don’t Look Up starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter and Andrew Garfield musical Tick, Tick… BOOM!

Adds The Times: “For a streaming service to earn Hollywood’s top accolade is a symbolic moment in the entertainment industry.”

“[The] result is yet another sign of how much Hollywood’s attitude toward the tech takeover has evolved since Amazon became the first streaming studio to field a best picture nominee with 2016’s Manchester by the Sea.

CODA, which rode a wave of goodwill driven by its cast including Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur and Daniel Durant, made history for Apple in bagging a total of three Oscars, managing to do so despite being one of the least-nominated Oscar films

Not since 1932’s Grand Hotel has a movie won the award for best picture with fewer than four nods.

Variety magazine observed: “The Oscars accolades may incrementally lift Apple TV Plus subscriber numbers, but a more significant halo effect for Apple is the added clout it can leverage in competing for deals with talent and production partners.”

In a statement, Apple’s Worldwide Video group Jamie Erlicht said: “What an incredible journey it has been since the moment we first saw CODA to today’s historic recognition from the academy.”

Apple’s Zack Van Amburg said CODA reminded us of “the power of film to bring the world together”.

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