Chris Rock was right, this year the Oscars really were a little different

Bringing an end to an unpredictable and tumultuous Oscar race, the newsroom drama “Spotlight” took home the top prize for best picture at the 88th Academy Awards on Sunday, emerging victorious in what had widely been seen as a three-way race with the brutal frontier epic “The Revenant” and the financial crisis dramedy “The Big Short.”

Leonardo DiCaprio won his first Academy Award — after four previous acting nominations — for his starring role as a man who survives a vicious grizzly bear attack in “The Revenant.” Brie Larson earned the lead actress prize for her performance as a mother who has spent much of her life in captivity in the drama “Room.”

The evening marked the climax of one of the most controversial Oscar seasons in Hollywood history, as a bitter debate over the lack of any acting nominees of color for the second year in a row roiled the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

OSCARS 2016: Full coverage | List of winners | Read Chris Rock's 2016 Oscars opening monologue | #OscarsSoWhite controversy

Unlike in many previous years, no single film dominated the night, as academy voters spread their love around to a wide range of contenders.

Alejandro G. Iñárritu, who captured the directing prize last year for “Birdman,” won again for “The Revenant,” making him the first director to win the prize back-to-back in 65 years. The adapted screenplay prize went to “The Big Short,” while the original screenplay award went to “Spotlight.”

The gonzo dystopian action film “Mad Max: Fury Road,” a summer action thriller that proved one of the dark horses of this Oscar season, had a strong showing, pulling in six awards, including for editing, costume design and production design. But the year's biggest box office behemoth, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” nominated for five awards, came up empty-handed.

Also striking out was “The Martian,” an audience favorite that had seven nominations.

In the weeks leading up to the show, there was widespread speculation on how host Chris Rock would address the #OscarsSoWhite issue.

Taking the stage to Public Enemy's hip-hop anthem “Fight the Power,” Rock immediately set about tackling the elephant in the room. He welcomed the audience to “The White People's Choice Awards” and went on to unleash a barrage of jokes about race and discrimination in Hollywood.

“Everybody wants to know … ‘Is Hollywood racist?'” Rock said. “You've got to go at that the right way. Is it burning-cross racist? No.... Hollywood is sorority racist. ‘We like you, Rhonda, but you're not a Kappa.'”

Perhaps unsurprisingly given Rock's acid-tongued comedic style, a few jokes seemed to teeter on the brink of too edgy for a room that is tense under the best of circumstances.

“This year, things are going to be a little different at the Oscars: In the ‘In Memoriam' package, it's just going to be black people that were shot by cops on their way to the movies,” he cracked to scattered, uncomfortable laughter. “Yes, I said it all right.”

But for the most part, the audience in the Dolby Theatre seemed to welcome the chance to address the thorny question of diversity in the film industry head-on and to finally release the tension that had built for weeks amid calls for a boycott of the ceremony.

“This is the wildest, craziest Oscars to ever host … ‘You should boycott! You should quit!'” Rock said. “I thought about quitting — I thought about it real hard. But I realized they're going to have the Oscars anyway … and the last thing I need is to lose another job to Kevin Hart.”

While saying that black actors “want opportunity — and not just once,” Rock made a point to note the complexity of the issues of inclusion and discrimination. “Everything is not sexism,” he said. “Everything is not racism.”

Fittingly for a year that had been widely considered more unpredictable than usual, the evening delivered a number of surprises, large and small.

Mark Rylance was an unexpected winner in the supporting actor category for his performance in the Cold War thriller “Bridge of Spies,” beating out Sylvester Stallone, who had widely been expected to score an Oscar knockout for his return to the role of Rocky Balboa in “Creed.”

The indie sci-fi film “Ex Machina” earned the visual effects prize, an upset in a category dominated by bigger, flashier films such as “Mad Max” and “Star Wars.”

Throughout the evening, the theme of honoring survivors of one kind or another recurred. Accepting the original screenplay award for “Spotlight,” which chronicles the Boston Globe's investigation uncovering the sexual abuse scandal among Catholic priests, the film's co-writer and director, Tom McCarthy, acknowledged both the reporters and the victims.

“We made this film for all the journalists who have and continue to hold the powerful accountable, and for the survivors whose courage and will to overcome is really an inspiration to all,” McCarthy said. “We have to make sure this never happens again.”

Late in the evening, Vice President Joe Biden took the stage to issue a call to end sexual violence, introducing Lady Gaga's rendition of her Oscar-nominated song “'Til It Happens to You” from the documentary film “The Hunting Ground,” a performance that earned a standing ovation.

Extending the survival theme further, DiCaprio devoted the bulk of his acceptance speech to an impassioned call to save the planet in the face of the global warming crisis, saying, “It is the most urgent threat facing our entire species and we need to work collectively and stop procrastinating.”

But it was the issue of diversity that dominated the proceedings, popping up in moments both earnest and humorous.

On the serious side, Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who has drawn both praise and criticism for spearheading dramatic changes aimed at doubling the number of women and minorities in the academy's ranks by 2020, spoke of the importance of extending opportunity to those who are underrepresented in the entertainment industry.

“While change is often difficult, it is necessary,” Boone Isaacs said. “I am confident that together we can shape a future of which all of us can be proud.”

But for the nominees, as always, the evening came down less to the sweeping issues facing the entire industry and more to smaller, more personal moments of drama.

At one point, Tom Hardy, a supporting actor nominee for “The Revenant,” was spotted pacing around the lobby, looking anxious.

Asked if his nerves had something to do with “The Revenant's” Oscar prospects, the British actor, who recently became a father for the second time, said no.

“I'm just waiting for my wife to finish breast pumping in the bathroom,” Hardy said wryly. “She has to do it every hour.”

Twitter: @joshrottenberg

Times staff writers Steven Zeitchik and Amy Kaufman contributed to this report.

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