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Oscars 2019: ‘Green Book’s’ best picture win caps off an unpredictable awards season

From Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper singing to a 'Wayne's World' reunion, these are the highlights from the 2019 Academy Awards.

Putting the final exclamation point on an unusually tumultuous and unpredictable Oscar season, "Green Book" — the period road movie about a black virtuoso pianist and his white chauffeur and bodyguard from director Peter Farrelly — claimed the top prize Sunday night at the 91st Academy Awards, beating out a diverse field of rivals ranging from the intimate, poetic "Roma" to the superhero smash "Black Panther" to the crowd-pleasing Freddie Mercury biopic "Bohemian Rhapsody."

Heading into the night, the best picture race seemed unusually wide open, with no clear and sustained front-runner, and yet the win for "Green Book" was not entirely unexpected. In January, the film picked up the top prize at the Producers Guild Awards, an important bellwether, and in many ways, the feel-good movie had the trappings of an old-fashioned Oscar contender.

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But on the way to its final victory, "Green Book" also had to overcome significant hurdles, including a sluggish start at the box office, dissent from some critics and moviegoers who found its racial politics outdated and simplistic as well as criticism from the family of pianist Don Shirley, who claimed the movie's portrayal of him was "a symphony of lies."

In accepting the award, Farrelly said it was the film's message of racial reconciliation that ultimately resonated with audiences and academy voters. "This whole story is about love," Farrelly said. "It's about loving each other despite our differences and finding out the truth about who we are: we're the same people."

In the run-up to the ceremony at the Dolby Theatre, many had expected Alfonso Cuarón's "Roma" — which came into the night with 10 nominations, tied with the gonzo period dramedy "The Favourite" — to win Netflix its first ever best picture, a prize the streaming giant has long coveted. Netflix spent an estimated $25 million to $30 million promoting "Roma," well in excess of the film's $15 million production budget, blitzing Oscar voters with a carefully orchestrated campaign and breaking with precedent to give the film a three-week exclusive theatrical run.

But while "Roma" came away with three wins, including foreign language film and directing and cinematography for Cuarón, the first person ever to win in both categories, it ultimately fell short of the top prize — a sign perhaps of lingering resistance among academy voters to streaming, which many see as an existential threat to the traditional moviegoing experience.

"I want to thank the academy for recognizing a film centered around an indigenous woman, one of the 70 million domestic workers in the world … a character that historically had been relegated to the background in cinema," Cuarón said, accepting the directing prize. "As artists, our job is to look where others don't. This is much more important in times when we're being encouraged to look away."

In a year that saw each major guild award leading up to the Oscars go to a different film, Oscar voters seemed similarly torn in their affections, spreading major awards among different contenders.

Rami Malek, who swept virtually every major acting prize leading up to the Oscars, won the lead actor prize for his turn as Mercury in "Bohemian Rhapsody," one of four awards earned by the hit biopic. (Neither Malek nor any of the film's other honorees mentioned its disgraced credited director, Bryan Singer, who was fired from the project during production and has faced charges of sexual misconduct, which he has denied.)

"To anyone struggling with their [identity] and trying to discover their voice, we made a film about a gay man and immigrant who lived his life just unapologetically himself," Malek said, nodding to the fact that he is the child of Egyptian immigrants. "The fact that I'm celebrating him and this story with you tonight is proof that we're longing for stories like this."

In one of the evening's bigger surprises, Olivia Colman won the lead actress award for her turn as the insecure, demanding Queen Anne in "The Favourite," coming out on top in a strong field that included seven-time nominee Glenn Close, who many expected to finally win her first Oscar for "The Wife." "Glenn Close, you've been my idol for so long, and this is not how I wanted it to be, and I think you're amazing," Colman said.

Regina King won the prize for supporting actress for her role in the James Baldwin adaptation "If Beale Street Could Talk." Mahershala Ali won his second supporting actor award for playing Shirley in "Green Book," which also picked up the award for original screenplay.

"BlacKkKlansman" earned the adapted screenplay award, giving Spike Lee — who was also nominated for directing — his first competitive Oscar. (The Academy did present him with an honorary award in 2015.)

"The 2020 presidential election is around the corner," Lee said in the night's most pointedly political speech. "Let's all mobilize. Let's be on the right side of history, make the moral choice of love versus hate. Let's do the right thing."

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Viggo Mortensen, left, and Mahershala Ali in a scene from "Green Book."
Viggo Mortensen, left, and Mahershala Ali in a scene from "Green Book." (Universal Pictures)
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Heading into this year's ceremony, many longtime Oscar watchers felt a higher than usual degree of suspense, both because of the relatively wide-open best picture race and because, for the first time in 30 years, the telecast had no formal host. Kevin Hart dropped out in December just days after he was announced as host amid controversy over past homophobic jokes, leaving empty a gig that was once highly coveted but is now widely considered thankless.

Following an opening performance from Queen of their hits "We Will Rock You" and "We Are the Champions" and a montage of inspirational quotes from this year's movies, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph immediately addressed the elephant in the room, while also tweaking some of the other controversies that have loomed over this awards season, academy-generated and otherwise.

"Just a quick update, in case you're confused: There is no host tonight," Rudolph said. "There won't be a popular movie category. And Mexico is not paying for the wall." The three then trotted out jokes they would have made had they hosted the show. ("'Roma' is on Netflix? What's next, my microwave makes a movie?" Fey cracked.)

Indeed, the host debacle was just one in a string of public-relations crises for the motion picture academy that roiled this entire awards season, much as the #OscarsSoWhite firestorm had in 2016.

In September, the academy's leadership shelved a proposed "best popular film" Oscar amid criticism that it represented an act of pandering to boost the show's steadily sagging ratings, which hit an all-time low last year. Then just days before the ceremony, following an intense outcry from many of the group's most prominent members, the academy scrapped a plan to present four awards — cinematography, editing, live action short, hairstyling and makeup — during commercial breaks in a bid to shave precious minutes off the often bloated telecast.

"We won't be doing awards during the commercials, but we will be presenting commercials during the awards," Poehler joked. "So if all the winners could please say, 'Hellmann's mayonnaise: We're on the side of food,' instead of speeches, that would be great."

The last time the Oscars went without a host, in 1989, the show was widely regarded as a debacle, featuring infamous musical numbers including one pairing Rob Lowe and an actress dressed as Snow White. But while some may have tuned in to this year's show anticipating a similar sort of train wreck, the ceremony unfolded without any major hiccups and at what seemed to be a determinedly brisk pace.

Though the academy had vowed in August to hold the show to three hours, it ultimately clocked in at three hours and 17 minutes — far less than the nearly four hours that last year's show ran.

In the absence of a formal host, the ceremony leaned into the star power of unexpected presenters such as Serena Williams and Trevor Noah, who introduced "A Star Is Born" and "Black Panther," respectively, and performances of the original song nominees from the likes of Jennifer Hudson, Bette Midler and Lady Gaga, who shared the best song prize for "Shallow" in what would be the night's only win for "A Star Is Born."

The kind of comedy shtick that would have normally come from a host was delivered instead by presenters such as Keegan-Michael Key, who descended from the rafters holding an umbrella a la Mary Poppins, and Melissa McCarthy and Brian Tyree Henry, who introduced the costume category wearing absurdly over-the-top outfits stuffed with references to the nominated films.

Along with the academy's stumbles, issues of representation once again loomed large over this year's awards season, and on that score, this year's Oscars presented a number of firsts. Hannah Beachler and Ruth Carter became the first African Americans to win the awards for production design and costume design, respectively, for their work in "Black Panther." "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse" co-director Peter Ramsey became the first African American to win an Oscar for animated feature film.

Though no women were nominated this year in the directing category — a stark contrast with Film Independent's Spirit Awards, in which three of the five directing nominees were women — female filmmakers made a strong showing in the animated short ("Bao"), documentary short subject ("Period. End of Sentence."), live-action short ("Skin") and documentary feature ("Free Solo") categories.

Accepting her award with one of the night's more emotional speeches, Beachler offered encouragement to those who would come after her — and, in a way, delivered what could have been a summation for this year's Oscars as a whole, with all the bumps along the road leading up to it.

"I give this strength to all of those who come next," Beachler said. "To keep going and never give up, and when you think it's impossible, just remember to say this piece of advice I got from a very wise woman: 'I did my best, and my best is good enough.'"

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From Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper singing to a 'Wayne's World' reunion, these are the highlights from the 2019 Academy Awards.

Twitter: @joshrottenberg

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