LOS ANGELES — In a surprise upset and a historic milestone, director Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” — a darkly comic class satire about two families, one rich and one poor, whose lives become entangled — won best picture Sunday night at the 92nd Academy Awards, becoming the first foreign-language film ever to win the film academy’s top prize.
Throughout awards season, “Parasite” was seen by many as the underdog in a field that ranged from the gangster drama “The Irishman” to the 1960s fantasia “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” to the World War I movie “1917.” But over time, the South Korean film worked its way into the hearts of Oscar voters, whose ranks have grown increasingly international and diverse in recent years.
The road to the Oscar for “Parasite” kicked off last May when the film claimed the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Festival. Despite Bong’s idiosyncratic, genre-scrambling vision — or perhaps because of it — “Parasite” went on to become a mainstream box office success like few foreign-language films in memory, earning the Screen Actors Guild’s ensemble award along with a slew of critics’ group prizes.
“Parasite” claimed four Oscars in total, with Bong winning the directing prize along with best international feature film and original screenplay, the first time a South Korean filmmaker had claimed those prizes.
Bong himself seemed surprised to have won the directing prize over a field that included Mendes, Scorsese and Tarantino.
“After winning best international feature, I thought I was done for the day and was ready to relax,” he said. “When I was young and studying cinema, there was a saying that I carved deep in my heart, which is that the most personal is the most creative. That quote is from our great Martin Scorsese.”
Heading into the night, “1917” was widely considered the film to beat, having swept the director and drama honors at the Golden Globes as well as the top prizes from the Producers and Directors guilds.
In contrast to the boundary-pushing “Parasite,” director Sam Mendes’ war epic is in many ways a more old-fashioned Oscar film, boasting the sort of epic sweep, period setting and rousing themes of bravery and sacrifice that often have been hallmarks of best picture winners dating all the way back to the very first one, 1927’s silent World War I movie “Wings.”
In recent years, the academy has brought in hundreds of new members from overseas as part of its ongoing effort to diversify its historically White-male-dominated membership.
In naming “Parasite” both best picture and best international feature — the first time a South Korean film has earned that prize — the organization seemed to be embracing the chance to show that it has become less parochial and more open-minded than it may have been in decades past.
A TOUCHING SPEECH
The acting prizes were largely foregone conclusions, with each of the winners having opened up insurmountable leads over their competition early on in the awards horse race.
Joaquin Phoenix, who swept virtually every major acting prize leading up to the Oscars, won the lead actor award for his physically transformative turn as a troubled would-be comedian turned supervillain in the dark comic-book film “Joker.”
In the run-up to the Oscars, Phoenix’s acceptance speeches at the Golden Globes, SAG Awards and BAFTAs had been every bit as unpredictable and mesmerizing, in their own way, as his performance in “Joker” — and on that score, his Oscar acceptance speech didn’t disappoint, with the actor touching on themes of inclusion, environmental and personal redemption and choking up as he invoked his late brother, River.
“I’ve been a scoundrel in my life — I’ve been selfish, I’ve been cruel at times, hard to work with, and I’m grateful that so many in this room have given me a second chance,” said Phoenix, who had never previously won an Oscar. “I think that’s when we’re at our best, when we support each other.
PITT’S POLITICAL QUIP
As expected, Renée Zellweger won the lead actress award for her turn as Hollywood icon Judy Garland near the end of her turbulent life in “Judy,” telling the starry crowd in the Dolby Theatre that when we celebrate heroes like Garland, “we’re reminded of who we are as one people, united.”
In the supporting categories, academy voters spread their love to two veterans who, despite being veritable industry royalty, had never won acting Oscars. Laura Dern won for her performance as a fierce divorce lawyer in “Marriage Story,” while Brad Pitt won for his turn as a grizzled stunt man in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” injecting one of the most charged political moments into the night in his acceptance speech.
“They told me only have 45 seconds up here, which is 45 seconds more than the Senate gave John Bolton [at the impeachment trial],” Pitt said.
Heading into the evening, Netflix — propelled by best picture nominees “Marriage Story” and “The Irishman” — had outpaced all other studios and distributors with 24 nominations. The most disruptive force to hit the movie business since the advent of television, the streaming giant has leveraged its vast resources in recent years in an effort to win its first best picture Oscar.
But in the end, in what may be a sign of lingering resistance among Oscar voters to the company’s streaming-centric business model, Netflix came away with just two wins, with its biggest contender, “The Irishman,” coming up empty-handed despite 10 nominations.
DIVERSITY STILL AN ISSUE
In the absence of a traditional emcee, Janelle Monae kicked off the show with an energetic musical performance featuring backup dancers clad in costumes from films like “Midsommar,” “Jojo Rabbit” and “Joker,” setting an upbeat, celebratory tone for the night that stood in stark contrast with the current unsettled, politically divisive climate.
The rest of the ceremony leaned into the star power of presenters such as Kristen Wiig, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Lin-Manuel Miranda and musical performances by Billie Eilish, who sang the Beatles’ “Yesterday” during the In Memoriam segment, and Elton John, who sang” (I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” from “Rocket Man,” which won in the song category. Most surprisingly (and somewhat confusingly), rapper Eminem made an unannounced appearance to perform his Oscar-winning song “Lose Yourself” from the 2002 film “8 Mile.”
In recent years, even as the academy has worked to diversify its historically White-male-dominated ranks, issues of representation have loomed large over the Oscars, and this year was no exception.
In the weeks leading up to the show, many criticized the organization for failing to nominate any female directors. Actress Natalie Portman wore a black Dior cape with the names of female directors who were left out, like Greta Gerwig (“Little Women”), Lulu Wang (“The Farewell”) and Marielle Heller (“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”), etched in gold.
Meanwhile, the academy only narrowly avoided a reprise of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy that dogged it in recent years, with just one person of color, “Harriet” star Cynthia Erivo, among the 20 acting nominees. “Cynthia did such a good job hiding Black people in Harriet’ that the academy got her to hide all the nominees,” Chris Rock cracked early in the show.
Still, on the inclusion front, the night included a number of firsts. With its original screenplay win, “Parasite” became the first South Korean movie — and the first film from the entire Asian continent — to earn a screenwriting Oscar. “Peanut Butter Falcon” star Zack Gottsagen made history as the first Oscar presenter with Down syndrome.
In the adapted screenplay category, “Jojo Rabbit” writer-director Taika Waititi became the first person of Maori descent to win an Oscar, dedicating his award “to all the indigenous kids live in the world who want to do art and dance, and write stories.
“We are the original storytellers, and we make it here as well.” (Later in the show, Waititi acknowledged that the show itself was being held on the ancestral lands of the Tongva, the Tataviam and the Chumash.
Accepting his supporting actor prize, Pitt reflected on the long and winding road of his own career — and, in a broader sense, spoke to the long and winding history of the movies themselves the show celebrated. “Once upon a time in Hollywood,” he said, shaking his head. “Ain’t that the truth.”