LOS ANGELES – Hollywood is smarter than you thought. Whether by design or chance, the 87th Academy Awards elegantly and subtly shifted the tone of the season from a reductive fixation on snubs and fact-checking to a positive celebration of original filmmaking and purposeful advocacy for causes as diverse as immigration, suicide and equal rights.
The self-obsessed industry might have given its best picture and director prizes to Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's "Birdman," a trenchant examination of actorly narcissism, but the vanity seemed to stop with the opening of the envelopes. Even in their moments of singular glory, most of the winners chose to talk about something other than themselves.
The Mexican-born Inarritu, who's "Birdman" also won for cinematography and original screenplay, said he prays his native country finds "a government we deserve" and that immigrants to the U.S. "can be treated with the same dignity and the respect of the ones who came before and (built) this incredible immigrant nation."
Host Neil Patrick Harris set the tenor of the evening, toeing the line between reverent merriment and self-referential parody, with a biting joke about one of the season's most criticized truths. "Tonight we honor Hollywood's best and whitest — I mean brightest," he said in his opening, referencing the lack of diversity in the slate of nominees.
Patricia Arquette, who won the supporting actress award for her portrayal of a mother finding herself in Richard Linklater's "Boyhood," also took a stand for equal rights and pay to the public delight of fellow nominee Meryl Streep.
"It is time for women. Equal means equal. The truth is the older women get the less money they make," she said backstage.
Best actress winner Julianne Moore ("Still Alice") and best actor Eddie Redmayne ("The Theory of Everything") followed suit, using their speeches to discuss the afflictions of their characters — Alzheimer's and ALS, respectively.
"This Oscar belongs to all of those people around the world battling ALS," said Redmayne.
"CitizenFour," in which Laura Poitras captured Edward Snowden in the midst of leaking National Security Agency documents, won best documentary.
"The disclosures that Edward Snowden reveals don't only expose a threat to our privacy but to our democracy itself," said Poitras, accepting the Oscar. "When the most important decisions being made affecting all of us are made in secret, we lose our ability to check the powers that control."
John Legend and Common took their win for the song "Glory" to speak of the importance of "Selma," the now infamously snubbed civil rights drama.
"We say that 'Selma' is now, because the struggle for justice is right now," said Legend.
As the young Graham Moore, who talked about his depression and a suicide attempt during his acceptance speech for best adapted screenplay for "The Imitation Game" put it backstage: "I might as well use it to say something meaningful."
But in a season full of foregone conclusions, many of which came true at the Dolby Theatre, including a best supporting actor win for J.K. Simmons ("Whiplash"), the Oscars still had a few surprises up its tuxedo sleeves, including the fact that all of Sunday's big winners were first-timers.
Richard Linklater's 12-years-in-the-making "Boyhood," a critical favorite of the year and one that was once considered a top contender for the evening's top prizes left with only an award for Arquette. The formal ambitions of "Birdman" proved to be the more compelling — even if its lead Michael Keaton was passed over in the acting race.
There was also clear regard for uniqueness in the evening's other multiple prize winners. Damien Chazelle's "Whiplash," a pulsating and vibrant independent film about a driven jazz student and his ruthless instructor, won three awards, for supporting actor, editing and sound mixing.
Director Wes Anderson's dark WWII-set fable, "The Grand Budapest Hotel," meanwhile, won four. Anderson had been long overlooked by the Academy for his idiosyncratic features. This latest outing, one of the evening's most nominated films, was recognized for production design, score, costume design and makeup and styling.
Several of this year's biggest box-office hit nominees — Clint Eastwood's Iraq war drama "American Sniper" and Christopher Nolan's sci-fi epic "Interstellar" — had to settle for single wins in technical categories. "Interstellar" won for visual effects, while "American Sniper" — far and away the most widely seen of the best-picture nominees — took the best sound editing award.
As Hollywood's studios have increasingly focused on mounting global blockbusters, the Oscars have become largely the providence of smaller indies and film festival fare. In the night's opening routine, Jack Black, playing villain to the cheery Harris, lamented Hollywood releases "opening with lots of zeroes, all we get is superheroes."
The only film that came close to betraying that sensibility was Disney's "Big Hero 6," which won best animated feature and is loosely based on an obscure Marvel comic.
Superhero hostility aside, Harris and producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan made sure to bring as youthful a spirit as possible to the evening's festivities, hoping to continue the recent ratings upswing for the Oscars, which last year drew 43 million viewers, making it the most-watched entertainment telecast in a decade.
Jake Coyle, Beth Harris, Sandy Cohen, and Anthony McCartney contributed to this report.