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Why Michael Keaton was sure ‘Spotlight’ would win best picture

Pretty much everyone I know who’d seen “Spotlight” was convinced it was the year’s best film. But when I arrived in Los Angeles last Friday for the Oscars, I realized they were perhaps just being kind. The Hollywood Cognoscenti had decided that on Sunday night, “The Revenant” would prevail.

So, OK, I hedged my bets and made a rare visit to Twitter. I sent out an “If only. . .” tweet that said: “In “Spotlight,” Tom McCarthy made a film that matters. That’s what matters. If only he’d had one reporter sleep inside a deceased horse. . .”

In the Land of LA, Oscar weekend is Party Weekend. There are gatherings of foreordained winners and their entourages — Leonardo DiCaprio at one, Sylvester Stallone (ha!) at another. There are parties for the certain also-rans, where good California wines drown out anticipated sorrows. Surely, there must have been one of these for “The Hateful Eight” crowd, nearly as grim a gathering as that depicted in the film.

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Our party — OK, parties — were upbeat. Hopes were expressed. Fears bubbled up. Righteous Conviction trumped both — even if the best picture Oscar went to another movie, this scrappy underdog would be The Film people would be watching two or three decades hence.

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“Spotlight” had six nominations. Everyone knew its best shot was the Oscar for best original screenplay, though Josh Singer, who co-wrote the script with director Tom McCarthy, was an anxious worrywart at our private dinner Friday night. Not a good sign. McCarthy, across the room, was telling jokes nonstop, which was perhaps a better omen.

But when talk turned to best picture, the tone shifted: We have a shot, but. . .

It was about then that Michael Keaton arrived, equal parts optimism and conviction.

I told him I had bowed to the inevitable: The sweeping western epic had become a nearly sure thing, and the best we could hope for was what we already had. The critics had declared that “Spotlight” should win, but the western would triumph in the end.

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Keaton looked at me and shook his head sadly at my ignorance. He strongly believed that “Spotlight” would prevail with the Academy, he said, and he explained why. He liked “The Revenant.” But, he said, the voting system worked in our favor. That’s because for best picture only, Academy voters pick their winners, but also vote for their second, third, and fourth choices, etc.

With three of the eight nominees — “Spotlight,” “The Big Short,” and “The Revenant” — vying for that most sought-after statuette, none of the three could expect to get a majority of first-place votes. And for most voters, Keaton said, “Spotlight” was far more likely to get second-place votes than “The Revenant,” with its repellant violence and privation.

Plus, he added, “Spotlight” really was the best film.

On Sunday night, sure enough, “The Revenant” failed to win in some of the visual and sound categories that had been expected. “Spotlight” started the night with the original screenplay Oscar. And then Stallone, the prognosticators’ shoo-in for best supporting actor, was overlooked by voters. That Oscar went to Mark Rylance for his brilliant performance in “Bridge of Spies.”

Suddenly, in the nosebleed seats where we were watching, the experts had no clothes. Anything seemed possible. Sure, “The Revenant” took Oscars for best cinematography and best actor — those were gimmes. But when Morgan Freeman, at night’s end, opened the best picture envelope, the name inside was “Spotlight.”

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At a later celebratory party — OK, the second one — Keaton, the man who had just headlined a best picture cast for two years running, arrived with a big grin on his face. We high-fived. We hugged. He winked, then whispered, “Told you.”