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A big night for ‘Parasite’ at the 2020 Oscars

The cast and crew of "Parasite" accepted the award for best picture at the 92nd Academy Awards.
The cast and crew of "Parasite" accepted the award for best picture at the 92nd Academy Awards.Handout/A.M.P.A.S. via Getty Images

“Parasite,” a pitch-black social satire from South Korea, made Oscar history at the 92nd Academy Awards Sunday night by becoming the first foreign language film to win best picture. The ceremonies were held at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood.

In addition, Bong Joon Ho won best director and “Parasite” also took home trophies for best international film and best original screenplay. It was a grand slam and a decided upset over the World War I epic “1917," which went into the night the heavy favorite to take the top award. “Parasite,” about a poor family of con artists that infiltrates the household of a wealthy clan, has been growing slowly with word-of-mouth audience favor since winning the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival last May. That said, the film’s best picture win is a first in the nearly century-long annals of the Oscars.


Otherwise, the winners were spread widely about. Joaquin Phoenix received the best actor Oscar for his performance as the tormented Arthur Fleck, the man who would become the Joker, in Todd Phillips’s “Joker.” The actor used his win to deliver an impassioned speech urging listeners to fight injustice and support each other; visibly overcome, he quoted his late brother, the actor River Phoenix: “Run to the rescue with love, and peace will follow.” Trivia footnote: Phoenix is the second actor to win an Oscar for playing the Joker, after Heath Ledger’s supporting win in 2009’s “The Dark Knight.”

Renée Zellweger took the statue for best actress for her portrayal of the late-stage Judy Garland in “Judy,” and in her speech urged the audience to come together in admiration for “heroes” like Garland. ”When we celebrate our heroes, we’re reminded of who we are as one people, united,” she said.

Brad Pitt won the statue for best supporting actor as the did-he-or-didn’t-he stuntman in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood.” It was Pitt’s second Oscar and first for acting; he won in 2014 for producing “12 Years a Slave.” The one-time “Thelma & Louise” himbo used his speech to spotlight director Quentin Tarantino, costar (and fellow nominee) Leonardo DiCaprio, the unheralded stuntmen and women of the movie business, and his parents, who took him to his first drive-in movie to see “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Said an exuberant Pitt, “Once upon a time in Hollywood – ain’t that the truth.”


Laura Dern won best supporting actress for her turn as a savvy shark of a divorce lawyer in Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story.” It was her first Oscar in three nominations and an occasion for the assembled Academy members to celebrate a much-admired trouper and second-generation Hollywood talent. Accepting her award, Dern shared it with her parents – “my heroes, acting legends Diane Ladd and Bruce Dern.” Ladd was present in the audience to see her daughter accept the Oscar.

Dern also gave a shout-out to Netflix “for the support and love for [director] Noah [Baumbach],” a reminder of the streaming giant’s heavy tread this Oscar season. In addition to “Marriage Story,” Netflix has produced and distributed “The Irishman” – the only best picture nominee to come away empty-handed Sunday night – “The Two Popes” with its acting nominations for Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins, “I Lost My Body” in the feature animation category, and feature documentary winner “American Factory.”


The award for best animated feature went to “Toy Story 4,” the second sequel to win this prize – the first being “Toy Story 3” in 2010. It is the tenth feature animation Oscar to be won by Pixar.

The longtime songwriting partnership of Elton John and Bernie Taupin won the Oscar for best original song for “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again,” from the biopic “Rocketman.” Said Taupin from the podium, “This is justification for 53 years of hammering it out.”

This year’s nominees represented a broad range of films but ones in which tales of men struggling in various theaters of war – domestic, gangland, actual – dominated. Coincidentally or not, the nine best picture nominees included a fair amount of box-office hits – “Joker,” “Ford v Ferrari,” “1917,” “Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood,” even “Parasite,” which is the biggest foreign-language hit in some time.

“Joker,” a dark origin story entry in the superhero genre, debuted in October and immediately drew praise for Phoenix’s performance. In addition to his win, Hildur Guðnadóttir’s music for “Joker” won best original score. “Little Women” marked an advance in actor-turned-director Greta Gerwig’s filmmaking career, a highly praised production of the classic Louisa May Alcott novel that was filmed in the novelist’s Massachusetts backyard but shot through with a womanly spine that only seemed modern. The film was nominated for six Academy Awards – it won the Oscar for best costumes – but Gerwig’s omission in the directing category was the most startling oversight in a year unusually rich with movies well-directed by women.


Her romantic partner, writer-director Noah Baumbach, went unnominated in that category as well, although “Marriage Story” had six nominations and won for Dern’s supporting turn. In addition to Pitt’s win, “Once Upon a Time” won the Oscar for production design for its lush recreation of 1969 Hollywood. “Jojo Rabbit,” Taika Waititi’s comic drama about a little boy in World War II Germany, took home the Oscar for best adapted screenplay, with the part-Maori writer-director-star dedicating his win to “all the indigenous kids all over the world who want to do art and dance and write stories.”

Sam Mendes’s “1917," a big-budget war epic that appeared to be filmed in one continuous camera shot, opened late in the awards season and rode a crest of admiration all the way to the doorstep of the Academy Awards before falling short. Nominated for ten Oscars, it won three in the crafts categories: cinematography (the great Roger Deakins’s second Oscar), sound mixing, and visual effects. But it had also been thought to be a front-runner for best director and best picture.

The four acting categories had similarly seemed a foregone conclusion for months, and their wins set the mood for a “1917” sweep. But the evening’s celebratory vibe slowly turned to delighted astonishment as “Parasite” kept racking up more and bigger awards. With his four Academy Awards, Bong ties the record for the most Oscars going to one person in the same night. The first to hold the record? Walt Disney, 1954.


After his second win, for international film (the former “foreign language” category), director Bong capped his speech by quipping “I’m ready to drink.” After winning the directing Oscar, he amended that to “I’ll be drinking until morning." Then sent out a lovely bouquet to a fellow nominee in the house. “When I was a young filmmaker," Bong said through his interpreter, "there was a saying I carved deep into my heart: 'The most personal is the most creative.’” Bong paused. “The quote was from [Martin] Scorsese.”

Ty Burr can be reached at ty.burr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.