An unexpected theme on Oscars night

Screenwriter Josh Singer (left) and screenwriter-director Tom McCarthy accepted the award for Best Original Screenplay award at the 88th Annual Academy Awards Sunday night.
Christopher Polk/Getty Images
Screenwriter Josh Singer (left) and screenwriter-director Tom McCarthy accepted the award for Best Original Screenplay award at the 88th Annual Academy Awards Sunday night.

While all the beautiful people took their seats at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood Sunday night, Joe Crowley was alone in his room at a short-term physical rehabilitation hospital in Brookline.

Joe Crowley is a survivor. As a teenager, he survived sexual abuse at the hands of a priest who passed him around to other men like a cigarette. He survived and gave up the alcohol that numbed him for 21 years. And he survived the heart attack that six weeks ago threatened to prevent him not just from watching the Academy Awards on Sunday night, but from watching anything at all.

His character is one of the survivors featured in “Spotlight,” the film about The Boston Globe’s investigation of the coverup of sexual abuse of young people by Catholic priests. Beyond that, he is a film buff, and knows as much about motion pictures as anyone.


So when Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy took an early Oscar for best original screenplay, Crowley felt something wash over him that was more than pride. Crowley says Singer’s and McCarthy’s words, in their acceptance speeches, about what it meant for victims and survivors, were not empty Hollywood rhetoric.

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“They really cared what survivors thought, when it came to the script,” he said. “Josh called me up one day and said they were having trouble coming up with an ending. They wanted to know if I had any ideas.”

If “Spotlight” had won only that Oscar for its screenplay, that would have been enough for Joe Crowley, not just because it validated the experiences of so many survivors, but because, as he put it, “it continues the conversation.”

But as the evening wore on, he realized the conversation had expanded far beyond the film in which he is a character.

On a night when the lack of diversity in Hollywood was an explicit theme, with Chris Rock using humor to push the envelope, there was a more subtle but unmistakable theme in which the victims and survivors of sexual abuse were not only validated but celebrated, embraced in a communal hug witnessed by tens of millions of people around the world.


Brie Larson won best actress for her portrayal of a woman held prisoner by a sexual predator whose child she bears. The musical and emotional highlight of the evening was Lady Gaga singing “Til It Happens To You” and being joined on stage by survivors of sexual assault.

“I had never heard that song before,” Joe Crowley said. “And when all of those young people, not just women but men, walked on stage, I thought it was so powerful. I saw that Brie Larson was backstage, and she hugged every one of those young people when they came off stage. That was such a moving thing to watch, not just as a survivor, but as a human being.”

The message that Hollywood doesn’t do enough to include people of color in film was aimed at creating change, of making cinema more reflective of a diverse culture. Joe Crowley says the ability of film to foster changes in attitude, creating support for previously marginalized groups, was on display all night, as victims and survivors of sexual assault, in all places, were not just recognized but believed.

“Every time somebody speaks up about this, every time one of us speaks up and talks about this, it’s going to be more difficult for someone to rape a child, to rape any person,” he said.

As is tradition, the best picture was the last Oscar handed out, and when it went to “Spotlight,” Joe Crowley cheered.


As the credits rolled, he saw Mike Rezendes, one of the Globe reporters who made it all happen, and Phil Saviano, one of the survivors who came forward to make it all happen, mingle on stage with the stars and producers. The soundtrack? “Fight The Power” by Public Enemy.


Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at