Parasite won. In one of the most exciting nights in recent Oscar history, Bong Joon-ho’s masterpiece walked away with four Academy Awards: Best Original Screenplay, Best International Feature Film, Best Director, and Best Picture of the Year — the first film in a language other than English to win Best Picture.
It was conventionally assumed based upon 1917 ’s dominance at the guild awards that the South Korean film could win, might win, should win, but probably wouldn’t win Best Picture. It seemed even less likely that Bong Joon-ho would win Best Director over 1917 ’s Sam Mendes, whose technical mastery over that film’s craft made that award seem like a forgone conclusion.
With the exception of these two awards, the forgone conclusions dominated the night. There were no surprises in the acting awards: Brad Pitt for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Laura Dern for Marriage Story in the supporting categories, Joaquin Phoenix for Joker and Renee Zellweger for Judy in the lead categories.
Similarly, as expected, 1917 ’s one take wonder visual gimmick netted Roger Deakins his second Oscar for Best Cinematography, and Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” from Rocketman won Best Original Song, the first time the 50-year songwriting partners have ever won an award together. It seemed like it was shaping up to be a boring, predictable night.
By the time Best Director came up, Parasite had won its first two awards, which were also considered by the pundits to be incredibly likely, so there were no surprises yet. They were the first two awards ever won by a South Korean film. History had already been made. Spike Lee, a winner last year for his work as a screenwriter for BlacKkKlansman, presented the Director award; he read the nominations and then, ever the showman, he took a pregnant pause before announcing: Bong Joon-ho.
“I thought I was done for the night,” quipped Bong. But the people in the Dolby Theatre were clearly thrilled that he was not. And he still had one more walk up to the stage to come, when Jane Fonda, presenting Best Picture, would take her own dramatic pause before announcing Parasite the winner.
Parasite ’s path to victory started in May of last year, when it debuted to a rapturous response at the Cannes Film Festival, going on to win the highest award at that festival, the Palme d’Or. (Parasite is the second film ever to win both the Palme d’Or and the Academy Award for Best Picture, something that hasn’t happened since the 1955 film Marty.)
When I saw the film three weeks after Cannes, I was totally floored. Parasite was one of the most surprising, audacious, entertaining, and heartbreaking films I had seen in a long time. I did not think then that it would be one of the most game-changing Oscar winners in history.
Parasite was released abroad immediately after Cannes, and opened in October in the United States. The film’s opening weekend was one of the highest per-theater average box office successes of all time. (Per-theater box office is a metric used to assess the success of films in limited release. Since pure receipts of a film in only a handful of theaters cannot measure against a film in 3,000 theaters, this number scales the success accordingly, telling us how many butts were in the available seats.)
Then the box office just kept steadily growing. Parasite was a bona fide hit in the United States; at the time of this writing, the film has earned over 35 million dollars domestically, a staggering amount for a film not in the English language. The film was also in 1,060 theaters over this Oscar weekend, as wide of a release as could be dreamed of.
In the month after its US release, it became clear that Parasite would be a player at the Academy Awards. It was unclear just how big of a mark the film would make, but what was extremely clear was the love the film industry clearly felt for the film. Now the industry has made good on its affection, giving the film four highly deserved Oscars.
Bong was clearly stunned with his final two victories and used his Best Director speech as an opportunity to thank fellow nominees Martin Scorsese (who received his own standing ovation) and Quentin Tarantino for their inspiration, and the latter for his decades-long friendship. (It should be noted that Scorsese’s The Irishman became the sixth film ever to be nominated for at least ten Oscars to go home empty-handed.)
The winners of the acting categories each gave moving speeches as well. Pitt was so overcome with emotion that his voice was shaking and he was on the verge of tears as he said “Once upon a time in Hollywood… ain’t that the truth” before closing by thanking his kids.
Dern referred to her parents, actors Diane Ladd and Bruce Dern, as her heroes and acting legends, as Ladd cried in the audience. “This is the best birthday present ever!” added Dern.
One of the most emotional moments of the night came at the end of Phoenix’s speech, when he quoted a song lyric written by his brother, River, the actor who died of a drug overdose in 1993: “run to the rescue with love and peace will follow.” He tried to say River’s name but was so overcome with emotion he could only say “my brother.”
But the night belonged to Parasite, and to Bong, who ties Walt Disney for the most awards won on a single Oscar night. “Once upon a time in Hollywood… ain’t that the truth…”