The 93rd Academy Awards had no host, no masks, no Zoom, and almost no audience.
There’s a lot of things the Oscars weren’t tonight, but lackluster thankfully wasn’t one of them overall.
Hollywood’s biggest night wasn’t exactly the movie unto itself that producers Jesse Collins, Stacey Sher and Steven Soderbergh promised. However, no one took that very seriously, and the resulting relatively fast-paced and deeply personal ceremony actually might have been something more vital – a true Hollywood reinvigoration.
Which is something ABC, AMPAS and the industry itself needed after years of the Academy Awards being on either autopilot or the small-screen equivalent of a ragged hamster wheel at best. The big swing Academy Awards will still likely be the least-watched Oscars ever, or one of the least watched at the very least, which is a real shame.
Sure, things got wobbly and anticlimactic toward the very end with Best Actor saved for last, instead of Best Picture. It’s fairly obvious the producers bet, as many did, that Chadwick Boseman would score a posthumous win for his Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom performance and a provide a colossal conclusion to the show. Yet that never to be repeated misstep aside, it’s a shame so few will have seen the broadcast because history was made in more ways than one on the three-hour-plus show.
Yes, in terms of hardware, there weren’t many surprises in what was a very good night for longtime front-runner Nomadland and its director Chloe Zhao. But that shouldn’t dim the fact that the helmer of the upcoming Eternals is only the second woman ever to win Best Director. Zhao is also the first woman of color to shatter that golden ceiling.
Minari’s wonderful Yuh-Jung Youn and Judas and the Black Messiah’s Daniel Kaluuya took the Best Supporting Actress and Best Supporting Actor prize, with the former the first Korean to snag an acting Oscar. Pixar’s Soul and Netflix’s My Octopus Teacher won Beat Animated Feature and Documentary Feature, respectively.
Look, of course the whole thing still should be about an hour shorter. Plus, a few more clips from nominated movies would have been gratifying and we might never be able to get the image of Glenn Close doing Da Butt dance out of our heads. But coming out of a year when almost no one could go to the movies because of Covid-19 lockdowns and streamers came to the fore, the reimagined show overall was an winner unto itself.
Past Oscar winner Soderbergh said presenters tonight would be more like cast members and the first 90 seconds of the show would set the tone. Well, with that strut through Union Station by One Night in Miami director Regina King and the multi-colored onscreen credits, it looked like the night was headed toward the on-the-beat style and savvy of 2001’s Ocean’s Eleven.
However, once past Oscar winner King bluntly noted “it has been quite a year” out of the coronavirus crisis and last week’s Derek Chauvin guilty verdict, politics basically were showed the exit at the venue and the cinematically shot 2021 Oscars pretty much became your standard awards show.
That is if your basic awards show has a calibrated sense of timing, glamour and grandeur and literal and figurative intimacy. Which is another way of saying that, with the nice touch of having the nomination-snubbed King front and center, tonight’s Oscars was something we haven’t seen or felt in almost any awards show in way too long.
Production designer David Rockwell’s transformation of the grand former Ticketing Concourse of the Art Deco train terminal into a 1920s nightclub wasn’t just a nice throwback to the tables and booths of the early Oscars. Along with satellite settings in London, Paris and Stockholm, the staging of Union Station also distinguished the 93rd Academy Awards as the place to be – also something we haven’t seen or felt in way too long.
Not that it was all so carefully choreographed, as Promising Young Woman’s Emerald Fennell made clear when she quipped, “Steven, I hope that was all right” after delivering a very personal speech for her Best Original Screenplay win. When Another Round director Thomas Vinterberg spoke of the car accident that killed his 19-year-old daughter just as filming commenced on the Best International Feature winner and how he made the Mads Mikkelsen starrer for her, the tone was solidly set.
This was the Oscars where voices were heard.
Freed up by moving the Original Song contenders off the main show and significantly mixing up the usual run of show, there was no walk-off music insultingly cutting winners short as in past years. As exemplified by the wolf cry from Nomadland’s McDormand, the show directed by Glen Weiss with musical direction from Questlove wasn’t afraid to let those it celebrates and honors “celebrate life,” as Best Supporting Actor winner Kaluuya declared — though we might not have needed the bit about the actor’s parents having sex to have him.
Not that politics were entirely absent on the Oscars stage too, as inclusion and the diversity of talent and creators rightly took center stage by the very ethos of the show, the nominees and some of the winners.
In his wide ranging speech for his Best Supporting Actor victory, Kaluuya unsurprisingly praised the example, life and work of slain Black Panthers leader Fred Hampton, who he portrayed in Judas and the Black Messiah. The horrors of gun violence in America also were decried by Will McCormack and Michael Govier, directors of the poignant Best Animated Short winner If Anything Happens I Love You, and others. Introducing the moving In Memoriam segment, the always regal Angela Bassett lamented “the often incomprehensible times” that have seen more than three million souls around the globe die from the coronavirus” and “those precious lives lost to the violence of inequality, injustice, hatred, racism and poverty.”
If anything, in the first Oscars since Donald Trump left office, Hollywood politics appeared more mature and considered then in recent years.
In that context, Tyler Perry might have not had enough time to “talk about judgment” in his Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award speech this evening. What the Atlanta-based mogul did use his time on stage to do was cross the ideological divided and ask America “to meet me in the middle and refuse hate.”
To be honest, earlier in the day, it seemed like all of Soderbergh’s pre-Oscars MC hyping of something new was hot air.
Actually, with his striped socks and white kicks, Soderbergh made a cameo in the background at the way-too-low-key pre-ceremony Oscars: Into the Spotlight from a sleekly designed lounge outside Union Station under gray downtown L.A. skies.
Hosted by Ariana DeBose and Lil Rel Howery, the culturally acute 90-minute lead-in featured chats with nominees such as Nomadland’s Zhao, Black Messiah’s Kaluuya, United States vs. Billie Holiday star Andra Day, One Night in Miami’s Leslie Odom Jr, and Sound of Metal’s Riz Ahmed. As one would also expect from a movie love-in, there was also a trailer of sorts for the long-delayed Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, set to open its multimillion-dollar doors in September.
With many theaters across America remaining closed or out of business from the pandemic, there was a big plug for cinemas themselves with #TheBigScreenIsBack. No one is going to argue with trying to get theaters open again and people back to work, but this Matthew McConaughey-fronted video advocating “the movies the way you’ve always loved them is the way to see them again” sounded a little out of sync in a year literally dominated by winning films like Nomadland that found their home on streamers.
Protected by “stringent Covid protocols,” as Academy boss David Rubin said, the limp and unnecessary Into the Spotlight was overflowing with celebs gushing about how excited they were to be out of the house. Or as Howery said on a hot mic while talking to Zhao, “I’m just happy to see people”
Along with pre-recorded performances of the Original Song nominees, including literal Eurovision-style fireworks from Húsavík, Iceland, and a repeated desire for “good news” after this year of Covid-19, economic crash and a bitter election, Into the Spotlight proved a psych out for the rest of tonight’s Academy Awards.
Hopefully by the time the 94th Academy Awards come around next year, Covid-19 truly will be receding into the past. On the other hand, hopefully the Oscars won’t slide back into their old ways and cast aside the lessons and golden strides made this year.
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