Although it was the streamers in this Oscar Year of the Pandemic that had hoped to break through in the big categories, in the end it was the traditional major studios — mostly thanks to their specialty divisions — that ruled the day at the 93rd annual Academy Awards.
Netflix has with the most wins with seven, but the big one eluded it again. That must be disappointing in a year when streaming was the way people were seeing the contenders, but the biggest Netflix hope, the terrific The Trial of the Chicago 7 was shut out, and 10-time nominated leader Mank was victorious only in Cinematography and Production Design. Still, Netflix progressively has been collecting bigger numbers of wins each year, and coming in with 36 nominations, by far the most of anyone, it can take that as a consolation prize.
Instead it was Disney showing the worth of its acquisition of Fox, and especially Searchlight — which took Best Picture, Actress Frances McDormand, and Director for Chloe Zhao for Nomadland. It marked Searchlight’s impressive fifth overall Best Picture victory (and by extension a fourth for Disney, if you count the three it won when it owned Miramax). It was not a huge surprise as that film had been a favorite all season long since it won at Venice in September. Add two wins for Pixar animated Soul, and it was a big night for the Mouse House.
Searchlight’s strategy of playing festivals and stretching its visibility out for eight months turned out to be a shrewd one, as was Sony Pictures Classics’ handling of The Father, following a more traditional theatrical pattern in a very challenging landscape to do just that. It grabbed Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actor Anthony Hopkins in a bit of an upset over more heavily favored late Chadwick Boseman. Both studios held back the formal release of those two big winners until February, the latest possible date to qualify in this 14-month extended season, something Warner Bros also did with the late-breaking release of Judas and the Black Messiah after a Sundance debut in January, picking up Daniel Kaluuya’s Supporting Actor win and Best Song for their efforts. Universal’s Focus picked up Original Screenplay for Promising Young Woman to kick off the evening, meaning a near-sweep of the eight top awards of the night for the studios. Only A24, with Minari’s Best Supporting Actress win for Yuh Jung-Youn broke the pattern for the scrappy indie, but again streamers were completely shut out of the top eight spots.
So what does this mean? Probably just tomorrow is another day, and all the money in the world doesn’t necessarily bring home the gold. Just look at Frances McDormand who just won her third lead actress Oscar with virtually no campaigning (and she picked up a fourth as producer of the film and apparently didn’t even bother to come backstage to talk to press). She is just one short of matching Katharine Hepburn’s record of four Best Actress Oscars, ironic since Hepburn not only never campaigned but didn’t show up to one of those 12 Oscar ceremonies at which she was nominated and/or won. By the way, Frances, thank you for using your time to champion the moviegoing experience in theaters, something that should have been far more prevalent on this show.
I have to admit that although it was clear Nomadland was going to win Best Picture and Director, I did not think the Academy was going to go for another McDormand win so soon after her second just three years ago. It was a very competitive Lead Actress race and could have gone any which way, so perhaps being in the Best Picture winner really helped here.
The wins emulated BAFTA’s for the film just two weeks ago, marking the first time in seven years that Oscar’s Best Picture matched BAFTA, which also signaled Hopkins’ potential win, but some wrote that off because he is a UK guy. Both organizations, AMPAS and BAFTA, have made a big deal about trying to achieve diversity, and as witnessed certainly by many of the winners, nominees and presenters on tonight’s Oscar show, at least that effort is reaping results. We had an Asian becoming only the second woman to win Best Director and a Korean becoming the first ever to win an acting Oscar (and on top of South Korea’s Parasite sweep last year). Then there was Kaluuya’s Supporting win marking the first Black British acting winner ever, and then numerous other triumphs during the night in crafts and shorts categories which may be even more encouraging as a sign of the industry providing new opportunities.
As for the show itself, it was a game effort in circumstances you would wish on no producer to pull off, and it’s remarkable that this Zoom-less try worked at all. So kudos to Steven Soderbergh, Stacey Sher, and Jesse Collins for dedicating themselves to some semblance of an elegant Oscar show that was live and not a glorified “webinar,” as Soderbergh put it last week. If as a production it lacked the fun of the Covid Emmys or the entertainment of the Grammys, the way it was set up at new venue Union Station was a triumph of design (thank you, David Rockwell) in a world that requires social distancing. But as the night wore on, it became awfully tiring with speeches, yes many of them heartfelt (rather than the normal litany of “thank yous”), that seemed to have no time limits (even with song performances relegated to the earlier pre-show the Oscar show ran about 17 minutes over the three-hour plan). The In Memoriam segment rolled by way too fast with music far too jazzy to make it register emotionally. That made me sad.
The pre-hype that the show would feel more like you were watching a movie than a TV broadcast was completely lost on me unless the movie was My Dinner with Andre, which was about two guys talking for a couple of hours. Comedy was in short supply, but Lil Rel Howery who hosted the pre-show hijacked the Oscars for a pretty amusing trivia contest that led to none other than Glenn Close (now with 8 failed nominations tied with Peter O’Toole as Oscar’s biggest acting loser) stealing the show with her knowledge of Da Butt, and even getting bleeped (I don’t care if it was pre-planned). Tyler Perry also provided a real highlight in demonstrating how to deliver a speech when he received one of the night’s two Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Awards, the other over at the Dolby for a moving tribute to the hero staff and noble work of the Motion Picture and Television Fund on the occasion of its 100th anniversary. It is certainly an unusual Oscar night when it takes not one, but two, Jean Hersholt presentations to provide the memorable moments. Oh, and Yuh-Jung Youn showed again also how to deliver a delightful acceptance speech as she has all season.
But the placement of the Best Picture award before both lead acting categories was a real head-scratcher, as it resulted in the show getting an anticlimactic ending when Joaquin Phoenix raced through the Best Actor nominees’ names, opened the envelope, announced Anthony Hopkins, said the Academy would accept because he wasn’t there, and then abruptly ended the show. Producers probably were gambling that Boseman would win for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and that it would be a moment that would give the night its emotional high. Obviously it wasn’t to be. The only other time I can recall they didn’t save Best Picture for last was in 1972, when Charlie Chaplin was receiving an honorary Oscar and they knew nothing could have topped that so it followed the Best Picture win of The French Connection. Now that worked, but this just unfortunately fizzled, and as it turned out seemed a disservice to Sir Anthony.
Finally there definitely was a rather surprising missed opportunity to really be something the world needs right now: a show to remind us why we love the movies. Why AMPAS didn’t make more of an effort to really champion the theatrical experience and the need to get back to see these films in a movie theater is a mystery to me. McDormand did it, but I was expecting more — and I assume theater owners probably were as well — but this Oscar show used fewer clips, new or old, than any in memory. An exciting segment introduced by Matthew McConaughey featuring interviews with theater workers coming back to work, and clips of a bevy of big new movies was tossed away on the pre-show, as were the aforementioned, and stirring, performances of the Song nominees, not one foot of which was replayed when the actual Best Song category came up late in the Oscar show.
And why were none of the acting categories showing us clips — including Boseman’s, by the way — so the viewing audience could see why these performances were nominated. We actually saw more of next year’s West Side Story remake than any of this year’s films. The middle of the show was also bogged down when the majority of crafts categories focused on more talk about the nominees than showing us even a snippet of their work. That idea came about when they announced they were interviewing all nominees to learn of their “journey.” It just didn’t work over the long haul, even though the intention certainly was admirable.
The Oscars this year of all years should have been a great big global commercial for motion pictures and the need for them — and big giant screens to show them — in our lives. I brought my “movie love.” I don’t feel like the 93rd Annual Academy Awards quite returned it.
On to the 94th, Covid be damned. I am forever optimistic that Oscar will get his mojo back, and so will the industry for which he remains the symbol of excellence.