Making sense of the 2021 Oscars
Aidan O'Malley | Tuesday, April 27, 2021
Last Sunday, I live tweeted the Oscars.
I’m not entirely sure what compelled me to do this. Perhaps it was my duty as an entertainment journalist to provide the public with some extra-colorful color commentary. Maybe it was my main character complex — bass-boosted by the vanity of social media — convincing me that the world needed to know my every opinion on the Oscars. Or, seeing as only one of my tweets broke double-digit likes, it was all just for myself.
In any case, on Sunday, April 25, 2021 at 9:03 p.m., I tweeted: “soderbergh is directing this show in the oscar equivalent of non-linear order and i’m here for it.”
Folks, let this be a lesson in Twitter: Do not tweet that you are “here” for Steven Soderbergh’s production of the 93rd Academy Awards before you’ve finished watching Steven Soderbergh’s production of the 93rd Academy Awards.
Around the three-hour mark in the show, the Oscar-winning director of “Traffic” threw us all for a loop by presenting the award for Best Picture before he had presented Best Actor or Actress. Interesting, okay — you could see what he was thinking. “Nomadland” has the top prize in the bag, so let’s just get it over with; then, we’ll end with Chadwick Boseman posthumously crowned Best Actor for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” It will be a beautiful tribute, and besides, he’s also got it in the bag. Right?
Well, the first part went according to plan. “Nomadland” won Best Picture, along with Best Director for Chloé Zhao and Best Actress for Frances McDormand. Inevitably, this will lead to countless online monologues about how vastly overrated the film is; in fact, it already has. But really, was there any movie in 2020 more finely attuned to what it felt like to live through that year? To yearn for a return to the Earth as we sheltered in place? To reach for community, only to drift away, alone? Truly no film was more beautifully emblematic of 2020 than Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland.”
And no moment at the Oscars was as HORRIFICALLY emblematic of 2020 as Anthony Hopkins winning Best Actor for “The Father.” To be clear, he’s quite good in the film — it’s one of his best roles in a career with several contenders. But to beat the late Boseman… To not even show up to accept the award… To have it literally end the broadcast… Yikes!
It was like an even worse version of what happened to Glenn Close in 2018, when she lost Best Actress on her seventh nomination. It was like a reverse Uno of when “Moonlight” beat “La La Land,” because instead of elated, we were all just depressed. Had it happened at any point in the telecast, we would have been heartbroken, but the fact that it ended the show sparked outrage.
Soderbergh’s production was not unlike a heist you might see in one of his “Ocean’s Eleven” movies. It even started out like one, with Regina King carrying the envelope for Best Original Screenplay all the way through New York’s Union Station in one long, uninterrupted take. I was impressed! But watching that ending was like watching a director’s cut of “Ocean’s,” where the heist goes horribly wrong.
So yeah, that sucked. After a light at the end of the tunnel, the Academy was back to business as usual. I guess the BAFTAs, with their new voting procedures, are a more important precursor than we ever could have anticipated — they matched up with the Oscars in 18 out of 19 categories, all but Cinematography.
But while we should never, ever present Best Picture at any other time than at the end of the ceremony ever, ever again, I hope that the disaster that was its final moments don’t erase from our memories all the good things that came from the 2021 Academy Awards.
For example: Soderbergh’s focus on textured personal testimonies over generic clip shows when spotlighting the nominees was amazingly refreshing. It made the Oscars seem more like a celebration of cinema than ever before! Furthermore, his fluid camera movements and use of natural lighting made the ceremony feel real; for once, the winners didn’t act like artificial people gifting each other arbitrary awards on a planet completely divorced from reality. And moving the Best Original Song performances to a “pre-show” shaved an hour off of the running time, which allowed for longer, better speeches. Also, Jimmy Kimmel wasn’t the host.
So like the year in film that it honored, by the time the 93rd Oscars were over, we all just wished they would go back to the way it used to be. But also like 2020, perhaps we should use this as an opportunity to consider the ways in which it still can improve.