The 2021 Oscars ceremony was one of the most awkward experiences of the year

Charles Arrowsmith
·4-min read
Chloé Zhao poses after winning the Academy Award for Best Picture for Nomadland (Chris Pizzello-Pool/Getty Images)
Chloé Zhao poses after winning the Academy Award for Best Picture for Nomadland (Chris Pizzello-Pool/Getty Images)

Regina King promised an “Oscars movie with a cast of over 200 nominees.” Producer Steven Soderbergh pledged to create “a three hour film at Union Station.” On both grounds, this year’s Academy Awards were a failure. It turns out you can’t make a successful live movie if no one knows the ending, and no matter how many talented performers you sardine into one room, most of them won’t get it right on the first take.

Connoisseurs of the awkward weren’t disappointed last night. Daniel Kaluuya provided the first moment of memeable cringe as he joked about his parents’ sex life (his mother’s reaction shot is genuinely worth a look). Frances McDormand howled at the moon during the (deserving) Best Picture win for Nomadland, then gibbered a pseudo-haiku about voices and swords as she picked up her third Best Actress Oscar. Meanwhile, Glenn Close may not have won the Oscar but for many she won the Oscars with her suspiciously encyclopedic knowledge of E.U.’s “Da Butt” from Spike Lee’s School Daze.

But for all that, this year’s Oscars will forever be remembered for the baffling decision to announce Best Picture before Best Actress and Actor. This bizarre reshuffling of the standard third-act climax was twice-foolish, both unfairly muting Nomadland’s triumph and setting up an unanticipated and, for some, unhappy twist. Defying expectations, it was Anthony Hopkins who ended up winning the Best Actor award, for his magnificent work on The Father. While few would deny the worthiness of his performance, his victory has already upset those who expected the Academy to use the award to pay tribute to the late Chadwick Boseman, both for his work on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and for a career cruelly cut short.

To make things weirder, Hopkins wasn’t even there, and with Joaquin Phoenix left accepting the award on his behalf, the ceremony somehow managed to be over too quickly, despite its 195-minute running time.

Nevertheless, Hollywood’s 93rd annual high-five also had much to commend it. After a few years of public soul-searching and necessary adjustments to make its membership more reflective of American society, lo and behold, the Academy found itself able to nominate and reward great work by a refreshingly diverse set of voices. Most prominent was Chloé Zhao, the Chinese director of Nomadland, who became the first woman of colour (and the second woman at all) to win Best Director. Elsewhere, Daniel Kaluuya, with his sensational performance in Judas and the Black Messiah, became the first Black British actor to win an Oscar, Yuh-jung Youn the first Korean actor to win an Oscar (for Minari), and Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson the first Black winners in the hair and make-up category (for Ma Rainey).

The Oscars have always been heavy on platitudes – typically from the well-meaning but uncredible ranks of white Hollywood. This year was different. To hear Regina King, Travon Free, Tyler Perry, and Angela Bassett talk about the Chauvin trial, racial injustice, police brutality, and the Jim Crow South lent the ceremony an urgency and authenticity it’s often previously lacked. It helped that these voices and sentiments also seemed to arise naturally from the movies in contention – films that explore the right to peaceful protest, Black liberation, violence against women, and economic displacement. For once, what the Academy wanted to tell was largely in line with what it had to show.

And despite some awkwardness of staging, the constraints on the production of this year’s show largely worked in its favour. Shrinking the crowd to a few socially distant party tables and bringing in Questlove as DJ served not only to loosen the tux but also to bring the awards down to size. The vibe was more commensurate with the diminished cultural status of the Oscars, whether or not that diminution is itself a “sad thing”. And after the breakthrough triumph of Parasite last year, the Academy couldn’t have done more to burnish its newfound internationalist credentials than to have nominees beaming in from Rome and Paris and Stockholm and London like Eurovision jurors in their Sunday best. Particularly charming was the return of Parasite director Bong Joon-ho and his interpreter, Sharon Choi, joining from Seoul.

How will the Oscars look next year? What was definitely missing this year was everyone else. Where was Jack Nicholson hamming it up in the front row? Meryl Streep, first on her feet in a standing ovation? Will we return to the Kodak Theatre and the usual sea of mostly white faces? In one of her acceptance speeches, Frances McDormand sounded the charge for a return to cinemas – time will tell whether that’s premature. What’s possible is that this year will mark a genuine turning-point for the Oscars, as the art, politics, and personnel of a newly progressive Hollywood come into alignment.

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