Oscars 2021: A deserved double win for groundbreaking Chloe Zhao and a fabulous night for the Brits

Charlotte O'Sullivan
·4-min read
 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

This year, a week before the big night, 25 of the Oscar nominees received goodie bags worth $205,000. I’d have loved to have been a fly on the wall as Chloe Zhao, the Chinese director of Nomadland, discovered she was the lucky recipient of, amongst other things, “a consultation with a cosmetic surgeon”. Zhao’s cheeky and tenderly poetic docu-drama embraces old bags and their weathered bodies. Last night, Zhao’s film won Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress. Yessssssss!

The groundbreaking Zhao is a natural introvert and her speech (like the one she gave at the Baftas) was gorgeously unshowy, warm and sincere. But Sunday April 25 wasn’t just about her.

The Best Actress category was the one the bookies couldn’t call. As it turned out, the biggest jolt of the evening came when Anthony Hopkins won Best Actor. It must have been gutting for Chadwick Boseman’s widow. The Golden Globes win set up great expectations. If this awards season has been a rollercoaster for Boseman’s grieving family and friends, all the highs were at the start.

Still, it was the right choice. Hopkins’ performance in discombobulating dementia epic, The Father, is astonishing and I well up every time I think of his character’s little-boy-lost final speech. It’s frustrating that UK audiences won’t be able to see this till June. It should have been available to watch on screen, the minute cinemas open in May.

No surprise that Daniel Kaluuya came top for his work in Judas and the Black Messiah. The 32-year-old Londoner has been the favourite for months. Again, though: right choice. In Shaka King’s stirring and wonderfully sly take on Black Panther activist Fred Hampton, Kaluuya delivers Hampton’s still-relevant political speeches like a musician pumping up a crowd. He’s just as watchable listening to a mother mourn her dead son. Even the sound of Kaluuya’s silence is golden.

All in all, it was a fab night for Brits, with Emerald Fennell winning Best Original Screenplay, for rape-revenge thriller, Promising Young Woman. I’m over the moon for Fennell, but also for the film’s Australian producer, Margot Robbie, who tried (and tragically failed) to turn mainstream audiences onto feminism with the kookily ferocious DC superhero movie, Birds of Prey. Promising Young Woman’s heroine, Cassie, owes a huge debt to Harley Quinn. There’s the brazen gum chewing, not to mention the love of cartoonish colours and female bfs. At her second try, Robbie’s found a way to kick misogyny where it really hurts.

Emerald Fennell received the Best Original Screenplay awardAP
Emerald Fennell received the Best Original Screenplay awardAP

As has been pointed out by numerous commentators, the Oscar night ain’t as popular as it used to be. Every year, the ratings go down. No one quite knows why, but might it be something to do with the lack of balance?

It’s as if Academy voters – ever since The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King – have taken a secret oath not to give Best Picture to any movie with a box office total higher than $400m. Which is like saying: if tons of people like a movie, it must be crap.

Popular doesn’t need to be puerile, which is why it’s a shame Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, ultimately, wound up with nothing. The second most-watched video-on-demand release (after Hamilton), Baron Cohen’s mockumentary sequel was funny, profound and insanely brave. Lest we forget, it also spawned a new euphemism (“to tuck in one’s pants”). Last night, it woz robbed.

It’s easy to carp and even easier to get caught up in nostalgia. Think of the Best Picture battles fought in the 70s. The Godfather vs Cabaret (1972). The Godfather Part II vs Chinatown (1974). Annie Hall vs Star Wars (1977). In each case, the winner was perfect and so was the “loser”.

Yet, upon closer inspection, the 2021 Oscars belong in that league. Read that list of Best Picture nominees. Promising Young Woman. Minari. Sound of Metal. Judas and the Black Messiah... It’s lucky, in a way, that Covid restrictions haven’t entirely lifted. Viewers have time on their hands, at home, to check out these low-budget titles; instant classics, every one of them.

Zhao, pictured on set with Frances McDormand, who was also crowned Best ActressAP
Zhao, pictured on set with Frances McDormand, who was also crowned Best ActressAP

But someone had to win, which brings us back to Zhao, a brilliant filmmaker who, despite her fascination with the middle-aged, looks about 10.

Age 39, she is the youngest Best Director winner since La La Land’s Damien Chazelle. If you trawl through the list of directors who’ve won Best Director since 1970, the average age is approx 48. For so many reasons, kids will see Zhao and think “that could be me!”

Awards ceremonies are a game and only worth getting seriously cross about when mediocrity and smugness triumph. Ecstatic sigh. That didn’t happen last night.