For the first time in my lifetime, the Academy Awards weren’t a spectacle, but an awards show. I’ve never been so moved by it.
I’ve also never been so frustrated by it. That was inevitable, given the circumstances circling the now-infamous pandemic Oscars, but also owed to a handful of chaotic producing decisions. (Where was the comedy? Could that whiplash-inducing In Memoriam segment have been more disrespectful? And Best Picture before Best Actor and Actress?!? Absolute nonsense.)
An intimate gathering at a train station with satellite cameras in locations like London and Sydney, this year’s ceremonies felt nothing like the Oscars we know. That seems correct, as having an awards show at all in these times can feel completely inappropriate. The traditional glitz, bombast, and Hollywood narcissism needed Sunday night’s humbling. At the same time, it is a television show, one that needed more spark.
There will be complaints that the night was a bit of a bore, and the show, while finishing closer to three hours than most ceremonies, seemed endless.
Not saving Best Picture for the night’s climax may rank among the worst creative misfires in the show’s history. Presumably, producers assumed Chadwick Boseman would win for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, not Anthony Hopkins for The Father, and were then building up to an emotional close to the telecast.
Hopkins’ surprise win, his not being in attendance, and the show just ending after that was nothing short of disorienting. You should feel guided through an award show, not wondering what the hell just happened. The blunder is a slight to movie fans, to Hopkins, and to Nomadland, one of the refreshing cases of the right film at the right moment winning Best Picture. Because of that production choice, the very Academy that selected the film to win seemed to have dismissed it.
What makes the whole thing more egregious is that the producers didn’t need to manipulate the traditional show order to manufacture an emotional night. Until it veered off the rails near the end, it was already an incredibly heartfelt, powerful, meaningful telecast. I’m an easy target, but I found myself crying... constantly?
There are few better choices for launching any major event than by having Regina King strut in a long tracking shot to a stage and deliver a sermon about the complexity of our times, the impulse to fete movies, and why the art matters: "Now, I know that a lot of you people at home wanna reach for your remote when you feel like Hollywood is preaching to you, but as a mother of a Black son, I know the fear that so many live with, and no amount of fame or fortune changes that, OK?"
Starting with her, the tenor of the telecast was a celebration of inclusivity, dictated by the memorable speeches given by the winners. It was a gratitude for opportunity, and a demand for a platform. After months of screaming “who cares?” about the idea of the Oscars taking place, and anecdotal evidence about how few people watched the nominees—even though they were all available to watch from home—the show seemed to make a point of emphasizing why the show matters and why the movies matter.
Chloé Zhao made history, becoming the second woman to ever win Best Director for her work in Nomadland. The love was spread around this year. While Nomadland took home three of the biggest prizes—Best Picture, Director, and Actress for Frances McDormand, now the second woman to win the category three times—Promising Young Woman, The Father, Sound of Metal, Judas and the Black Messiah, and Minari all won major awards.
Early speeches by Emerald Fennell (Best Original Screenplay, Promising Young Woman) and Florian Zeller (Best Adapted Screenplay, The Father) were babbling and overwhelmed and earnest. Thomas Vinterberg (Best International Feature, Another Round) and Mia Neal (Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) made poignant dedications in their thank-yous that had the in-person audience in tears, and me at home practically inconsolable.
Yuh-jung Youn and Daniel Kaluuya, winning Best Supporting Actress and Actor, respectively for Minari and Judas and the Black Messiah, were magnetic and charismatic as they accepted their trophies. That the set and the ceremony was so intimate made those winning moments feel even more electric.
Throwing to the Zoom locations abroad felt seamless—so much so that all the hand-wringing from producers ahead of time over whether they could or should allow satellite feeds seems ridiculous. And the presenters, the “ensemble cast” as the producers kept advertising them, were on their game.
I remember years in which a new Hollywood It Girl would walk to the microphone and giggle about how they forgot their glasses and couldn’t read the teleprompter. This year, the actors presenting, which included King, Angela Bassett, Reese Witherspoon, Harrison Ford, and Riz Ahmed, were serving as actual emcees. It may have been a little buttoned-up, but it was impressive.
Hours later, after the whole ceremony has unfolded and I’m thinking back on it, I keep returning to King’s striking introduction.
She had a thankless task, making the argument for why an award show is taking place in such serious times, even admitting that if the jury in the Derek Chauvin trial had ruled differently, “I’d have traded in my heels for marching boots.”
She also had to defend the optics of Hollywood’s rich and famous gathering maskless when most of us still safely can’t get together with friends and family. When Regina King shows up, she’s gonna do her job. And damn if she didn’t sell the lunacy of the excuse that this was “an Oscars movie with a cast of over 200 nominees” and the show was a “film production” and they were all at work.
I still don’t understand all the “it’s an award show and it’s a movie” nonsense that the show’s producers kept repeating in interviews leading up to the telecast. Nothing about it felt like a “movie,” at least not any more or less than any other year’s awards. Actors came out, presented awards, and people gave speeches. Nothing seemed more cinematic than usual. It actually felt more like an award show than an entertainment event than in any year I can remember.
Some of that didn’t work. Viewers who hadn’t seen all the nominees were starved of clips of the nominees that only played for a few categories.
Two and a half hours of the ceremony passed without a comedy bit. By that time, it was not entirely welcome—at that point, you just want the whole thing to be done with—though Glenn Close dancing to “Da Butt” may be the greatest Oscars moment of all time. Still, after a long night that seemed disinterested in creating anything resembling a viral moment, it felt out of place, funny as it was.
And Frances McDormand, begging for there to be karaoke while on stage accepting Best Actress, articulated what we were all thinking: The show was missing music.
For the first time, the stage had an accessible ramp. The ramp was also poorly placed, with winners who walked from stage left having to awkwardly jump over it, a rare case in which the production design made no sense either aesthetically or logistically; I get that the ceremony was filmed at a train station to make COVID safety easier, but did the stage they built have to look so cheap?
The show looked and felt, at times, like a perfunctory luncheon. And while that often was refreshing—it actually seemed like it was produced by people who like movies and the artists who make them, not ratings-hungry egotists—it shined a harsher spotlight than usual on the fact that it is a slog to present 24 award categories. When there are no sketches, montages, or musical performances distracting from the task at hand, the task does seem more like a chore.
That said, past efforts to minimize the act of handing out awards never made sense to me. Why not lean into the purpose of the whole thing? Yes, presenting 24 awards is a tedious exercise, but Sunday night’s show was the most emotional exercise of tedium I’ve ever partaken in.
There were moments that felt surreal, like every time the show returned from commercial break and panned across the in-person audience and you’d see flashes of Amanda Seyfried and Carey Mulligan’s gorgeous gowns and oversized skirts. It’s still jarring to see celebrities in red-carpet fashion when everyday life is still in pandemic disarray.
And, while there were plenty of powerful speeches that spoke to our volatile cultural moment, that still can seem like an awkward fit in this venue. Case in point, the wild transition from Best Short Film winner Travon Free speaking movingly about police killings of Black people to his collaborator, Martin Desmond Roe, saying, “We’d like to thank Netflix…”
But for all the faults, from the small ones (that stage design) to the major ones (not saving Best Picture for last was egregious and nearly show-ruining), it was just plain poignant to watch the Academy Awards and celebrate movies.
I think the producers made the right choice when it came to the scale of the ceremony, allowing that celebration to seem invigorating instead of ostentatious. It does feel like the country is starting to heal, even if slowly and only a little bit, and it’s exciting to embrace possibility again.
Maybe the most meaningful part of the night to me was when the In the Heights trailer played, and I actually felt the thrill and anticipation of getting to see it in theaters. There’s a way of looking at this year’s Oscars show as a failure, if the most memorable part of the night didn’t involve any of the nominated films or the telecast itself. But I actually think of it as a triumph.
The last year has made me so cynical. My expectations for the Oscars were so low you’d have to dig for them. So what a surprise it was, and even a rejuvenation, to come away from the ceremony hopeful about film and the community that surrounds it once again.