This is a preview of our pop culture newsletter The Daily Beast’s Obsessed, written by senior entertainment reporter Kevin Fallon. To receive the full newsletter in your inbox each week, sign up for it here.
I’m so old I remember that the Oscars were this week.
Our distracted brains have moved onto other pressing matters in the circus of entertainment, such as Kourtney Kardashian making out with Travis Barker and why Zac Efron’s face looks like that—admittedly ridiculous (though very real) preoccupations that have eclipsed any mainstream interest in what is supposed to be the most important and definitive event in the year of pop culture.
Now, Nomadland is but an afterthought far gone in the zeitgeist’s rearview mirror. There are more immediate matters to discuss; please, tell me everything about what the MyPillow Guy said on Jimmy Kimmel.
This is not exactly a surprise. Not only do we tend to move on from news story to news story with the zagging interest of a fly in a pigsty, but it was, as bellowed in headlines with doomsday horror, the lowest-rated Oscars telecast on record.
The numbers are shocking at face value, down almost 60 percent from last year. But I’m less worried about that, a statistical consequence of a pandemic year and across-the-board freefall of live ratings, than I am about the lessons that future producers of the show may take from this faint whisper of interest moving forward. Especially given the aspects of the show people did actually talk about.
It’s been nearly a week, and I still can’t get over that final-act Best Picture/Best Actor catastrophe. Not even the way it ended up: instead of an emotional climax, an indifferent shrug; a televised flatlining. It’s that it was even planned in the first place.
In the aftermath of Sunday’s ceremony, an ABC exec admitted what most of us assumed: Deciding to swap the category order and present Best Picture before Best Actress and Actor was a “calculated risk” in the hope that the late Chadwick Boseman would win the latter and the night would end with the world in tears.
On its own, not saving Best Picture for last bordered on blasphemy to Oscar purists. Even casual viewers probably felt a tinge of sacrilege guilt—or at least thought they had somehow blinked and missed the actor and actress categories when Rita Moreno walked out to present Best Picture with a half-hour still left in the show.
But there was something crass and cynical about it. This idea that, in lieu of lending the climactic gravitas deserved by the movie the Academy voted “best,” it was more important to manufacture a moment that capitalized on Black pain and the trauma of Boseman’s widow... all in the name of good TV?
It’s so gross to me, a repulsion that has intensified as the days have passed. In a year when there were nerves over whether people would care about the Oscars, that was the solution?
It was a dumb gamble because, as the ratings show, the prospect of Boseman’s win didn’t draw in the grief-porn lookyloos to whom producers were pandering. If what they wanted was a viral moment, I’d venture that, had Boseman won, it would have happened regardless of when in the telecast it came.
Not only did the “calculated risk” not pay off, but it disrespected Best Picture-winner Nomadland, grotesquely commoditized Boseman’s legacy, and slighted actual winner Anthony Hopkins, who was the target of a vile backlash by those who felt deprived of that Boseman moment producers had built up to. Boseman’s family has even had to come to Hopkins’ defense.
That could, of course, have been avoided if Hopkins was allowed to deliver a speech, but producers wouldn’t allow the 83-year-old actor, who wouldn’t travel in a pandemic, to deliver one via Zoom. It’s a mystifying choice given how seamlessly the other remote speeches worked during the telecast and, of course, how gracious and charming Hopkins has been in videos posted since Sunday night.
As an Oscars fan, the grown-up kid who used to sit crossed-legged in the living room rapt by each year’s show and who would memorize trivia about Best Supporting Actress nominees the way that other boys retained baseball player stats, the snafu has me worried about the fate of an institution that is already facing skepticism over its continued relevance and influence.
I genuinely thought that the show, up until that idiotic calamity, was great. It struck the appropriate tone in extremely difficult times that would have beckoned scrutiny had it veered toward too self-celebratory or relied on its traditional grand spectacle. But the backlash towards the Best Actor misfire combined with the low ratings will likely brand this year’s ceremony a failure, which means all the great things about the telecast will be ignored as future producers retreat in the opposite direction.
It was the rare year where you could argue that every Best Picture nominee deserved to be there. But with viewership so low and an audible discourse about how most people weren’t interested in the nominated movies, are we facing another return to ostentatious acts of desperation like a Best Popular Movie category?
Those of us who watched and who have seen the movies—and who appreciate it when an award show actually feels like an award show, tedious as handing out 24 trophies can seem—loved that the winners were given space to deliver longer, more meaningful speeches.
But when the only post-show buzz is centered on whether Glenn Close’s “Da Butt” moment was staged and the most talked-about speech moment is Youn Yuh-jung’s Brad Pitt opener, to the point that she rolled her eyes at how much she’d been asked about it when she finally sat down with Korean media, it makes an awards purist nervous.
Are we going to go back to rushed, panicked, 30-second speeches before an executioner storms the stage to behead rambling winners, or floating the idea of moving technical awards out of the ceremony, all in the name of giving more space to overlong Will Ferrell bits and endless movie montages?
This year’s ceremony failed to reel in curious viewers and, after a solid start, ended by pissing off movie fans and Oscars loyalists. There’s nothing more rewarding than watching a big event on TV and actually liking it. Now I worry that won’t ever happen again.