“We thank the Academy, and we thank our brilliant fellow nominees,” said director and producer Chloé Zhao as she stepped up to the podium with producers Mollye Asher, Dan Janvey, Frances McDormand and Peter Spears.
Thanking the cast and crew, among them the “brilliant” cinematographer Joshua James Richards, Zhao acknowledged “all the people we met on the road.” “Thank you for teaching us the power of resilience and hope and reminding us what true kindness looks like,” she said.
McDormand, who moments later won best actress for the film, added that when it is possible to return to the movies, “Please watch our movie on the largest screen possible.” She also encouraged Oscar attendees to watch every film that was nominated, in a dark theater. “We give this film to our wolf,” said the actress and producer, a reference to Michael Wolf Snyder, the Nomadland production sound mixer who died in March at age 35, and was seen in the In Memorium segment. She launched into a brief howl, before leaving the stage.
“That howling to the moon is for Wolf,” said Zhao, backstage after the award ceremony.
Nomadland, based on Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, tells the story of a woman who loses her job in Nevada and leaves home to travel around the country looking for work.
Earlier in the evening, Zhao became the first non-white woman to win the best director category. The Chinese filmmaker is the second woman ever to win for directing, after Kathryn Bigelow, who won for The Hurt Locker in 2010.
Additionally, Zhao is the first woman to receive four nominations in a single year; she is nominated in the film editing, adapted screenplay, director, and best picture categories. The film was also nominated for cinematography.
In winning the top honor, Nomadland beat out The Father, Judas and the Black Messiah, Mank, Minari, Promising Young Woman, Sound of Metal and The Trial of the Chicago 7.
Backstage at the Oscars, Zhao was asked if Nomadland has changed the way she lives her life. “One thing that has changed is that I need less stuff to live,” she said. “I need a little fewer things.” Of being the first woman of color to win in the directing category, Zhao said, “I am extremely lucky to be able to do what I love for a living. If this win means more people get to live their dream then I am extremely grateful.”
Zhao went on to say, “I think for Asian filmmakers, and all filmmakers, we have to stay true to who we are. We shouldn’t feel that there is only a certain type of story we have to tell.”
Her additional credits include Songs My Brothers Taught Me in 2015 and The Rider in 2017.
While the ceremony took place without a host, presenters at the 2021 Oscars included Riz Ahmed, Bryan Cranston, Viola Davis, Zendaya and Reese Witherspoon.
The 93rd annual Academy Awards were held at Union Station in downtown Los Angeles and the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, with nominees and presenters walking an outdoor red carpet and participating in socially distanced interviews.
Televised live on ABC, the 2021 Oscars were produced by Steven Soderbergh, Jesse Collins and Stacey Sher.