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Sunday night’s 93rd Academy Awards brought an end to the longest Oscar season in 87 years — one that considered 14 months’ worth of films, and that wrapped up 441 days after the 92nd — at downtown Los Angeles’ Union Station, which, as others have noted, was fitting, because it was, in some ways, a trainwreck.
The show was produced by extremely talented people (Steven Soderbergh, Stacey Sher and Jesse Collins) under unenviable circumstances (during a global pandemic, with most commercial films pushed to next season when more movie theaters will have reopened, etc.). But the Oscars are not graded on a curve, and unfortunately far too many decisions about the ceremony were badly miscalculated.
I can only assume that the producers insisted upon and the Academy granted them final cut, and the producers, recognizing that nothing could stop this from being the lowest-rated Oscars in history, decided to try a bunch of out-there stuff: not only not having a host (for the third year in a row), but also having no comedy bits, music performances or film clips; giving a biographical sketch of virtually every nominee; waiting until deep into the show to present a highly anticipated award; presenting not one but two Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Awards on the air; not playing off any longwinded acceptance speeches; and presenting best picture as the third-to-last award of the night, rather than the last.
The good news, I suppose, is that we now know beyond any shadow of a doubt that the Academy’s longtime accountants, PwC, do not share the voting results with the producers before the envelopes are unsealed, because there is no way that the producers would have chosen to end the show with the best actor Oscar going not to the late Chadwick Boseman (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), whose widow was in attendance and ready to give a speech, as she had at virtually every other awards show this season, but instead to Anthony Hopkins (The Father), who apparently couldn’t be bothered to show up.
The producers gambled, hoping for a big emotional moment to end the show, and unfortunately lost in shocking fashion — not because Hopkins isn’t a worthy winner (he is), but because the night ended with a gut-punch rather than a group celebration. (For the record, best picture has been the last award presented at every Oscars ceremony since 1972, when Charlie Chaplin was given an honorary award after best picture was announced. It also was not last at several ceremonies early in the Academy’s history, but was at the vast majority of them.)
What, by the way, was all the hoopla about the telecast being like a movie? Yes, it was shot with high-def cameras, but other than that? It feels like that was something the producers felt they had to say in order for the telecast to receive the classification of a film/TV production, which, in turn, allowed them to have attendees go maskless while on-camera — which itself was a bit questionable, not because it wasn’t safe (everyone in attendance was COVID-tested multiple times), but because it doesn’t really model best practices for the world at a time when even the vaccinated president of the United States is still masking up, and sets up Hollywood to be called “a bunch of hypocrites.”
Anyway, more interesting than the show is how we wound up with the 23 winners that we did.
Chloé Zhao‘s Nomadland was the best picture frontrunner from start to finish, which is not an easy thing to sustain (ask the folks behind La La Land), especially in a season as long as this one — people often tire of the same narratives and winners.
The Academy’s preferential ballot makes predicting best picture trickier than it used to be, but the reality is there weren’t any alternatives to Nomadland of the same caliber, and no one fellow nominee ever really gained enough momentum to seriously threaten it — not even the Netflix-backed Mank, with its field-leading 10 noms, or The Trial of the Chicago 7, a movie theoretically built for the preferential ballot.
Nomadland is a beautifully made movie that has something to say about America today (even if it is set a few years ago), and when people head into the Dolby for future Oscars ceremonies and scan the names of past best picture winners, nobody will blink an eyelid when they see Nomadland among them, as it also would have won in most recent years, as would have Zhao, who became the second woman and first woman of color to win best director. In other words, no pandemic-era asterisk necessary.
Something that should be noted about Nomadland‘s rise and endurance: It’s a testament to the taste and understated but effective campaign skills — working within a budget — of Searchlight’s departing chiefs Nancy Ultey and Steve Gilula (and their team), class-acts who previously won top honors for Slumdog Millionaire, 12 Years a Slave, Birdman and The Shape of Water and, deservedly enough, get to go out on top.
Another notable thing about Nomadland‘s victory: It is the first truly female-centric best picture winner since Terms of Endearment 37 years ago! Winners like Chicago and Million Dollar Baby had male leads alongside female leads, but Nomadland was The Frances McDormand Show.
It’s appropriate that McDormand became only the second woman to have won at least three best actress Oscars (Katharine Hepburn won four) — she’s that good — although it must have been tough for Glenn Close to have to watch that from the audience, as Close’s loss in the supporting category (for the decidedly mediocre Hillbilly Elegy) makes her 0-for-8, the worst Oscar record of any actress ever. Poor Diane Warren also lost again, making her 0-for-12 in the song category.
I was one of the few who predicted McDormand’s win, reasoning that if Academy members loved Nomadland as much as they seemed to, then they clearly must have loved McDormand’s performance, too, since the two are inextricable. Moreover, in a season in which the top contender, according to one Academy member with whom I corresponded, was “apathy,” one could feel confident that voters actually watched Nomadland, if no other film, prior to voting.
Promising Young Woman was also a best picture nominee, meaning it, too, was widely seen and admired, so I assumed Carey Mulligan also had a real shot. But I never really bought the idea that Viola Davis was going to win for Ma Rainey, even after her surprising SAG Award win, given that the Academy overlooked her film in the best picture category. (This fact should have also given many of us more pause in assuming that Boseman would win over Hopkins, whose film, The Father, was a best picture nominee, and had already proven popular enough to win BAFTA Awards for Hopkins and adapted screenplay.)
It’s unfortunately brutally hard to win an Oscar as a film’s sole nominee, especially this year, when Academy members who did vote saw fewer movies than in years past, and, I would guess, the percentage of Academy members who voted at all was lower than in any other year. Frankly, I suspect that most voters cast their final ballots without having even watched The United States vs. Billie Holiday (featuring Andra Day‘s Golden Globe-winning performance) or Pieces of a Woman (for which Vanessa Kirby won Venice’s best actress prize).
By the way, the fact that most voters only watched a handful of nominees is also probably why, to the surprise of most, the best original song Oscar was awarded to “Fight for You” from Judas and the Black Messiah — a best picture nominee — and not to more heavily campaigned songs from, say, a film that was in contention for but missed a best picture nom (“Speak Now” from One Night in Miami), a non-English-language film (“Io si [Seen]” from The Life Ahead) or a Will Ferrell comedy that was otherwise never part of the awards conversation (“Husavik” from Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga).
Sometimes, though, a true underdog can ride a wave all the way to the winner’s circle — pardon the pun, you’ll get it in a moment — as was the case with the documentary My Octopus Teacher. It was amazing to watch the organic rise of this film, which was not even one of Netflix’s internal top priorities until relatively late in the season, when it became undeniable that people simply loved the movie and told all of their friends about it. The fact that it ended up beating Time and Crip Camp is something that would have been unimaginable just a few months ago. It’s a great win for South Africa and octopuses everywhere.
Meanwhile, five years after #OscarsSoWhite, the Academy certainly seems to have significantly addressed its struggles with inclusion. Not only was the best picture directed by a woman and the best director that same woman, but both supporting acting winners were people of color (Judas‘ Daniel Kaluuya and Minari‘s Yuh-jung Youn, who gave the speeches of the night); the best original screenplay winner was a promising young woman (Promising Young Woman‘s Emerald Fennell); Ma Rainey‘s Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson became the first-ever Black winners of the best makeup/hairstyling award; statuettes were awarded to H.E.R., one of the writers of “Fight for You,” and John Batiste, one of the composers of the score for Soul, both people of color (Soul, incidentally, was the first Pixar film to feature a Black protagonist); and, in one of my favorite results of the night, Two Distant Strangers, a film about police brutality, won best live-action short, making writer/co-director Travon Free the first-ever Black winner of that award.
The Oscars producers also leaned into diversity in their selection of presenters, which is admirable, although one can’t help but wonder what middle-America made of the fact that only four of the 18 presenters — Bryan Cranston, Brad Pitt, Harrison Ford and Joaquin Phoenix — were white males.
The ratings will be out tomorrow. My guess is they will not look pretty. It will be interesting to see how the Academy and ABC react as they begin thinking about the next Oscars ceremony a year — or, more likely, just 10 months — from now, back at the Dolby. But for now, and perhaps for years to come, the conversation regarding the 93rd Oscars will probably center on how a planned farewell to a wonderful actor and gentleman, Boseman, went so terribly wrong.
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