In Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven, George Clooney’s Danny Ocean spends his time in prison practicing the big speech he’s going to make to convince his buddy Rusty that the time has come for a spectacular casino heist. “Because the house always wins. Play long enough, you never change the stakes, the house takes you. Unless, when that perfect hand comes along, you bet big, and then you take the house,” Danny declares.
It’s an attitude that runs through many of Soderbergh’s more crowd-pleasing films, and as one of the producers of the 93rd Academy Awards, he was certain his perfect hand had come along — the hand that gave him the opportunity to upend the natural order of things and still come out victorious.
There was one reason and one reason only to move best picture, the traditional Oscar night closer, into the antepenultimate slot.
That reason was Chadwick Boseman. The Black Panther star gave a performance of almost uncomfortably searing intensity in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom; it was only more gutting because it would be Boseman’s last performance. Boseman hadn’t won every precursor award leading up to the Oscars, but I have no doubt the Oscars producers thought he was likely enough to win that it was worth the gamble so the evening could conclude in the most powerful way possible (more powerful than a predictable best picture triumph for Nomadland).
Your winner? Anthony Hopkins for The Father.
Anthony Hopkins was brilliant in The Father. Had he been in attendance in either London or Los Angeles, he would have taken the stage and been funny and British and erudite, and we’d have at least gotten one of our era’s best actors in the spotlight at 83. Maybe not the intended moment to cherish, but a moment to cherish.
Hopkins wasn’t there, and the show hastily wrapped with no ending at all.
I see why Soderbergh and company went the way they did. It was the decision of a consummate gambler.
That, I’m afraid, is how the 93rd Academy Awards telecast is likely to be remembered.
Let’s fully salute Soderbergh and team (Jesse Collins and Stacey Sher were the other producers, and I’m just using “Soderbergh” as synecdoche). They talked a big game and this was not every other Oscars telecast. Give me the choice between Sunday’s Oscars and a failed quarantine-standard telecast like the Golden Globes and I’m gonna go with Soderbergh every single time.
The Union Station space — especially if you were capable of ignoring the removal of the area’s homeless populations and the inconvenience to the workforce that relies on the station as a hub — was lovely. They didn’t always take advantage of it. Once the show was rolling, it became clear that they’d basically just made a ballroom set-up, with two-tier seating nearly identical to what shows set at the Beverly Hilton always use.
Still, it started well. When Regina King did her power-walking entrance from the outdoor facility that hosted the preshow and made her way onto the stage area in a single shot, I thought it was fresh and fun, even including King’s stumble at the very end. Nobody’s perfect, but Regina King is pretty close, so this was the “Persian flaw,” the — possibly apocryphal — tiny imperfection that ancient rugmakers would intentionally add to their designs to avoid treading on the divine.
Though there would be plenty of other imperfections later, King got the show off to a fine start, introducing some of its challenging conceits. For the first couple of awards, King read highlights about the nominees from interviews that some uncredited researchers did. Little tidbits and factoids delivered with King’s vocal warmth and consummate attention to pronunciation detail worked well — and for maybe half-an-hour, it didn’t bother me that instead of finding some way to showcase the people and their work, the telecast just had presenters talking.
It was only as we hit the technical awards that I became annoyed by this approach. Every creative person in that room has heard the cliché “Show me, don’t tell me,” and yet we had presenters giving weak descriptions of costumes and hair & makeup and sound editing with no way of illustrating for viewers at home (who maybe haven’t seen the movies) what the fuss was all about. Shows like this tend to use clips as a structural crutch, but the absence of clips here proved not to be a solution (and they returned later).
Doing a show without presenter shtick also was a worthy idea, but then suddenly there was Harrison Ford snoozing his way through jokes about Blade Runner editing notes. Somehow, with 20 minutes to go before the scheduled 11 p.m. ET end of the telecast, producers had Lil Rel Howery come out for a “bit” making fun of how bad the Academy is at honoring songs, immediately after the presentation of the best song Oscar. A bad idea, but the bit was saved because of Glenn Close’s enthusiasm about the E.U. track “Da Butt.” Did Glenn Close truly know “Da Butt” and spontaneously get up and dance, or was Glenn Close playing a role because Glenn Close still believes that someday she’ll win an Oscar and wants to be remembered as a good sport (and not as Albert Nobbs)? Well, apparently it was scripted. So there’s no Santa Close.
The Oscars are always going to be a back-slapping gala. It’s a professional organization’s annual award show. But in the absence of visual or audio representation of so many of these movies, the Oscars frequently failed in its secondary capacity: as a commercial for Hollywood. I don’t see how anything in this show is going to inspire anybody to seek out Mank or Ma Rainey or even Nomadland. Even easy sells like the best song performances weren’t easy. This year’s musical performances were actually wonderful, but you’d only know that if you watched them taped and edited into the pre-show.
Some speeches might direct attention to the movies. Yuh-Jung Youn has been Minari‘s great ambassador all through the awards season, and she delivered another show-stopper, beginning with lovingly chiding Brad Pitt for bungling her name and closing by saying that she doesn’t like competitive awards and she just considers herself luckier than this year’s other nominees. Thomas Vinterberg’s speech, touching on his late daughter as the figure pulling the strings behind Another Round, brought me to tears. Daniel Kaluuya thanked his parents for having sex and earned a look of instantly memed confusion from his mother in the audience. Emerald Fennell was hilarious. Jon Batiste was very funny. Live action short winner Travon Free and the documentary short winners behind Colette got political. Frances McDormand howled.
Yet we’re going to remember the long airless patches of self-seriousness; the oddly accelerated In Memoriam segment; the almost endless presentation Bryan Cranston gave about the Motion Picture & Television Fund; and the second tribute to Tyler Perry in less than a year from a major award show that will never give Tyler Perry any awards for the actual TV and movies he makes.
And we’re going to remember the disquieting strangeness of giving out the biggest award of the night early, taking a commercial break as a build-up to… a final award that was supposed to go to a young star who could no longer be with us and instead went to a venerable star who was simply absent.
I could see what the producers were going for. Maybe I even respect what the producers were going for. But they didn’t beat the house. Not this time.