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Oscars 2021 Review: Steven Soderbergh’s Intimate Insiders’ Awards Show Falls Apart

At the end of the ceremony, everyone was reminded that a Black man rarely wins Best Actor and a Black woman rarely wins Best Actress.

THE OSCARS® - The 93rd Oscars will be held on Sunday, April 25, 2021, at Union Station Los Angeles and the Dolby® Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center® in Hollywood, and international locations via satellite. "The Oscars" will be televised live on ABC at 8 p.m. EDT/5 p.m. PDT and in more than 200 territories worldwide. (ABC/AMPAS)YUH-JUNG YOUN

Yuh-Jung Youn at the 2021 Oscars

ABC / AMPAS

Steven Soderbergh wanted to produce an Oscars telecast like a movie. Unfortunately, what people tend to remember most about a movie is its ending.

After a stellar, stylish start that saw Regina King stride through the 93rd Academy Awards’ new home at Union Station — captured in cinematic 2.35:1 letterbox — the 2021 Oscars slowed down, backed up, and eventually collapsed under its own weight. Credit to the producers (including Soderbergh, Jesse Collins, and Stacey Sher) for sticking to their guns, whether it was the intimate aesthetics, uninterrupted speeches, or emphasis on storytelling (this year’s theme was “Stories Matter”), but their clear vision of what an Oscars ceremony should look like didn’t mesh with what makes for an entertaining evening for audiences at home or, in the end, a sweet celebration for those in attendance.

Which brings us to that ending. The decision to move Best Picture from its traditional slot as the ceremony’s closer took audiences by surprise, though I can’t say that choice, in itself, was a mistake. Whatever film ends up winning the night’s top award typically dominates the morning’s headlines, but just as often, it’s the people who provide the most vivid memories. It’s Brad Pitt or Julia Roberts’ long-awaited coronation. It’s Denzel Washington and Halle Berry breaking barriers. It’s Sally Field coining an unforgettable catchphrase or Jack Palance doing push-ups. Sometimes, like when “Parasite” surprised in 2020, the euphoric, history-making jubilation of an entire team rushing the stage to make history can become the night’s pinnacle, but usually, we know who’s going to win, and it’s a bit of a letdown when heavy favorites simply prove prognosticators right.

“Nomadland” was this year’s favorite, and its history-making wins were still exciting, well-earned, and given a proper spotlight. Chloé Zhao took the stage twice (in flats!) as the first woman of color (and only second woman) to win Best Director and again when her film won Best Picture. Minutes after letting loose a guttural howl, a notably moved Frances McDormand took the stage for “Nomadland” yet again. No one will forget the film’s impact on this year’s Oscars, and plenty of people will pull up Hulu in the coming days, weeks, and months to screen the three-time Oscar winner.

Shifting Best Picture out of the final slot wasn’t a slight to the movie or anyone who made it. The move spoke to the producers’ ethos that this year’s ceremony would be unique, yes, but also that it was about celebrating the people who make movies, no one profession more than another. Previous telecasts’ tiered hierarchies were thrown out the window when Soderbergh & Co. opened with Best Screenplay honors before shifting to Supporting Actor and Actress. Gone were the jokey presenter introductions and in their place were intimate details about each nominee’s life and/or work. In theory, everyone was supposed to get their time to shine.

Until they didn’t.

The biggest and most glaring omission was out of the producers’ hands. More Film Academy members voted for Anthony Hopkins to win Best Actor than Chadwick Boseman. To be clear, Hopkins is extremely deserving. His work in “The Father” creates some of the most surprising, detailed, and moving movie moments in a truly storied career. What’s upsetting isn’t that he won, it’s that Boseman lost — and it’s not even that Boseman lost; nor is it that Boseman deserved to win more than everyone else (though he, too, gave an immaculate performance revealing previously unseen layers); it’s that the Film Academy continues to overlook Black creatives, and at the tail end of a ceremony that saw Regina King kick things off like only Regina King can, everyone was reminded that a Black man rarely wins Best Actor, a Black woman rarely wins Best Actress, and Black directors rarely win — or in King’s case, they’re not even nominated.

THE OSCARS® - The 93rd Oscars will be held on Sunday, April 25, 2021, at Union Station Los Angeles and the Dolby® Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center® in Hollywood, and international locations via satellite. "The Oscars" will be televised live on ABC at 8 p.m. EDT/5 p.m. PDT and in more than 200 territories worldwide. (ABC/AMPAS)JAMIKA WILSON, SERGIO LOPEZ-RIVERA, MIA NEAL

Jamika Wilson, Sergio Lopez-Rivera, and Mia Neal at the 2021 Oscars

ABC / AMPAS

This underlines a long-running Film Academy problem, not a telecast problem, but it’s still where the house of cards holding up this year’s ceremony starts to fall. Had the producers been a bit more flexible on virtual acceptance speeches, perhaps the graceful and generous Hopkins could have said something about Mr. Boseman, sharing his stage with the man who means so much to so many people. Had the producers shown more clips of the nominees’ work — whether it’s the nominated costumes, visual effects, or performances — perhaps audiences at home would have better understood what was being honored (and sought it out for themselves). Had the producers enacted a time limit on acceptance speeches, perhaps winners would have chosen their words more purposefully. For every knockout from the likes of Thomas Vinterberg, Yuh-Jung Youn, Travon Free, as well as the “Ma Rainey” makeup team of Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson, there was someone reading an endless list of names, like usual, which makes this year’s uncapped speech strategy a wash compared to the traditional orchestra play-offs. (And it’s frankly remarkable that the same ceremony can house such tender, irrefutable remarks about police brutality in one speech while another equates contempt for cops with bigotry.)

For all the showy changes made for this year’s ceremony — “We’re doing it at Union Station!” “We’re presenting in widescreen!” — the 2021 Oscars cut traditional show elements more than they created new reasons to watch. The opening monologue, the host, the musical numbers (which were only shown in the pre-show), and more were all axed. Sure, fleeting you-had-to-be-there moments still surfaced; the kind that ABC relies on to lure those increasingly elusive live viewers. Glenn Close backed up to “Da Butt” after an odd, late-in-the-show, time-filling trivia game. Daniel Kaluuya thanked his mom and dad for having sex, and the world saw his mom react in real-time. (Later, Bryan Cranston mentioned how, thanks to housing provided by the Motion Picture and Television Fund, his mother had a “last, sweet romance,” creating an unexpected theme for the evening.) Youn grabbed Brad Pitt’s arm. The world swooned.

Early on, with the natural light casting guests in a soft LA glow and shallow depth of field shots highlighting presenters over the crowd, it felt like this year’s telecast might work as the ultimate insiders’ Oscars; a show created for people who love movies by people who make movies. But the Academy Awards ceremony isn’t a movie. It’s a TV show meant to connect the people who make movies with the people who love them. Throughout the Oscars, it was easy to tell how intimate and easygoing the in-person event must be. There were far less people there, for one, and those in attendance were seated comfortably at tables, not wedged into theater seats. They could move about, chat, and even (gasp!) go outside. Finally, an Academy Awards meant to make the honored attendees feel special and the viewers at home feel envious.

But a breezy three-hour event is hard to pull off, and it’s even harder to make entertaining. Besides a bit of hard-earned magic, Oscars telecasts rely on tension, spectacle, and surprises. Stripping out the first two and relying on the third is a risky bet. Technically, the 2021 show did save its biggest surprise for the end. But good movies don’t leave their closing message to chance.

Grade: C+

The 93rd Academy Awards took place on Sunday, April 25 at Union Station in Los Angeles and the Dolby Theater in Hollywood. The ceremony aired on ABC.

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