However low the ratings turn out to be for the two-month-delayed 2021 Oscars, the three rookie Oscar show producers, Steven Soderbergh, Stacey Sher, and Glenn Collins, took advantage of their pandemic limitations to apply a fresh twist to the tried-and-true awards-show formula. They wanted viewers to escape into a cinematic experience miles away from the trapped-at-home feel of watching television and Zoom. Soderbergh’s watch-a-movie Oscars deployed roving wide-angle lenses, 24 fps images, and a live Questlove soundtrack to take audiences closer to attendees, sitting two by two at plush banquettes and small tables in the blue-curtained intimate amphitheatre erected inside iconic Union Station. As Soderbergh promised beforehand, “I want the whole thing to announce itself out of the gate as different.”
Sure enough, right off the bat, actress-turned-director Regina King strode into Union Station in a dazzling blue gown clutching an Oscar like she owned the place. She was covered by a long wide-angle tracking shot as credits rolled, and entered the intimate Oscar show. “It’s been a hard year for everyone,” said King as she gained her footing on the stage. “But our love of movies helped us to get through. It made us feel less isolated. They helped to connect us when we were apart.”
This, as Soderbergh had promised, was a movie. That was the idea, anyway. This year’s pandemic Oscars were a triumph because they happened at all, and celebrated the best movies that managed to get out this year, mostly online. (New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd seemed to miss the fact that Hollywood’s most commercial crowd-pleasers, from Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” to Jon M. Chu’s “In the Heights,” two films advertised on the show, were pushed back to next year as they waited for theaters to reopen.) While the Oscars promoted the still-to-open Academy Museum and the movie business’ cutting-edge safety protocols (designed to some extent by Soderbergh), they missed the award show’s central function: to infuse audiences with excitement about going to cinemas.
Only Best Actress winner Frances McDormand (“Nomadland”) gave the rousing get-back-to-theaters speech. “Please watch our movie on the largest screen possible,” she said. “And one day, very, very soon, take everybody you know into a theater, shoulder to shoulder, in that dark space, and watch every film that’s represented here tonight.”
To push the movie aesthetic and increase nominee attendance, no Zooms were permitted: Satellite hook-ups at hubs around the world, including London, Paris, Sydney, and Rome, supplied other acceptance speeches including Paris-based writer-director Florian Zeller for Adapted Screenplay for “The Father” (shared with Christopher Hampton, in London), and Mikkel E.G. Nielsen, editor of “Sound of Metal,” in Berlin.
But the no Zoom rule also applied to “The Father” star Anthony Hopkins. When the producers shuffled the order of the awards, leaving the high-stakes Best Actress and Actor awards to last (after Best Picture), the evening’s Big Upset, the climactic moment, flopped like a flat souffle: no acceptance speech from Hopkins. The oldest acting Oscar-winner ever, 83-year-old Hopkins was asleep at home in Wales. (He posted his own acceptance speech the next morning.) He had no desire to travel to hubs in Dublin or London, his reps confirmed, who pleaded for him to be allowed to Zoom. (Another winner, 89-year-old “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” Costume Designer Ann Roth, also did not travel to an Oscar hub.) “It was my dream to work with the greatest living actor,” said Zeller.
At the beginning of the show, safety protocols were explained as the same as any film set: masks off in front of the camera, then back on. The nominees were whisked in and out of the central ceremony and back to where the real fun was going on — the flower-festooned exterior courtyard. The hostless show used the presenters, many of them former winners or current contenders, such as Steven Yeun and Riz Ahmed, to take the audience through several back-to-back categories, relating personal vignettes about themselves and the nominees. We learned that “Sound of Metal” director Darius Marder ran a sushi catering business in Vermont, and that “Promising Young Woman” Original Screenplay winner Emerald Fennell’s son didn’t arrive until two weeks after she finished her 23-day shoot. At first presenters introduced the nominees in the room without the use of film clips, which suddenly arrived in the second half of the show. Soderbergh has said he wanted the show to “feel more personal, wanted the show to have a voice.”
In the end, ABC’s red-carpet pre-show and after-show wrap-up special offered the sense of a cool party that many of us wished we could attend, where people looked great and were having a good time. The Oscar ceremony itself felt oddly old-fashioned, almost quaint. The most dazzling set-pieces, the musical numbers, four of which were pre-taped on a glossier scale atop the Academy museum rooftop (the fifth, “Husavik,” was energetically broadcast live in Iceland), were kept to the pre-show, depriving the main event of some badly needed scale. These Oscars had no populist touch, no comedy bits except for a trivia contest with DJ Questlove testing profanity-spouting Andra Day (who scored a Best Actress nod for her first movie, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday”) and prepped Glenn Close (who lost her eighth Oscar for “Hillbilly Elegy” and will come back fighting with “Sunset Boulevard”) that might have lured more viewers at the top of the show. Close did improvise her “Da Butt” dance, the viral hit of the night.
In fact, the night’s elder statespeople were among the most entertaining, from Close to 73-year-old Best Supporting Actress winner Yuh-Jung Youn, the second Asian woman to win in this category (after Miyoshi Umeki for “Sayonara” in 1958). Youn hit on her “Minari” absentee producer-presenter Brad Pitt (who gallantly helped her off the stage). That “Minari” win marked A24’s first Oscar since “Moonlight.” “How can I win over Glenn Close?” asked Youn. “I have been watching all her performances. All five nominees, we are all winners. We cannot compete with each other. I am luckier than you!”
Finally, as much as the producers welcomed the chance to reinvent the Oscar wheel, they had to work within defined restraints, and that includes a three-hour show with the tagline “Bring Your Movie Love” that handed out 23 Oscars and two Governors awards (Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Awards to Tyler Perry and the Motion Picture Television Fund) along with the usual (speeded up) In Memoriam reel (that omitted Jessica Walter). Perry gave a rousing political speech. “My mother taught me to refuse hate,” he said. “I don’t hate anybody. I could hope that we would refuse hate. I dedicate this award to anyone willing to stand in the middle: that’s where healing conversation and change happens. Anyone who wants to meet me in the middle and refuse hate and lift someone’s feet off the ground, this one is for you.”
In line with a decade of winners since the Academy adopted the preferential ballot, this year’s Best Picture Oscar went to a message movie (see “12 Years a Slave,” “Spotlight,” “Moonlight,” “The Shape of Water,” “Green Book,” and “Parasite”). The American road movie “Nomadland” (Searchlight), from Chinese writer-director-editor-producer Chloé Zhao, took three big wins — Picture, Director, and Actress — by combining an innovative approach to naturalistic storytelling, an extraordinary performance by producer/actress McDormand acting opposite real people, stunning Magic Hour cinematography, and a crucial asset for an Oscar winner: hitting the zeitgeist and sending a message to the world about the invisible, marginalized working poor. “It was a crazy once-in-a-lifetime journey we did together,” said Zhao, the second woman to win the directing Oscar, and the first woman of color. Zhao made a bid for people to embrace the goodness in themselves and others. Backstage she praised her star: “People don’t realize how open and vulnerable she has been. I’m so happy.”
Finally, Oscar voters didn’t care that McDormand would win a third Oscar. She joins Walter Brennan, Ingrid Bergman, Jack Nicholson, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Meryl Streep in the three-time-Oscar-winner club; Katharine Hepburn is the only one with four. In a tightly contested race, McDormand beat SAG-winner Viola Davis — who beamed when “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” won Best Costume and Hairstyling and Makeup (the first Black artisans to win in that category) — Critics Choice and Indie Spirit winner Carey Mulligan (“Promising Young Woman”), and Golden Globe-winner Day. Mulligan and Day, along with Supporting Actor and Best Song nominee Leslie Odom Jr. (“One Night in Miami”) were all dressed to win in head-to-toe gold. Next time.
Oscar night wins for “Nomadland” came on the heels of Searchlight’s two veteran leaders Nancy Utley and Stephen Gilula announcing that they were voluntarily moving on, leaving the 27-year-old specialty label (founded by current Sony motion picture chief Tom Rothman and continued by Disney content czar Peter Rice) in the hands of their co-production presidents, Matthew Greenfield and David Greenbaum. No other company has had such a stellar Oscar track record, based on carefully orchestrated theatrical releases and calibrated marketing. Searchlight has now won Best Picture five times since 2009: “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Birdman,” “12 Years a Slave” and “The Shape of Water” preceded “Nomadland,” which was executed during a challenging time when nobody knew what was working or how audiences were responding. But the movie moved viewers from its four-festival launch in Venice, Telluride (at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena), and hybrid festivals in Toronto and New York, yielding powerful word of mouth that propelled audiences and Oscar voters alike to see the film: on IMAX, in theaters, or on Hulu.
With a record 36 Oscar nominations, Netflix wound up with a record seven wins for a streamer: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” took home two craft Oscars, losing both acting bids for Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman, who had won most of the precursor awards (except the BAFTA won by Hopkins), while Aaron Sorkin’s Best Picture contender “The Trial of the Chicago 7” lost all six of its bids. Nominations leader “Mank” won two out of ten for Best Production Design and Cinematography, Best Live-Action Short for “Two Distant Strangers” and Best Animated Short for “If Anything Happens I Love You,” and as expected, popular underwater love story “My Octopus Teacher” won Best Documentary. “This is a tiny personal story that played out in the sea forest at the tip of Africa,” said co-director Pippa Reed. “I hope it provided a glimpse of a different kind of relationship between human beings and the natural world.”
All in all, Netflix marked an impressive milestone — but still no Best Picture win. Partly, their slate of films played out over the fall season, while the theatrical distributors waited until February to push “Nomadland,” Minari,” and “The Father.” That gave them needed late momentum.
Amazon Studios made a strong showing as Darius Marder’s “Sound of Metal” won both Editing and Sound, while political comedy “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” went home with nothing. Streamers laid out more Oscar campaign cash than the studios, which did back loss-leader movies like “Judas and the Black Messiah” (Warner Bros.), which nabbed two Oscars, for Best Song (“Fight for You”) and Supporting Actor for Daniel Kaluuya (who thanked his weeping mother, watching from the London hub) and Tom Hanks western “News of the World” (Universal), which did not win anything. “We’re enjoying ourselves tonight,” said Kaluuya. “Let’s celebrate life. It’s incredible. I’m here! I’m so happy to be alive. I’m going to celebrate that tonight. Love and peace and onwards!”
These films might have built bigger followings in cinemas, but had to make do online. At Christopher Nolan’s direction, Warners did not back an awards campaign for $200-million spy thriller “Tenet,” which picked up one Oscar anyway, for VFX. Disney/Pixar’s first Black-themed film, “Soul,” wound up playing on Disney+, and took home two Oscars, for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Score. In his acceptance speech, director Pete Docter asked for people to be inspired by jazz and “wherever we are, whatever we have, we turn it into something beautiful.”
For Oscar prognosticators, tallying guild wins still offers insight, but since 2016 the Academy has altered its membership far more than any of the guilds. Women and people of color are slowly increasing their numbers, but the biggest Academy shift is toward a global membership that is about 22 percent international. BAFTA proved more predictive than any other body. That sophisticated voting block played a role in the wins for Sundance premieres of art films “Nomadland,” “Minari,” and European “The Father” (Sony Pictures Classics) and “Promising Young Woman” (Focus) as well as “Sound of Metal,” starring British actor Riz Ahmed.
This year Soderbergh, who admits he was drunk when he accepted his Directing Oscar for “Traffic,” made sure to give winners plenty of time for their acceptance speeches. Teary Best International Feature winner Thomas Vinterberg went long with a heartfelt speech about how he lost his daughter Ida in a car accident four days into shooting “Another Round.” “This film is about letting go of control in your life as I lost control in my own,” he said. “We ended up making this film for her…Ida, this is a miracle and you are part of this miracle. This one is for you.”