COVID-19 has destroyed many things, but one of its greatest (if least significant) casualties has been televised awards shows. From The Golden Globes to The Grammys and everything in between, the blows dealt by the pandemic have been nothing short of brutal. But even after all of those tedious, tech-glitched affairs, what unrolled at The 93rd Academy Awards was still a true shock. Unavoidably, ahem, pivoting from past ceremonies, this year’s Oscars were produced by the surprise team of Steven Soderbergh, Stacey Sher and Jesse Collins. As a top-tier filmmaker, Soderbergh had promised that these Oscars would be “intimate” and “more cinematic” in tone. That, to be honest, sounded great, and with an unusual, highly varied list of nominees (many of the films nominated would likely have been crowded out by bigger studio fare in any other year), the 2021 Oscars had real potential to be something fresh and different.
While they were certainly that, they were also mind-numbingly tedious. Perhaps in a nod to Trial Of The Chicago 7 writer/director Aaron Sorkin, the ceremony was unquestionably the talkiest in history. Forgetting the cinematic idiom that it’s often better to show than to tell, Soderbergh brought in a crew of big name writers (such as Oscar nominee Richard LaGravenese), and let them off the leash. It all started with Regina King (a wonderful, wonderful actress, and now director, but hardly the right kind of figure to kick off the Oscars), who – in lieu, once again, of a proper host – talked and talked and talked, indicating the gabby tone for the evening. In a bold and very, very unwise move, clips of the nominated works and performers were largely done away with, replaced instead with the presenters waxing lyrical about how great the nominees were, and giving fluffy background notes on each of them. It was a nice gesture, but grew tiresome almost immediately. You could almost hear the sigh of relief from the worldwide audience (those that had hung around, anyway, for this now notoriously low rating affair) when presenter Joaquin Phoenix dropped the practice and just went straight into listing the nominees. Do we really need to see actors wantonly stroking the egos of other actors for three hours? We’re with The Joker – no, thanks.
This incessant chatter was the real destroyer of the show, however, and not the changes wrought by COVID-19. The smaller, more intimate setting of LA’s Union Station was initially disconcerting, but ultimately kind of cool, while having Questlove handle the music as opposed to the usual orchestra was fresh and entertaining. The live satellite crosses to other parts of the world (including Sydney, where what looked like cardboard cut-outs of Sacha Baron Cohen and Isla Fisher were located) to see the nominees and winners largely played out fairly smoothly. But the unnecessary disappearance of Oscar traditions like performances of the Best Song nominees (which were instead staged at a pre-show event), clip packages and comedy bits were sorely missed, even though they have all frequently sucked in previous years. A bit of music (even cheesy music) would have been far preferable to watching Laura Dern and Renee Zellweger delivering what amounted to verbal hand-jobs to the nominees. And in another big move, Oscar winners were not played off during their speeches. They certainly abused the privilege, with most nattering on incessantly for ages. While watching a gifted creative humiliatingly played off by the orchestra has always been cringe-worthy, this year’s winners proved that they can’t be trusted to keep the show moving.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of this year’s Oscars was how they played out in terms of the buzz word of the moment: diversity. The Oscars have long been criticised for being too white, too male, and too boring. And while they were just as boring as ever, the Oscar nominees and winners’ lists were filled with people of colour. Nomadland helmer Chloe Zhao was the first Asian-American woman to win the Best Director award (and the first woman to get the coveted gong since Kathryn Bigelow scored with The Hurt Locker), while people of diverse cultural backgrounds triumphed in other categories too.
Best Supporting Actor winner Daniel Kaluuya (Judas And The Black Messiah) gave the best speech of the night, mentioning (much to his mother’s visible confusion and horror) his parents having sex, amongst other things. A close second, however, went to Best Supporting Actress winner Youn Yuh-jung (Minari), who served up the charm and humour in big dollops. Powerhouse African-American producer, director, actor, activist and philanthropist Tyler Perry (who is huge in the US, but next to unknown here in Australia) gave an inspiring and deeply moving speech when picking up The Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. The deaf community was also spotlighted through the compelling multi-nominated drama The Sound Of Metal, and presenter and past Oscar winner Marlee Matlin, whose sucking up to Donald Trump on The Celebrity Apprentice was obviously conveniently forgotten. Millionaire eccentrics (you know, the type you see talking to themselves while mid-week brunching in Potts Point) were also represented, with Frances McDormand gibbering about swords and wolf-calling during her double wins as Nomadland Best Actress and Nomadland Best Film co-producer.
Yes, the Oscars were a very woke affair this year, but that all came horribly undone at the end of the night. In what was never a good or appropriate idea, the Best Actress and Best Actor awards were handed out after the Best Film gong. This has never been done before – for good reason! – and it proved to be a disastrous move. Obviously engineered so the ceremony would end on a huge emotional note with the sadly departed Chadwick Boseman taking out his much predicted posthumous Best Actor award for his strong work in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the Oscars instead took an M. Night Shyamalan-level turn right at the end. Instead of the award going to a much loved African-American actor, it was instead won by that currently most hated of figures: the old white guy, in the form of Anthony Hopkins for his towering work in The Father. Not only was the big emotional moment gone, the gaping vacuum that it left grew even greater because Anthony Hopkins wasn’t even there to accept the award…not even by Zoom, or Skype, or on the phone. He did post an online acceptance speech hours later, but it’s hardly the same. Ironically, the talkiest, most long winded Oscars ceremony in history ended without a speech…maybe we should be happy for small mercies. This shock ending did, however, prove a couple of things beyond any shadow of a doubt: firstly, the Oscars aren’t rigged, and secondly, the ceremony’s producers are unequivocally not clued in to who is going to win.
Long, overly dialogue based, non-engaging, and with a very, very bad ending, the 2021 Oscars ceremony was certainly more cinematic in tone than usual…unfortunately, the cinema that the ceremony was mirroring was just not very good.
For a full list of winners, click here.