oscars 2021

The Highs, Lows, and Very Big Whoas of the 2021 Oscars

Let it never be said that Glenn Close does not know “Da Butt.” Photo: ABC

The 93rd annual Academy Awards ceremony was a bonkers-as-hell roller coaster, to be frank. The night started out with a slick, tightly choreographed opening, and transitioned into an evening with a genteel, fancy country-club ambience. But by around 10:45, everything started tilting sideways. Glenn Close danced to “Da Butt.” The In Memoriam segment moved so fast it bordered on parody. Then, the portion of the ceremony traditionally designed to be a big climactic windup to Best Picture instead collapsed in a half-deflated heap, leaving Joaquin Phoenix and Questlove somehow in charge of wrapping things up and then sending everyone home.

What began as a ceremony evoking one of producer Steven Soderbergh’s streamlined heist movies ended with the energy of an awkward corporate banquet where the night’s big winner couldn’t make it. It was a weird, wild, beautiful, baffling Oscars, and maybe that’s fitting for such a weird, sad, wild, baffling year.

HIGH: Regina King striding confidently down a long red carpet into Union Station, the most Soderberghian opening imaginable to these Soderbergh-produced awards. One of the big challenges of awards ceremonies over the past year has been the uncanny-valley feeling of awards that try to mimic pre-COVID times and fail miserably. Ceremonies that have embraced the differences have been far more successful, so the decision to host these Oscars in a new space, with distinctly unusual cinematography choices and a strong point-of-view direction feels like a huge relief. Can you imagine how grim a Dolby theater full of empty seats would’ve been?

King handled the opening masterfully, of course, negotiating between the ultrachoreographed long walk into the theater, and the night’s slightly more casual feel. She also chose to begin with a reference to the recent decision in the Derek Chauvin trial. “If things had gone differently this past week in Minneapolis, I might’ve traded in my high heels for marching boots.”

HIGH: Molly Sandén’s singing “Húsavík” with a children’s choir in actual Húsavík, Iceland, Europe’s most Oscar-obsessed small town, watching themselves from their whale museum and made famous via Netflix’s Eurovision, got a chance to put on a big, earnest show for the rest of the world with this performance (with fireworks!) and it captured all goofy positivity of the film itself. The fireworks! The ships! The thickly knit sweaters! This is the kind of over-the-top Hollywood spectacle we want from the Oscars.

LOW: The fact that the best song performances were buried in the preshow. If you wanted to see “Húsavík” live, you had to turn into ABC right at the beginning of its awkward Oscars red carpet–slash–outdoor patio coverage. Plus, if you were watching in another country, you might miss the song performances entirely. The elves would not approve.

HIGH: Daniel Kaluuya ends his acceptance speech for best supporting actor in Judas and the Black Messiah by concluding, “My mum and my dad, they had sex, that’s amazing!” His mum was not amused.

LOW: The lack of clips from the nominated movies and performances. One understandable casualty — though a casualty nonetheless — of Soderbergh’s in person hangout approach to the ceremony was that the Oscars didn’t cut away from the proceedings when introducing the nominees for a category to show clips from the movies, with a few exceptions, including the International Feature, Documentary, Animated, and Best Picture categories. On the one hand, it was lovely to hear more personal introductions, but we still missed out on the chance to revisit the big moments from the films, or even introduce them to those who hadn’t seen them yet. It felt like an especially glaring omission in the performance categories. Let us see the work! What are the Oscars without those teary, snot-filled dramatic monologues?

HIGH: Bong Joon-Ho’s presentation of Best Director began with a High! Drama! Reveal! as dark lighting in an empty theater gradually brightened enough to show him standing in the aisle, describing what makes a good director. Even better, he paraphrased personal notes from each of the nominated directors, explaining how they would explain their jobs to a random child on the street. Best Director went to Chloé Zhao, whose definition of how to be a great director included asking herself what Werner Herzog would do.

HIGH (BUT ALSO RIDICULOUS): Chloé Zhao became the second woman, and the first woman of color, to win Best Director in 93 years! Two! In 93 years! First woman of color!

HIGH: Music throughout the ceremony coordinated by Questlove, which was generally calm and unremarkable, but occasionally resulted in moments like the acceptance speech for Best Animated Feature that ended with an air horn that segued quickly into “9 to 5.” At least 75 percent of acceptance speeches should end with an air horn noise.

LOW: A night of Netflix wins, which is perfectly okay! But My Octopus Teacher for Best Documentary Feature? Really? The one with the guy with the octopus fetish? (It’s not really a fetish exactly, but be honest … we all know there are vibes.) Not Crip Camp? Not Collective? Not Time?! Look everyone’s gotta make choices and apparently the Academy’s choice was Shape of Water 2, and that’s fine we guess.

LOW: Brad Pitt absolutely not doing his homework on learning how to pronounce the names of the Supporting Actress nominees, mangling the names of both Maria Bakalova and Youn Yuh-jung (twice, in two different ways). Youn politely dragged “Mr. Pitt” for it in her typically excellent speech, adding that everyone is off the hook tonight because she won. But still! Brad, if you’re presenting you have literally one job and that’s to learn everyone’s name.

HIGH: Long speeches are good, thank you very much. Not playing off the winners with overbearing music and a terrifying countdown clock is more polite, first of all. It means that this ceremony avoided any of the many issues previous ceremonies have had where the “you’re done now” music kicked in just as some winner described a personal tragedy, making everyone watching at home want to peel their faces off in shame. Just as important, though, is that letting speeches run a little longer is better! Longer speeches are how you get Daniel Kaluuya marveling at the miracle of human reproduction, and Youn Yuh-jung taking a moment to burn Brad Pitt to a crisp for mispronouncing her name (see above), suggesting that she is just luckier than the other nominees, and then thanking her sons. “This is the result, because mommy works so hard,” she said, holding up the Oscar. Viva la long speeches.

HIGH (AND TO THE LEFT, TO THE LEFT): Soderbergh had a vision, and that vision was that 90 percent of the shots in this ceremony should be framed with the subjects extremely off-center.

LOW: The air of self-congratulation on social justice. Throughout the ceremony, presenters and winners referenced the political movements of the last year — obviously, how could they not? — but many fell back on clapping Hollywood on its own back for being so progressive in a way it visibly isn’t. Regina King mentioned the Derek Chauvin verdict in her opening remarks, and later, in an uncomfortable segue, Marlee Matlin signed before introducing Documentary Feature, the Oscars insinuated that Darnella Frazer’s video of George Floyd’s murder was a documentary film. It’s a lot of superficial self-congratulation that lets the industry itself, riven with deep racism and misogyny and bullying of its own, off the hook. No better was the real political perspective of the Oscars expressed than with Tyler Perry winning a humanitarian award and using his speech to say that he wouldn’t hate a police officer and would like everyone to meet him in the middle. Hey, at least that’s honest.

LOW: “Húsavík” robbed. Again, the elves would not approve.

HIGH: Late in the ceremony, the Oscars threw a curveball with a joke segment where Lil Rel wandered about trying to get nominees to guess whether famous songs written for movies actually won Oscars. This led to him trying to stump Glenn Close about “Da Butt,” which led to Glenn Close dancing to “Da Butt” and everyone losing their minds, which is the only imaginable, reasonable response.

LOW: Long speeches are lovely and Glenn Close dancing to “Da Butt” is incredible, but an “In Memoriam” segment seemingly played at 1.5x speed and set to incongruously upbeat music is an odd choice in any time, but especially in 2021.

WHOA: Giving out the award for Best Picture before giving out Best Actor and Actress. In a bold, experimental, roller-coaster sequence, the Oscars went from “Da Butt” to that … spritely In Memoriam and suddenly, to the biggest award of the night: Best Picture. It was a little like eating dessert before finishing dinner. Sure, you get to the big moment — which was Nomadland’s somewhat predictable win — but it throws off the whole Aristotelean dramatic structure of the thing. If you hit the climax early, what do you have left to build up to?

FURTHER WHOA TURNED TO LOW: When you gamble the structure of your show on an outcome that seems nearly certain, it can turn out to be not certain at all. After Nomadland won Best Picture, the awards carried on to a win for Frances McDormand for Best Actress (an unpredictable category, but not a total surprise) and then to Best Actor, where it seemed that Chadwick Boseman would win a posthumous award and there might be a heartfelt tribute to wrap up the night.

But no! As it turned out, the Academy favored Anthony Hopkins in The Father, and what’s more, Anthony Hopkins wasn’t even there to make a speech. So, suddenly, Joaquin Phoenix, who really seemed like he didn’t want to be there, had to wrap things up by muttering that the Academy accepted Hopkins’s award on his behalf and the show cut to Questlove to say a sentence or two to wrap it all up. The optics of having an award expected to be used as a celebration of a life of a Black actor suddenly won by a white one stand out in high relief, but beyond that, the pacing of the whole thing was deeply abrupt. Without even a speech to end on, it felt as if, after hanging out for a while, the Oscars simply decided to Irish exit from the situation. We had an interesting vibe going, but suddenly they said, “Okay, bye.”

The Highs, Lows, and Very Big Whoas of the 2021 Oscars