They thought Chadwick Boseman was going to win.
That’s the only explanation for what happened at Sunday night’s already infamous Oscars finale. As part of their mandate to switch up the telecast, this year’s Steven Soderbergh-led production team had dispensed with a number of perennial Oscars traditions. Some categories had (long) clips; most had none. We heard none of the nominated scores, but all of the nominated songs (though performances of those were disappointingly relegated to the preshow). And, in the night’s biggest change, for the first time since the 1972 ceremony, when the closing segment was devoted to Charlie Chaplin’s honorary Oscar, the telecast would not end with the presentation of the Best Picture trophy. Instead, the two final slots would go to the two lead acting categories.
Here, at least, you could see the motivation: Best Picture and Best Director were all but sewn up for Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, and why end the ceremony on a fait accompli? By contrast, Best Actress was one of the night’s biggest nail-biters, so holding it until the eleventh hour would ramp up the suspense even further. And Best Actor was sure to go to Boseman, thus ensuring the ceremony would end on a somber memorial for the late star — a fitting conclusion to a season that took place amid social turmoil, industry-wide disruption, and mass death.
Except, as it turned out, the Best Actor trophy did not go to Boseman. It went to Anthony Hopkins, in The Father, who wasn’t even in attendance. Presenter Joaquin Phoenix mumbled a brief acceptance on Hopkins’s behalf, and just like that, the Oscars were over. (Hopkins did give a late acceptance speech on his Instagram early Monday morning, saying, “I am grateful to the Academy and thank you. I want to pay tribute to Chadwick Boseman who was taken from us far too early, and again, thank you all very much. I really did not expect this, so I feel very privileged and honored. Thank you.”) If the Moonlight–La La Land mix-up was the ultimate Hollywood ending, this was the opposite: a damp squib of an anticlimax and a colossal own goal on the part of Soderbergh and his team.
But while we’re talking about what Soderbergh possibly could have been thinking, it’s also worth taking a look at the voters’ side of the equation — how was Hopkins able to pull off the upset over Boseman? I can think of a few reasons:
He Had the More Oscar-Friendly Role
It takes nothing away from Boseman’s tragic turn in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom to note that Hopkins’s part in The Father hits slightly more of the notes that the Academy likes to see in its acting winners. Voters love a transformation, and The Father calls for Hopkins to make multiple transformations within the same scene. As an elderly man dealing with what he refuses to believe is dementia, the actor runs through the entire emotional spectrum: He’s charming and lucid one moment, confused and vulnerable the next, only to turn cruel and vindictive in an instant. (And it surely didn’t hurt that his last transformation, in the film’s final scene, is the most heartbreaking of all.) It was a very demanding, a very showy, very awards-friendly part — Frank Langella won a Tony in 2016 for the Broadway version — and so from the film’s first screenings in January 2020, it was apparent that Hopkins would be in contention for an Oscar. In a sense, he was hardly an underdog at all: Critics at Sundance pegged him as an early Best Actor front-runner, and he was a staple of year-ahead Oscar predictions. It was only in the fall, after Ma Rainey started getting buzz, that Hopkins fell from his perch as the presumptive winner.
The Father Peaked at the Right Time
After acquiring The Father, Sony Pictures Classics demonstrated remarkable patience with the movie throughout the pandemic. Which is to say, they held it. Then they held it. Then they held it some more, finally giving it a tiny release in theaters and on VOD the last weekend of the Oscars’ expanded eligibility window. This made the movie the butt of jokes on nomination morning — what was this thing called The Father, and why was it so hard to see? — but it also meant that it was one of the last films that many voters watched, an underrated bonus in a season as long and exhausting as this one. The Father’s success at the BAFTAs, at which it won both Adapted Screenplay and Best Actor, could have been written off as a product of the Brits’ famed home-field advantage, but pundits who spent their time chatting to Oscar voters, like Variety’s Clayton Davis, noticed “a palpable surge” for the drama in the season’s final weeks. In retrospect, it was clear the film was gaining momentum at the right time.
The Curse of the Front-runner
As everyone from Glenn Close to Hillary Clinton can tell you, sometimes the worst thing that can happen is being proclaimed the winner before a single vote has been cast. With your victory seemingly in the bag, voters don’t feel like they’re risking anything by going in another direction. Evidence suggests that might have been what happened here. As one Academy member told Davis, “I think Chadwick Boseman is going to win, but I voted for Anthony Hopkins.” The same factor may have come into play at the Independent Spirit Awards, where Boseman lost to Riz Ahmed, but if that was a warning not to treat the late actor’s win as a given, it came too late — Oscar voting had already ended.
Posthumous Nominees Have a Poor Track Record
Oscar-watchers who’d been proclaiming Boseman a lock since last fall should have remembered that it is very hard to win a posthumous Oscar. Nine performers have been up for Oscars after their deaths, and only two of them have ever won: Peter Finch for Network, and Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight. It didn’t happen for Spencer Tracey, it didn’t happen for Ralph Richardson, and it didn’t even happen for James Dean, who had two chances in back-to-back years. Why have the departed won fewer trophies than, well, The Departed? If I had to guess, it’s that voters want to feel like they’re giving a winner a career highlight when they hand them an Oscar, and that dynamic just doesn’t work the same if an actor’s not around to receive it.
The Increasingly Global Makeup of the Academy
While the Academy’s post-#OscarsSoWhite expansion has made the membership less male and less white, it’s also made it less American. Consider how that might have affected the two films in contention. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is rooted in American history: It’s set in the Jazz Age, amid the Great Migration, and the plot deals pointedly with the racial iniquities of our entertainment industry. The Father, by contrast, is slightly more international: Florian Zeller’s play was originally written in French, but translated productions were mounted all over the globe. (In every country, people get dementia, and in every country, their children have to look after them. ) It’s not as obvious a triumph of the Academy’s new global outlook as Parasite’s big win last year, but an 83-year-old Welshman winning for a movie directed by a French playwright, in its own small way, is proof the Academy is increasingly comfortable looking outside our shores.