oscars 2021

What Did We Learn From This Strange Oscars Season?

The unprecedented season was good for Chloé Zhao and Anthony Hopkins, and less kind to Netflix films like Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Photo: From Left: Courtesy of Netflix, Getty Images, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

From the very beginning, it was apparent that this year’s Oscars were shaping up to be the weirdest ones we’d ever seen. For one, very few of the films in competition would be seen in actual movie theaters — instead, the field was given over to streaming and VOD releases. Awards campaigns, which have evolved into multimillion-dollar charm offenses, would happen only virtually, or not at all. Society itself had been shaken since the last ceremony, with a deadly pandemic, massive protests in support of racial justice, and an attempted insurrection in the nation’s capital. Oh, and the Oscars would be taking place not on their usual February date, but in April.

Now that the 2021 Oscars are in the books, it’s time to take stock. How did all this massive upheaval affect the ceremony itself?

Small films got their moment in the sun.

With the exception of Tenet, there were no traditional blockbusters in the awards race this year. This undoubtedly cleared the way for a film like Nomadland to succeed; with no Goliaths on the field, this tiny, artsy indie could become a steamroller. But it also boosted a movie like Sound of Metal, which nobody pegged as a major Oscar player when it premiered at TIFF in 2019. Darius Marder’s film gradually picked up buzz over the course of the fall, and it wound up as a Best Picture nominee and two-time winner. The Oscar imprimatur bestowed upon Marder and his fellow first-timers Florian Zeller, Emerald Fennell, and Regina King will undoubtedly aid them in the future.

The uneasy truce between Netflix and the Academy continues.

Last spring, once it became clear that movie theaters in New York and Los Angeles wouldn’t be reopening anytime soon, the Academy relaxed its requirement that Oscar contenders must play physical theaters. The move didn’t just ensure that the Academy would not have to nominate Sonic the Hedgehog for Best Picture; it also served as a unilateral concession to Netflix, with whom the Academy has been locked in a frenemy-style relationship for the past half-decade, acknowledging that, although a prominent bloc of Academy membership considers the theatrical experience paramount, this year, at-home viewing was the only game in town.

But predictions that 2021 would be the year the streaming service dominated the Oscars didn’t quite come to pass. Netflix received two Best Picture nominations, the same as last year. Its strongest horse in the race, The Trial of the Chicago 7, went home empty-handed, while Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom lost out in the lead acting races. But neither was Netflix snubbed. Mank and Ma Rainey each won a pair of craft trophies, and the streaming giant continued to dominate the documentary and shorts categories. Ultimately, Netflix ended the night with more Oscars than any other studio. Despite the turmoil of the past 13 months, the relationship between the two remains largely as it was pre-COVID: The Academy is happy to invite Netflix to the party, but isn’t quite ready to sit them at the big kids’ table yet.

The concept of an ‘Oscar movie’ opened up — but only slightly.

With fewer films in the race this year, would Oscar embrace the chance to reward films that didn’t fit the typical awards mold? Not so much. Each of the eight films nominated for Best Picture was a prestige drama released late in the season, and all but one came from streamers, independents, or specialty divisions. Still, because there wasn’t enough Oscar bait to fill out the entire ballot, a few intriguing selections did pop up on the margins. “Husavik” got an Original Song nomination. Emma’s craft noms carried the standard for pre-pandemic cinema. The Visual Effects category was filled out by enjoyably random titles like the talking-animal film The One and Only Ivan. And best of all, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm’s Maria Bakalova cracked the Supporting Actress lineup — an Oscar feat that in all likelihood would not have been possible in a normal year. Wawaweewa!

Campaign narratives took a backseat.

While it would be going too far to suggest that this was the season of no narratives — Nomadland was certainly able to craft a winning message for itself — it was still notable that, in a race with no in-person campaigning, the Oscars passed over a few of the more prominent extratextual storylines. How many times this year did you hear that Chadwick Boseman was a lock for a posthumous Oscar for his final film performance? And how many times did you hear that there was no way Frances McDormand would win Best Actress, since she’d won her second trophy so recently? In both lead-acting races, the pundits were wrong. By rewarding McDormand and Anthony Hopkins, Oscar went with a Best Actress winner who didn’t campaign and a Best Actor winner who didn’t travel, suggesting that voters simply favored the performances that resonated with them the most, storylines and campaigns be damned. (And yes, it’s also telling that those performances turned out to be the ones by white actors, but that’s a conversation for a different story.)

A year with no villains.

My favorite awards-season tradition is the unveiling of each year’s Oscar villain, the film it becomes the duty of all right-thinking movie fans to cheer against. Except, just as in some of the nominated films, the Oscars didn’t really have a villain this year. In part, this was because all the potential candidates underperformed: Hillbilly Elegy was quickly reduced to a mere vehicle for Glenn Close’s Supporting Actress hopes, and The Trial of the Chicago 7 proved little competition for the other films in the Best Picture race. And while the wider culture war burns on, I suspect the fact that Donald Trump is no longer president also helped turn down the dial on the season’s political debates. (When people are trying to make Nomadland the bad guy, you know something has changed.) But mostly, an Oscar villain requires a certain level of outside investment, and this year, there just wasn’t enough attention on the awards race to create one. If people don’t know who they’re rooting for, how can they possibly decide who to root against?

Oscarwise, streaming and VOD are no competition for the big screen.

With no host and few jokes, I wouldn’t say the Academy did everything it could to maximize TV ratings for the Oscars telecast this year. Still, the record-low viewership for the 2021 ceremony confirmed what skeptics like The Ankler’s Richard Rushfield had been saying all season long: The magic of the Oscars is reliant on the scale and communal experience only found with theatrical releases. Without them, the Oscars might as well be the Gothams. So while last week’s numbers are undoubtedly depressing for those who hold out hope for the Oscars’ place in mainstream culture, next season should be full of the massive spectaculars that were noticeably absent in this one. If so, they could ensure what the Academy desperately hopes is true: that the Oscars are still big, and it was just the pictures that got small.

What Did We Learn From This Strange Oscars Season?