In a year when most people haven’t been able to go to a movie theater, the producers of the delayed 2021 Oscars promised to deliver an awards show that felt like a movie. Most of us did not know what that meant, exactly, until the broadcast kicked off with a long tracking shot of Regina King strutting into the ceremony while the “opening titles” of the Oscars splashed across the screen in boldly colored fonts. If you were not aware that Steven Soderbergh was one of the producers of the 93rd Academy Awards, you were after watching that.
But here’s the thing: The Oscars telecast was never meant to be a movie. The thing that the organizers of this celebration of cinema have never wanted to say out loud is that while the Oscars may be about the movies, what it needs to be for viewers at home is top-notch live television. Prestige live TV if you will.
For a sizable portion of the night, it actually was that. Soderbergh and co-producers Stacey Sher and Jesse Collins, who also produced this year’s Grammys, blew up the traditional format and built something that looked different, with results that were often refreshing and exciting, but other times disastrous. Without question, the most misguided choice of the night was the decision to announce Best Picture earlier than usual and close the show with the presentations of Best Actress and Actor. It seems fair to assume that the Oscar organizers thought the late Chadwick Boseman was a lock in the final category, Best Actor, and that ending with an emotional tribute to him would be fitting for a ceremony that followed so much pandemic loss and intense racial upheaval.
Well, the Oscar voters did not get that memo and instead voted for Anthony Hopkins, who, to be fair, delivers a beautiful performance in The Father but also happens to be a white man who is still alive, already has an Oscar to his credit, and didn’t attend the ceremony because, like the rest of us, he assumed he would not win. (He said as much in a brief speech posted to Instagram shortly after the ceremony, in which he also paid tribute to Boseman.) After listening to so many speeches throughout the evening that addressed racial injustice, it felt like a punch in the gut to conclude the night by not giving an Academy Award to the late King of Wakanda. And after that the show just … ended. It was like going to the senior prom, having a great time, and then watching your date ditch you during the last dance. This is how I know for sure that the 2021 Oscars was a prestige-TV show and not a movie: because it was mostly enjoyable until the terrible finale that ruined the whole thing.
There were other decisions that caused consternation, too. While film clips were shown in certain categories — Best International and Animated Features, Best Documentary, and Best Picture — they were left out in many others where it would have been helpful to see the work that the nominees had done. The performances of the Best Original Song nominees got moved to the Oscars preshow that aired on ABC, which is unfortunate because all the prerecorded performances were pretty great, especially the soaring rendition of “Húsavík” from Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga. The In Memoriam segment, which should have been even more moving in this era of ongoing grief, appeared to be running on fast-forward. There was barely enough time to register the identity of each person that has passed — and figure out who was left out of the segment — let alone ponder the impacts of their death.
While all of these issues may lead someone to assume the entire Pandemic Oscars was a failed experiment, there were some updates that worked beautifully. The event was shifted from its usual home base at the Dolby Theatre to L.A.’s Union Station, where a smaller, adequately socially distanced affair could be held. As a consequence, this year’s Academy Awards looked like it was taking place in a supper club in the 1930s, back when the Oscars was still a baby instead of the senior citizen it has become. That gave it an intimacy that, after years of watching this annual tradition in an auditorium that makes every seat occupier sit up ramrod straight, was a welcome change. Rather than standing onstage in front of a backdrop, the presenters were out among the attendees and shot in a way that made their backdrop seem like a party instead of an elaborate set. When we all have been missing in-person gatherings, that was an especially compelling approach.
The camerawork added to the sense of intimacy. There was a lot of swooping around the tables set up in Union Station and zooming in to capture nominees as they were announced that made it feel as though you were right there in that train station, or “movie set,” as King called it at the top of the broadcast. The TV audience felt more invited in than usual; we were all close observers instead of distant spectators.
Certain moments also seemed to have been thought out with extreme care. The Best Director Oscar was presented by last year’s winner, Bong Joon Ho, from the Dolby Theatre in Seoul where he spoke in Korean with help from a translator and subtitles, during the portion where images of the filmmakers were displayed. That award went to Chloé Zhao, the first Chinese woman and only the second woman, period, to win Best Director. Certainly the designers of the Oscars ceremony must have known how meaningful this exchange would be in light of the recent surge in hatred and violence directed toward Asian people.
One of the effects of mostly ditching clips and moving the musical performances was that, where acceptance speeches are normally kept to a strict time limit, this year they got to breathe a little bit. Sometimes that meant they went on too long, but sometimes that allowed for some wonderful improvised moments, like Supporting Actor winner Daniel Kaluuya saying that everyone should celebrate life. “My mom met my dad and they had sex — it’s amazing!,” he declared, a comment followed by a cut to his mother, watching from London, going “What did he just say?” (That was another thing the Oscars did well this year: While there were certainly crowd shots, they didn’t overdo them, as is often the case on awards shows hoping to generate viral moments.) In another long but unusually compelling speech, Best Supporting Actress victor Youn Yuh-jung managed to hit on Brad Pitt and call him out (very politely!) for messing up her name when he read the nominees.
After avoiding the usual bits that extend the Oscars run time, Lil Rel Howery hosted a trivia quiz in which Andra Day, Daniel Kaluuya, and Glenn Close were asked to listen to a song and determine whether it was an Oscar winner or nominee. What seemed at first like a terrible idea left over from pre-pandemic Oscars — it’s 10:55 p.m. on the East Coast, why are we playing trivia? — led to one of the most joyful moments in the whole ceremony: national treasure Glenn Close not only identifying the song “Doin’ Da Butt” by E.U. — “Shout out to Sugar Bear, the Backyard Band and the whole DMV” is a thing she actually said during the Oscars broadcast — but proceeding to actually do da butt. When I say this is one of the top-ten greatest things to ever happen during an Oscars broadcast, please know that this is not hyperbole. (Fine: After finding out it was all scripted, I bump it down to top 15.)
But if there was one moment that captured the essence of the
movie TV show that was the 93rd annual Academy Awards, it was the acceptance of the Oscar for Live Action Short, which went to co-directors Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe for Two Distant Strangers, a short about a Black man caught in a time loop in which he keeps getting killed by police officers. Free, who is Black, began by addressing police violence directed at Black people in America, and made an emotional plea to those watching: “Please, don’t be indifferent to our pain.” Then Roe took over, beginning his portion of the speech with, “We’d like to thank Netflix,” and what started as a meaningful, considered address took a sudden and unexpected hairpin turn. That was the Oscars in 2021: an evening with gravitas and class that veered jarringly in another direction at the last moment. But, hey, that’s TV for you.
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