It was the most predictable Oscars ever — until it wasn’t.
Steven Soderbergh, a previous Academy Award winning filmmaker, produced this year’s ceremony, one that promised to be uniquely different due to COVID-19 protocols. Soderbergh had teased his approach to the show as being a “movie version” of the Oscars — and it was, complete with being shot in a cinematic widescreen 2.35:1 aspect ratio and 24 frames per second (which gives a digitally shot movie its “film look” rather than a “live look”). Even Regina King’s “Opening Credits” entrance played like a swanky single-take tracking shot from one of Soderbergh’s Oceans movies.
Come to find out, however, that a “movie version” of the Oscars also included throwing in a last minute twist that no one saw coming: the Best Picture prize wasn’t the last prize to be awarded!
That’s right. In its 93rd year, the Academy let Steven Soderbergh unveil its biggest honor before two other awards were even given: Best Actor and Best Actress.
Or to put it another way:
Such a bold move seemed to suggest that Soderbergh and the Academy knew they had something even better and more inspiring to close on, i.e. that the late Chadwick Boseman would be winning for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and, perhaps along with him, Viola Davis for her lead title performance in the same film. Indeed, it was the emotional climax that the whole extended Oscar season had seemed to be building towards. Soderbergh’s early-Picture surprise appeared to confirm that.
Boy, was Soderbergh wrong.
Of course, he didn’t know the result. Instead, like one of his caper movie characters, he simply rolled the dice on what seemed like a safe bet but ended up being phenomenally wrong.
In the biggest anti-climax of Oscar history, Frances McDormand (Nomadland) beat Viola Davis for Best Actress, accepting her third Academy Award with a spirited but rather brief speech. Then, for the final award of the night, Anthony Hopkins (The Father) beat the sentimental and predicted favorite Boseman. And get this: Hopkins wasn’t even there to accept it!
In other words, the Academy Awards ended on a presenter (Joaquin Phoenix) accepting a major award on behalf of an absent winner. It was absolutely dumbfounding. (A shocked Hopkins would later post his surprise on social media from his home in South Wales, paying tribute to Chadwick Boseman.) The moment played out like some bizarro opposite version of the thrilling Moonlight Best Picture shocker. Instead of eliciting excited gasps, it provoked blunt, face-scrunching “What?!”s.
Suffice it to say, Film Twitter lit up with livid outrage and bitter vitriol towards Soderbergh’s decision (a response that is hilariously hypocritical of Film Twitter, given how it loves to mock the Oscars for being boring, predictable and tired).
Regardless of how one might have felt about the Academy’s choices (I actually agree with the Hopkins win; total masterclass), when it comes to how the arc of an awards show should flow and build, Soderbergh’s Picture/Acting category switcheroo resulted in a monumental letdown and one heckuva buzzkill. It wasn’t so much a downer as a complete and total dud, one that could’ve been easily avoided had Soderbergh just stuck to the script.
Or maybe it was all by design:
Or perhaps there’s merit to this meta theory:
Or maybe Soderbergh was just trolling us:
Whatever the case, it was a strange, peculiar ending to an Oscars that played like an Academy Awards for film nerds and insiders, not movie fans. But more on that later on. First, the actual results.
As expected, Nomadland was the night’s big winner, taking home 3 total prizes, more than any other film of the night: Best Director (Chloé Zhao), Best Actress (Frances McDormand), and Best Picture of the Year (producers Zhao, McDormand, and others).
Six other films tied for second with 2 wins a piece. The only Best Picture nominee of the eight to go home empty-handed was The Trial of the Chicago 7.
This low leader count continues a recent trend of the Academy moving away from granting Oscar sweeps, i.e. where one film wins 7 awards or more. Over the past five years, the trend has been towards spreading the wealth. In the three years previous, no single film had won more than 4 Oscars. Five years ago saw the most recent example of a “sweep” when La La Land won 6, but even that movie fell short of its possible 7th when Moonlight topped it for Best Picture in what was arguably the single most dramatic moment in Oscar history.
Speaking of Oscar history, the wins by Hopkins and McDormand stopped a few big landmarks from happening. Had Boseman and Davis won for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom as expected:
- It would’ve been the first time that all 4 acting winners were non-white
- It would’ve been the first time in 23 years that Best Actor and Best Actress prizes were awarded to co-leads of the same film (the last time was 1997, when Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt won for As Good As It Gets)
- It would’ve marked only the second time that black actors won both lead categories in the same year (the first was in 2001 with Denzel Washington and Halle Berry)
- Viola Davis would’ve become the first African-American actress to win in both the Lead and Supporting categories (she previously won Supporting for Fences)
But none of that was meant to be. Nevertheless, the diversity and inclusion the Academy has been working toward still bore fruit elsewhere (if not in two of its highest profile — and final — categories). A few notable milestones included:
- Chloé Zhao became only the second woman ever to win Best Director (and the first woman of color), following Kathryn Bigelow‘s victory for The Hurt Locker in 2008. She also joins Bigelow as the only woman to win Oscars for both Best Picture and Best Director. (The category was announced just an hour in to the 3-hour and 15-minute broadcast, rather than in the last half-hour. In hindsight, that little surprise hinted at the more shocking turn to come.)
- Frances McDormand is just the third person to win at least three Academy Awards in a Lead Acting category. Her Best Actress Oscars include Nomadland, Fargo, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Daniel-Day Lewis won Best Actor for My Left Foot, There Will Be Blood, and Lincoln. Katherine Hepburn remains the only person to win four Lead Acting Oscars, and she was never present to accept any of them.
- Yuh-Joung Youn (Minari) became the first Korean actor to win an Oscar.
- Emerald Fennell‘s win for Best Original Screenplay (Promising Young Woman) is the first time a female has won either screenplay category since 2007 (Diablo Cody, Juno).
- Syltists Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson were the first black women to ever win in the Makeup & Hairstyling category.
- Also of note: at the age of 83, Anthony Hopkins becomes the oldest person ever to win an Acting Oscar. The previous age was 82, which is how old Christopher Plummer was when he won Best Supporting Actor for Beginners. The previous oldest Best Actor winner was Henry Fonda who won it at the age of 76 for On Golden Pond.
The 2021 Oscars will be remembered for that shocking twist of an embarrassing finale. That’s especially weird when you consider how, prior to the last 15 minutes, the only legitimate surprise had come when Best Original Song favorite “Speak Now” (One Night in Miami) by Leslie Odom, Jr. lost to the least-likely option to win, “Fight for You” from Judas and the Black Messiah. Sung by the artist H.E.R., it falls in line with the social justice tradition of “Glory,” the song winner from Selma that had the powerhouse duo of John Legend and Common behind it.
As much as Soderbergh’s closing fiasco will forever define what will likely be his lone stint as Oscar producer, his other choices and changes provided a mixed bag of results, even if most were worth trying, given the unique circumstances.
Primarily set at L.A.’s Union Station, the city’s iconic train portal (with an open air design that allowed for better ventilation and air flow rotation), the show itself was staged in a smaller space than the cavernous Dolby Theater, where the Oscars are traditionally held. The setting was more intimate, with nominees and their guests regularly rotated in-and-out of the stage area according to each show segments award categories.
And that was the biggest problem that Soderbergh could do noting about: the intimacy. Come to find out, when the Oscars feel more like a classy dinner party and less like an elite, prestigious event, it’s a downer — no matter how well-produced it is. The Oscars simply demand a scale that the venue couldn’t even come close to providing, but only COVID could be blamed for that.
Even so, Soderbergh’s aesthetic choices just further emphasized the nature of the downsizing. One example: he ditched the traditional orchestra altogether. Gone was the symphonic sweep of Oscars past and, in its place, was a collection of pop hits from the 70s and 80s used as bumpers and segues (the kind you might expect from one of Soderbergh’s hip, breezy capers), as Roots drummer Questlove worked the flow as the night’s DJ. Even the “In Memoriam” tribute was set to Stevie Wonder’s upbeat hit “As.” Sure, it set the tone for a nice party atmosphere but, overall, it just felt like a sobered-up Golden Globes.
Another problem: for an event meant to honor the best movies of the year, Soderbergh went out of his way to not show any clips of those movies (or any montages of classics, for that matter). For a film show, it was shockingly void of film visuals. Case in point: the traditional “Oscar clips” played to tease performances and nominees were almost entirely eliminated (preserved only for the Best Picture category). In their place were short, ego-boosting bios for each nominee. It turned this year’s ceremony into what was quite possibly the most narcissistic Oscars ever, which is saying something.
There’s a fine line between honoring artists and being self-congratulatory elites. Unfortunately, the wrong side of that line is in the living room. Gushing intros about the worth of each nominee’s work and achievement actually plays well in person, but to a viewing audience at home it comes across as obnoxious narcissism. They just sit there, eyes rolling, thinking, “Nobody cares! Get to the point!”
There were other time wasters as well, most notably the song-guessing bit late in the show that labored on past its welcome. Sure, Lil Rel Howery (who facilitated it) is a hilarious cat, and the Glenn Close kicker was well played, I’ll give it that, but it was so pointless — especially at 6 minutes, which was interminably long. It felt more like something they might do during commercials off-camera to keep the energy up in the room, but not something you’d actually broadcast.
Or, to tweet-quote Screen Crush editor/critic Matt Singer again:
There were welcome choices, too, like not shooing winners offstage or cutting off acceptance speeches with crescendoing music cues. (That’s always annoyed me; it’s very disrespectful to people in the middle of their career peak moment.)
Plus, the overall subdued tone was, to be fair, appropriate for the venue, but it was actually more welcome in the pre-show cocktail party than it was in the low energy main event. It was a relief to see the paparazzi vanity of the traditional red carpet replaced. That vapid display of artifice and butt-kissing was gone, thank God. In its place, a chill, low-key, but high class and sophisticated soirée. Co-hosted by Ariana DeBose (Anita in the upcoming West Side Story remake) and Howery (Get Out), it was a fun way to mingle with the nominees in an environment that took the edge off rather than ratcheting up the self-conscious nerves. It was fun and pleasant to watch.
There were acceptance speech highlights, too, namely:
- Best Supporting Actor Daniel Kaluuya (Judas and the Black Messiah), who had a gift for making the traditional Thank You checklist genuinely sincere and moving. That alone deserves an Oscar. It all came from a deep reservoir of gratitude. He also knows how to share his politics with humility rather than preachy, scolding virtue-signaling.
- Best International Feature filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg (Another Round), who shared how this win was a full circle journey for a movie that he had to briefly leave four days into filming due to an unexpected family tragedy.
- Best Original Score winner Jon Batiste (for Soul), the Colbert late night band leader who was so well-spoken, pouring out his heart about the beauty of each artistic gift is in every person, and how special each gift is.
You can see all of the acceptance speeches linked below. Simply click on each category name to watch the given speech.
In the end, setting aside the last 15 minutes, I think Soderbergh did an admirable job under less-than-ideal conditions. To be generous, I’d even say that some of his choices and changes fit the venue and context, but doing right by those factors simply proved that the Oscars work best when staged within its traditional confines, complete with its necessary scale and grandeur. They need to be an event, not a dinner party. Leave the latter to the pre-show.
As far as my own Oscar predictions went, I was doing phenomenally well up until the very end. I missed five total, bringing my final tally to 18-for-23. Admirable, but short of elite level.
To that end, here’s a point to remember for next year:
Below is the complete list of winners. To see all of the nominees, click here.
*To watch each acceptance speech, click on the category title.*
THE 93RD ANNUAL ACADEMY AWARDS
BEST PICTURE – Nomadland
BEST DIRECTOR – Chloé Zhao, Nomadland
BEST ACTRESS – Frances McDormand, Nomadland
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS – Yuh-Jung Youn, Minari
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY – Promising Young Woman, Emerald Fennell
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY – The Father, Christopher Hampton, Florian Zeller
BEST INTERNATIONAL FILM – Another Round (Denmark)
BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE – My Octopus Teacher
BEST ORIGINAL SONG – “Fight for You,” Judas and the Black Messiah (H.E.R.)
BEST FILM EDITING – Sound of Metal
BEST COSTUME DESIGN – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
BEST MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT – Two Distant Strangers
BEST ANIMATED SHORT – If Anything Happens I Love You
BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT – Colette
BEST SOUND – Sound of Metal