Oscars 2021: Nomadland makes history, but the Academy trips itself up

Chloe Zhao became the first Asian woman to win best director, but the decision to shuffle the order of categories knocked the wind out of Oscar's finale


They said the 93rd Academy Awards ceremony would be different, and it was. Whether it was better than usual depends on your point of view, I suppose.

We saw a number of firsts, among them Nomadland’s triumphant best picture win, which minted Frances McDormand as the first woman to win acting and producing prizes in the same year. Chloé Zhao is the first Asian woman to be named best director; previously, she was the first Asian woman ever nominated in that category.

“This is for anyone who has the faith and courage to hold on to the goodness in themselves, and to hold onto the goodness in each other,” Zhao said.

Youn Yuh-Jung became the first Korean to win an acting award, taking best supporting actress for Minari – and stealing the night with her acceptance speech, somehow playing both the dazzled newcomer and the seasoned pro. Until that point, I was sure no one could top Daniel Kaluuya thanking his parents for conceiving him, a turn no one saw coming when the actor was named the best supporting actor for his incendiary turn as Fred Hampton in Judas And The Black Messiah. As unexpected moments go, that was good one.

Something even less predictable, though, was the way the show flatlined in its final moments. This year’s ceremony tweaked the traditional presentation order, giving best picture out earlier than usual and closing instead with best actress and best actor. And so, Anthony Hopkins’s win for The Father created another first: because the actor wasn’t present to receive the prize, leaving presenter Joaquin Phoenix to accept the award on Hopkins’s behalf, it was the first time the Oscars felt caught up short.

Disordered awards

There’s a reason these things end with best picture: there’s always someone around to make a speech. I can see why it made sense to end this year on best actor; the prize was expected to go to the late Chadwick Boseman, for his performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. And a posthumous award – especially for someone who died so young, with so much potential unfulfilled – could have led to a powerful moment of communal grief and shared loss. Given what we’ve all been experiencing in the last 13 months, it might have also felt like a bookend on the pandemic.

If Boseman had won.

But he didn’t. In an upset, it went to Hopkins – who was tracking third, last I looked, after Boseman and Riz Ahmed in Sound Of Metal – for playing a deteriorating Londoner in The Father, which had won director Florian Zeller and co-writer Christopher Hampton the Oscar for best adapted screenplay earlier in the evening. And that was that; whatever cathartic moment might have happened simply popped like a soap bubble, leaving Phoenix stranded on the dais. The energy in the room just vanished; the credits rolled. So that happened.

I suspect it was always going to be awkward, somehow.

Produced under COVID protocols – which, as Regina King explained at the top of the affair, involved vaccinating, testing, distancing and coordinating the dozens of luminaries, technicians and support staff gathered at Los Angeles’s Union Station – the production felt sparse and uncertain, compared to the giant machine that is a conventional Oscar night at the Dolby Theater.

We got a glimpse of that venue, employed as a location for a remote segment in which Bryan Cranston presented one of the night’s two Jean Hersholt humanitarian awards to the Motion Picture and Television Fund, an organization that supports aging industry veterans in their later years; it felt a little like a tomb, its presence one of a number of times reality intruded on the glamorous spell producers Jesse Collins, Stacey Sher and Steven Soderbergh were working so hard to cast.

Facing an uncomfortable reality

The reality of Black life in America came up a lot, whether it was King opening with the acknowledgement that she was prepared to trade her heels for “marching boots” had the verdict in the George Floyd murder trial gone in favour of Derek Chauvin, or screenwriter Travon Free enumerating the lives ended by police gunfire while accepting the award for best live-action short for Two Distant Strangers. (“Those people,” he said, “happen disproportionately to be Black people.”) The very next award, best animated short, went to If Anything Happens I Love You, a film about parents who lose a child to a school shooting.

Tyler Perry, accepting the night’s second Jean Hersholt prize, delivered a speech about tolerance and understanding: “I refuse to hate anyone because they’re Mexican, or white or Black or LGBTQ, or a police officer, or someone who is Asian.” Perry said he believes in finding common ground, dedicating the award to “anyone who wants to meet me in the middle.”

Which brings us back to the idea of perspective, and how it could be argued that this year’s Oscars were about finding a new one: Minari, Nomadland, Judas And The Black Messiah and Sound Of Metal are all about characters pushed to the margins of the worlds they inhabit, and forced to ask themselves what they’re going to do about that. Even The Father can be read as the story of a man being removed from his own life, a sliver at a time.

A smaller, more intimate ceremony

And so maybe a smaller, more intimate ceremony was better suited to the winners. I’m not entirely sure how Emerald Fennell’s original screenplay win for Promising Young Woman fits into this argument, to say nothing of the technical prizes for Mank and Tenet, or the original score and animated feature prizes for Soul – the latter of which was claimed by director Pete Docter, whose speech on what it is to make a movie about a Black jazz musician sounded a lot like Ryan Gosling’s devoted Seb in La La Land at a couple of points. (Wisely, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross let Jon Batiste do the talking when their names were called.)

I am also not sure what that music-trivia game with Lil Rel Howery was supposed to accomplish, other than kill some time in the most awkward way possible; yes, it was fun to watch Howery trade bits with Kaluuya, reminiscing about the ending of Get Out as though it had actually happened, and it was briefly a great deal of fun to see Glenn Close get in on the game by dropping knowledge about both Donna Summer’s Oscar-winning track Last Dance and Da Butt, the novelty song featured in Spike Lee’s 1988 campus picture School Daze. It was less fun when Close got up and did the dance; again, maybe if she’d won the best supporting actress Oscar an hour earlier the bit might have played better. Instead it just felt uncomfortable.

I’m happy Another Round won best international feature – though I am apparently the last person to know how horrible director Thomas Vinterberg’s circumstances were when he was making it. I was less happy to see the narcissistic feel-goodery of My Octopus Teacher beat brilliant examples of documentary storytelling like Collective and Time for best documentary feature, but I’ve grown used to that category disappointing me.

Sound Of Metal taking film editing and sound? Great. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom winning costume design and makeup and hairstyling? Also great – especially since Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson, who shared the prize with Sergio Lopez-Rivera, are the first Black women to win that award, which Neal pointed out with justifiable pride when the category was called early in the night.

“I want to say thank you to our ancestors who put the work in, were denied, but never gave up,” she said, “as Jamika and I break this glass ceiling with so much excitement for the future. Because I can picture Black trans women standing up here and Asian sisters and our Latina sisters and Indigenous women, and I know that one day it won’t be unusual or groundbreaking; it will just be normal.”

@normwilner

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