The 2021 Oscars could have been a disaster. Maybe they should have been a disaster.
Even at the tail end of the Covid-19 pandemic and its associated quarantines, much of the world remains locked down. Holding an awards show in a Los Angeles train station, even at limited capacity and with socially distanced stars, could have come off as tasteless at best.
Yet the awards were actually pretty darn memorable — at least until a last-second upset in a major category ended the night on a downer note. They moved along beautifully, and a team led by head producer Steven Soderbergh (an Oscar-winning director) and director Glenn Weiss (an Emmy winner) came up with a show that looked a little bit like a movie that was being made about the very awards show you were watching. At its best, the telecast had a pizzazz and effortless cool to it that the Oscars rarely achieve. And even at its worst, it was still interesting.
Also notably, the night had no runaway winners. Nomadland led the victors with only three prizes, and every Best Picture nominee save one — The Trial of the Chicago 7 — won at least one Oscar. It was an evenly split year, perhaps fitting for a ceremony where lots of viewers hadn’t seen any of the films.
So here are the highs and lows of the 2021 Oscars, in the form of seven winners and four losers.
Winner: The wild, wacky production that somehow worked
The Oscars are — well, let’s just say it: They’re usually very predictable. Some people win, some people lose. Everyone stands dead center in the stage, with the camera shooting straight on, then occasionally cutting to the audience in search of a good reaction from some attendee. The camera moves in big arcs when a presenter walks out onto the stage. Some people give good speeches, some give bad ones. The whole thing looks and feels pretty stolid.
(Except when someone announces the wrong winner, but we don’t have to talk about that.)
But this year, the producers told us, things would be different. With the show moved mostly to Los Angeles’s Union Station, instead of its usual spot at the Dolby Theatre, things would be different. The crowd would be smaller. The telecast would look more like “a movie.”
Normally that kind of talk would just register as bluster, but this year’s producers meant business. They were a triple-threat trio: longtime film producer Stacey Sher (whose credits include many of Quentin Tarantino’s films), veteran TV producer Jesse Collins (who, among other things, has produced many Grammys and BET Awards ceremonies), and Steven Soderbergh (whose reputation as an innovative filmmaker led to his recent appointment to lead the Directors Guild’s Covid-safe production committee).
Soderbergh’s hand felt particularly evident in the show, and not just because Best Original Screenplay winner Emerald Fennell apologized to him from the stage for not having written out an acceptance speech. He’s known for being a hyper-detailed force as both a writer and director (he frequently writes, directs, produces, and even shoots his own work) and an inveterate experimenter (several of his recent films have been shot entirely on iPhones, for instance). Coupled with Sher and Collins, whose combined experience boded well, the promise to make the Oscars look more like a movie seemed ... well, at least plausible.
And as it turns out, they did it. They broadcast the show in widescreen format and with a frame rate of 24 frames per second; if that means nothing to you, then congratulations, you’re a normal person, and all you need to know is that it’s the standard that most films use. Even people who don’t recognize “fps” as a term are used to seeing movies at that speed, so the visual language communicated that this year’s Oscars were a little different.
But the producers’ innovations went way beyond the frame rate. The camera moved subtly but with an interesting sweep and perspective throughout the show, whether it was framing the performers off-center or slowly tracking through the pared-down crowd. As Riz Ahmed announced the winner for Best Sound, the camera panned down to let the viewers see the card in the envelope that named the winner — something that doesn’t typically happen at the Oscars.
A truly fantastic long tracking shot started the show, with Regina King marching through Union Station and into the room where attendees were gathered at socially distanced banquettes. Credits rolled over her entrance, announcing the “stars,” a.k.a. the evening’s presenters. If it felt like an Oceans movie, well, consider who directed the first three (contemporary) Oceans movies. It wasn’t the only long tracking shot in the film — er, show — but it definitely set the tone. (I screamed a little.)
At some point it started to feel more like we were watching a movie about an awards show than a TV show broadcasting some stuff happening on a stage in Los Angeles, and that was intoxicating. This year, the Oscars had a distinct role to play: They needed to create excitement about the return of the film industry after a devastating year, and they needed to remind people why they love movies in the first place. Most likely, their viewership still dropped. But if nothing else, they reminded us what movies look, feel, and sound like — and why they’re so fun to watch. —Alissa Wilkinson
Loser: Acting clips
For as much as many of the bold choices made by the Oscars’ production team paid off, one choice seemed a bit baffling to many viewers in a year when the movies nominated were not widely seen: the absence of acting clips.
I admire the audacity and strangeness of this ceremony, and how much space it gives to the nominees and winners. But in a year where awareness of the movies is so low, it's tough not to have clips around for context.— Scott Tobias (@scott_tobias) April 26, 2021
The various feature film categories — Best International Feature, Best Animated Feature, Best Documentary Feature, and Best Picture — all featured clips of the 23 different films nominated in those categories. But if you wanted to know why, say, Youn Yuh-jung was worthy of winning Best Supporting Actress for her turn in Minari, the Oscars left you a bit high and dry, as she won long before the film’s Best Picture clip (which didn’t feature her) aired.
An acting clip isn’t always a great representation of a performance, to be sure, and some clips will play extremely strangely out of context. (The Best Picture clip from Mank, for instance, seemed like it came from a warm comedy about a marriage, which Mank is not.) But lots and lots of Oscar people haven’t seen this year’s nominated movies. Why did the producers force those viewers to guess as to why these particular performances were nominated? —Emily VanDerWerff
Winner: Nomadland (and Chloé Zhao and Frances McDormand)
For much of the night, it seemed like Nomadland, the year’s Best Picture frontrunner, was a little vulnerable. It lost three of the six categories it was nominated in, and while it wasn’t precisely shocking that it lost Adapted Screenplay to The Father or Cinematography to Mank or Editing to Sound of Metal, losing all three awards sure gave the sense that it wasn’t going to be a juggernaut.
But in the end, Nomadland won three awards (Directing, Lead Actress, and Best Picture), which turned out to be the most of the night. Those three awards were largely split between two women: Directing winner Chloé Zhao and Lead Actress winner Frances McDormand, both of whom also won Best Picture for their producing work on the film.
Zhao’s wins are notable both because she seemingly came from out of nowhere (well, actually from directing the critically beloved but little-seen 2018 film The Rider) to become one of Hollywood’s most in-demand directors (she’s following up Nomadland with a Marvel movie, of all projects) and because she is only the second woman (after Kathryn Bigelow) and the first woman of color ever to win Best Directing at the Oscars. Her pseudo-documentary style, which lets real people talk about their real lives alongside McDormand playing a fictional character, is unlike any film that’s ever won in this category, and her two Oscars are a cap on a meteoric rise.
McDormand, meanwhile, now has three lead acting Oscars (for Nomadland; 2017’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; and 1996’s Fargo) and a Best Picture Oscar for being one of the main producers on Nomadland. (She both optioned the rights to the book the film is based on and brought Zhao on to direct, which is pretty phenomenal producing.) That gives her one more Oscar than Meryl Streep, though both have three acting Oscars.
If you had asked someone in 2016 if McDormand was about to become queen of the Oscars, I don’t know that they would have said yes. I wouldn’t have. But McDormand showed why she’s become an awards show favorite with two enjoyable and laconic speeches for her two awards, including a moment in her Best Picture acceptance speech when she howled like a wolf in honor of the movie’s recently deceased sound mixer.
Nomadland’s win also pays off the Disney corporation’s decision to invest in Fox Searchlight as its prestige awards arm, as Nomadland not only gave Best Picture to a Disney-owned studio for the first time since Chicago (produced by Disney-owned Miramax) won in 2003 but also will surely drive more viewers to Disney-owned Hulu, where Nomadland is streaming.
And that Disney success is in marked contrast to... —EV
For the past two years, Netflix has had a film with Oscar nominations in the double digits. In 2020, it was The Irishman. In 2021, it was Mank. Both movies received 10 nominations. But out of their 20 total nominations, the two films combined for ... two wins, with Mank taking home trophies for Production Design and Cinematography. Cinematography, in particular, is one of the more prestigious technical prizes at the Oscars, but neither of those awards is even at the level of, say, Best Adapted Screenplay.
It gets worse. The streamer also saw six nominations a piece for Marriage Story in 2020 and The Trial of the Chicago 7 in 2021, and of those 12 total nominations, the two films combined for ... one win (Laura Dern’s Best Supporting Actress trophy for Marriage Story). In fact, The Trial of the Chicago 7 was the only Best Picture nominee at the 2021 Oscars to take home zero prizes.
Is it possible to argue that Netflix gets a greater benefit from having a bunch of nominations in its corner, because its 35 nominations at the 2021’s awards can all be promoted on Netflix as “Oscar nominee”? Sure. And Netflix did win the most awards of any studio this year by taking home seven prizes, including Best Documentary Feature for My Octopus Teacher. (Disney came in second with five awards — three for Fox Searchlight’s Nomadland and two for Pixar’s Soul.)
But at a certain point, Netflix’s success with nominations should start translating into high-profile wins, right? And so far, that just hasn’t been the case. The streamer has still only won prizes in the top eight categories twice — Directing for Alfonso Cuarón and Roma in 2019 and Dern for Marriage Story in 2020. What will Netflix have to do for that to change? —EV
Winner: Letting acceptance speeches go long
One of the best things about the structure of the Covid-era Oscars ceremony was that in this year’s more intimate setting, winners’ speeches weren’t constrained to a hurried 30 seconds. With Questlove helming a laid-back musical accompaniment to the evening, no one stood in danger of a rude, loud cutoff or a polite forced exit before they’d had their say.
Perhaps because it’s been such an isolated year, there was a simple pleasure in watching each honoree, from Tyler Perry’s expansive speech for his humanitarian award to Minari’s Youn Yuh-jung thanking (and chiding) her sons for prompting her to work hard to Daniel Kaluuya embarrassing his mom on camera by reminding us all that his parents had sex, the more relaxed atmosphere of this year’s ceremony led to speeches that felt human and heartwarming. —Aja Romano
Loser: Ending the night on an anticlimax
The Oscars traditionally end on the climactic note of Best Picture. It’s the night’s biggest award, and it’s where all the suspense is wrapped up. But this year, the telecast took the bold risk of making Best Actor the final award of the night, and unfortunately, the choice did not pay off at all.
The potential reward was great. The runaway favorite to win Best Actor was Chadwick Boseman, who died of cancer in August at age 43, and who spent all of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom acting with the commitment of a man who knows this may well be his last performance. So presumably the Oscars’ producers were counting on a Boseman win, and the chance to dedicate the last moments of the ceremony toward honoring the legacy of a major talent gone way too soon.
It undoubtedly would have been very emotional — if it had worked out as the producers likely envisioned. But instead, in a major upset, Anthony Hopkins won the Best Actor trophy for his work in The Father. And Hopkins wasn’t at the ceremony, even virtually! Instead, he delivered his acceptance speech Monday morning in a ruefully sweet video that nodded to Boseman’s importance. “I didn’t expect this, I really didn’t,” said Hopkins, speaking for us all.
Sir Anthony Hopkins pays tribute to Chadwick Boseman and express his gratitude for the Best Actor award he won at the Oscars. pic.twitter.com/BWkRGb6G0i— Filmatic (@itsFilmatic) April 26, 2021
These Oscars were clearly meant to end in a poignant moment of bittersweet remembrance. But instead, we all ended up just staring in confusion at a picture of Anthony Hopkins for a while and then cutting to the nightly news. —Constance Grady
Winner: Men’s fashion with a personality
At last, our decades-long national nightmare of men strolling into awards shows in bog-standard black tuxes — half of them with trousers they didn’t even bother to hem — has come to an end. This year’s men brought just as much glam, sparkle, and drama to the red carpet as their female counterparts did.
Colman Domingo was all decked out in hot pink with Swarovski crystals! Daniel Kaluuya accessorized his double-breasted tux with a chain of pearl-size Cartier diamonds! Questlove rocked gold Crocs! And, most important of all, LaKeith Stanfield came in a possibly womenswear-inspired custom-built Saint Laurent jumpsuit.
Is it just a coincidence that this revival in men’s fashion that embraces color and sparkle and sleek, sharp lines comes as the Academy slowly begins to recognize films that are not just about white people? Probably not! So it is worth noting that a more diverse nominee slate makes for a better awards show on many, many levels: from the movies to the speeches to the red carpet itself. —CG
Loser: Tyler Perry making a play for the middle
Director, producer, and mogul Tyler Perry was one of two recipients of the 2021 Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, thanks to his work over the years to address issues of homelessness and economic difficulties in Black communities. Perry has done a lot of great work, to be sure, but he’s also a controversial figure within union-loving Hollywood, due to firing four writers from one of his shows in 2008 for “union activities.”
Still, Perry’s speech after receiving the honor mostly centered on a lovely story about using his own wealth and success to help those who are less fortunate, including an unhoused woman who just wanted a pair of shoes. (He took her into his studio to get her a pair.) He highlighted his own rise from homelessness to success, with a whiff of Hollywood’s favorite myth about itself: Anyone can get to the top with the right level of talent.
But just as Perry was riding a crescendo of applause for saying that he doesn’t want to be ruled by hate, that he doesn’t want to hate anyone of another race or gender or sexuality, he dropped in that he doesn’t want to hate someone for being a police officer. And the applause immediately dropped out. Like, immediately. (Also, Perry pivoted from saying he doesn’t want to hate someone for being a police officer to saying he doesn’t want to hate someone for being Asian, which is awkward speech construction, if nothing else.)
The overtly centrist politics of Perry’s speech cut against the tenor of the rest of the evening — which Regina King opened by talking about the need to protest police violence disproportionately visited against Black people. But the instant deflation of applause also underlined Hollywood’s increasing discomfort with the kind of middlebrow centrism that used to be the Oscars’ raison d’être.
As recently as 2019, the Oscars were giving Green Book Best Picture for saying that, hey, if white people and Black people could just talk to each other, we might lick this racism problem yet. That win was controversial, but it was very in keeping with the Oscars, which dearly want to believe that with the right story, we can make structural prejudice disappear overnight. Perry’s speech might have gone over much better at the 2019 Oscars than the 2021 Oscars. That it deflated the second Perry mentioned the police is indicative of an industry and an awards show in flux. —EV
Winner: Glenn Close for saying and doing “Da Butt”
With the Oscars somehow managing to run nearly half an hour over schedule, the third-act addition of a stilted “trivia” bit, where actors in attendance were prompted to guess the fates of famous Oscar-eligible songs, could have been a complete dud. But despite the rather cringey forced levity of it all, Glenn Close was a bright spot, rising to the improv occasion as she’s done many times before.
While rattling off her knowledge of Spike Lee’s 1988 film School Daze, Close correctly identified the seminal song from the film that coulda, shoulda been a contender for an Oscar that year: EU’s “Da Butt.”
Not only did we get to see the diva herself gleefully saying “Da Butt” like the teen fangirl she must have once been, we also got to witness La Norma Desmond twerking like a street dancer in her sequined designer dress. Sure, maybe the whole moment was a little too over-engineered to go viral, but can you blame the Oscars for not wanting to waste such a golden opportunity? —AR
Winner: The (full-length!) Best Original Song performances
Usually the Best Original Song nominees perform during the main Oscars ceremony, most often in a truncated format so as not to overextend the show’s runtime. But this year, they were pre-taped and aired during the pre-show, which aired for 90 minutes before the ceremony began.
You may have felt like the ceremony was missing something without them! But there are a couple of reasons the switch was likely made. For one thing, moving the Original Song performances to the pre-show allowed a little more time during the ceremony for winners’ speeches (and they would have added another 10 to 15 minutes in an already long telecast). But perhaps more importantly, everyone had the opportunity to sing their entire song. And because the performances were pre-taped, they had more of a “cinematic” flair, if you will, than the usual numbers, which are more like filmed captures of a stage performance — and don’t always do justice to the song or the performers.
In any case, the results this year were very fun. The performers were Molly Sandén (for “Husavik,” from Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga); Celeste and Daniel Pemberton (for “Hear My Voice,” from The Trial of the Chicago 7); Diane Warren and Laura Pausini (for “Io sì,” from The Life Ahead); Leslie Odom Jr. (for “Speak Now,” from One Night in Miami); and H.E.R. (for “Fight For You,” from Judas and the Black Messiah), which ultimately won the category.
My favorite of the five Original Song performances was “Husavik,” which was shot in the actual Icelandic town of Husavik, with Sandén backed by a choir of local children wearing Icelandic sweaters, singing about their love of their hometown. (In the film, it’s Sandén performing the song, while Rachel McAdams lip syncs to it.) There were fireworks and a huge snow-capped mountain. It was perfect.
But the other four were terrific, too, and all shot on the roof of the soon-to-open Academy Museum. Of particular note was H.E.R.’s performance of “Fight For You,” which borrowed imagery from the Black Panthers (including banners reading “Power to the People” unfurled on both sides of the stage) and went all-out with its choreography.
If you missed the Oscars pre-show, you can watch all of the Best Original Song performances on YouTube — and if the trade-off for having such watchable numbers this year was moving them out of the ceremony, maybe the change was worth it. —AW
Winner: The promise of seeing big, spectacular movie musicals — maybe even in a theater
The Oscars are traditionally one of Hollywood’s biggest ads for itself. Which isn’t always a plus: Watching movie stars pontificate about how important their industry is can be a touch off-putting in normal times. But this year, after a long quarantine spent socially distanced away from movie theaters and in desperate need of some joy, spending so much time talking up movies hit a little differently.
Maybe that’s why one of the biggest thrills of the night was seeing new trailers for Steven Spielberg’s forthcoming remake of West Side Story, out in December, and John Chu’s In the Heights, out in June. These two movie musicals are going to be bold and colorful and joyous and kinetic, and unabashedly cinematic. They’ll be the kinds of movie it’s best to see on the biggest screen you can, with a bag of popcorn in your lap and a theater full of people all around you, with everyone ready to gasp at the exact same time.
None of us have had that sort of experience in a really long time. But it’s starting to look like it might be possible again in the not-too-distant future. When the time comes for us to go back to the theaters, the movies will be waiting for us there, in marvelous technicolor. —CG