The Academy Awards showed off some newfound diversity among its nominees and some pandemic-era innovation during Sunday’s telecast, in what amounted to the most unusual Oscars ceremony in the 93-year history of the event.
On a night when best director and best picture went to Chloé Zhao and her film “Nomadland,” the event highlighted an unprecedented number of films produced by and starring people of color. The sponsoring Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences also sought to reimagine the annual TV show – threatened by years of declining audiences – to avoid the Zoom-induced chilliness and technical glitches that have cratered the ratings of other live award programs for the past year.
In deference to the coronavirus pandemic, the ceremony on ABC was moved back a few months from its usual dead-of-winter start. It emanated from two locations, primarily Union Station in downtown Los Angeles and the sparsely populated Dolby Theater in Hollywood. The in-person audience at the train station was restricted to 170 people.
To avoid airing remote feeds of nominees on their couches at home, Hollywood’s elite gathered at about a dozen camera locations around the world, sans masks (at least while on camera) and after a regimen of temperature checks and coronavirus tests.
The three-hour-plus telecast, which once again had no host, began in unusual fashion: with a long, over-the-shoulder tracking shot of first presenter Regina King strolling through the Beaux-Arts train station to a small stage.
It was, by design, a more modest, looser and more intimate ceremony, evoking the early, pre-television days of the Oscars, when the film industry’s most glamorous and powerful figures met in a hotel ballroom.
Nominees and their guests sat in tiered blue banquettes at tables with lamps outfitted with Oscar-silhouetted lampshades. Presenters, including Brad Pitt and Reese Witherspoon, introduced each nominee with a short anecdote about their first job in the industry or the first movie they saw. Best supporting actress nominee Glenn Close briefly danced to “Da Butt.”
But Hollywood’s annual celebration of itself was still freighted by the realities of a global contagion. The closure of movie theaters worldwide meant that almost all of the nominated films were available only on TV through streaming services. And the movies themselves may have been the least familiar to the audience at home. Eighteen percent of people who described themselves as “active” film watchers said in a survey last month that they were aware of “Mank,” a Netflix film that received 10 nominations, the most among the contenders. The best-known movie, “Judas and the Black Messiah,” registered 46% awareness.
About six years after the #OscarsSoWhite protests about the dearth of non-White nominees (and a year after the Korean cast of best picture winner “Parasite” was ignored), the academy embraced Black, Asian and female talent as never before.
Two of the five nominated directors were women, compared with five total in the preceding 92 years.
Zhao, born and raised in China, was the first woman of Asian descent to win the award and only the second woman of any background. (Kathryn Bigelow won in 2010 for “The Hurt Locker.”) Zhao also wrote, produced and edited “Nomadland,” about a woman (played by Frances McDormand, a best actress nominee) who wanders the American West in a van in search of work and companionship after the closure of a mine and factory in her hometown. The film portrays the economic upheaval and social dislocation – unemployment, broken marriages, lost pensions, collapsing home values – that mark the lives of an itinerant class. It features some of the people in the nonfiction book on which the movie is based.
Black actors were represented among all of the major acting categories, including two of the five best actress and three of the five best supporting actor nominees.
The winner for best supporting actor was Daniel Kaluuya, who played Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in “Judas.” Kaluuya was the favorite for the award after winning the Golden Globe in February for his performance.
As if addressing the snub of “Parasite’s” actors, the best supporting actress award went to Yuh-jung Youn, a veteran South Korean actress who played the feisty grandmother in “Minari,” a best picture nominee about a Korean family that moves from California to Arkansas to start a farm.
And for the first time, one of the best picture nominees, “Judas,” was produced, directed, written and starred an all-Black filmmaking team.
One element of the telecast was familiar: Short speeches touching on contemporary issues. King, who directed “One Night in Miami,” was one of several presenters and winners who decried police shootings and gun violence. She cast her comments in terms of her fears for her African American child. “No amount of fame or fortune changes that” concern, she said.
The Oscars telecast, once a major cultural event and TV ratings success, has been in marked decline over the past two decades, and especially in recent years. The viewing audience fell by 44% between 2014 and last year, when the broadcast averaged 23.6 million viewers, its lowest figure ever. Notably, the Oscars last year were staged shortly before the onset of the pandemic, which has scrambled viewing habits.
To stave off the kind of catastrophic audience declines of the Grammys and the Golden Globes, the academy turned to film director Steven Soderbergh to restage this year’s ceremony. Soderbergh, who directed the virus thriller “Contagion” in 2011 and won an Oscar in 2001 for directing “Traffic,” said beforehand that he wanted the program to play out like a movie.
His co-producers were film producer Stacey Sher and Jesse Collins, who produced this year’s Grammy Awards and the Weeknd’s halftime show at the Super Bowl.