As a movie, the 93rd annual Academy Awards ceremony — otherwise known as The Oscars, Pandemic Edition — was a bit of a bust. But as an awards show, it was unexpectedly effective.
No one knew what to expect from the Oscars this year; particularly when word came out that, unlike the year’s other major awards shows, it would be an in-person ceremony. “You’ll feel like you’re watching a movie,” said show producer Steven Soderbergh cryptically earlier this month, promising an event very different from the usual Oscar night.
And different it was. The ceremony took place not in the usual vast, every-seat-filled auditorium, but in the beautiful art deco spaces of Los Angeles’ Union Station, where the socially distant nominees — just the nominees, maybe a couple of hundred people at most — sat at elegant (and widely spaced) tables softly lit by Oscar-themed lamps. There was no host, no scripted banter, no musical numbers (performances of nominated songs were recorded and aired on the preshow), and very few film clips. It felt curiously low-tech, like a very well-financed corporate awards dinner for a group of exceptionally good-looking employees. It was earnest and intimate and, strangely, it worked.
Mind you, it probably worked best for those who’d already seen at least a few of the movies. This year’s crop of nominated films were a fairly obscure bunch (thanks to the pandemic closing cinemas for much of 2020), and no one movie swept everything. Though Chloe Zhao’s beautiful, meditative drama “Nomadland” won three top awards (best picture, director, and best actress for Frances McDormand, who won her third Oscar), the Academy did a good job of spreading out the wealth: Seven out of the eight best picture nominees won at least one Oscar.
There were plenty of history-making winners. Zhao became only the second woman and first Asian woman to win best director. Yuh-Jung Youn, winning best supporting actress for “Minari,” became the first Korean performer to win an acting Oscar. Ann Roth, at 89, became the oldest woman and second-oldest person to win an Oscar, for costume design for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” And Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson became the first Black winners of the hair and makeup category, on a night that seemed to give the less-prominent categories more room to breathe than usual.
These Oscars seemed less about who-won-what than about coming together, of dressing up and going to a careful yet joyous party. And, by clearing out so many of the things that normally fill the ceremony’s three hours, there was room for something else: a quirky celebration of the people nominated. We learned, in thoughtful introductions to many of the nominees, details that filled in the outlines: that the “Mank” production designers (who won their category), previously worked as a janitor and a puppet master for “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”; that nominated “Sound of Metal” filmmaker Darius Marder helped fund his movie via a sushi catering business; that Emerald Fennell, writer/director of “Promising Young Woman” (and winner for original screenplay) made her movie in 23 days while seven months pregnant.
And, without an orchestra to play off long-winded acceptance speeches, there was room for the winners to move us, or delight us. The speeches this year weren’t laundry lists of people to thank; they were often unexpectedly heartfelt. Director Thomas Vinterberg, whose “Another Round” won best international feature film, spoke directly to his daughter, who had died in a car accident just as the production began. “Maybe you’ve been pulling some strings somewhere, I don’t know,” he told her. Daniel Kaluuya, winning best supporting actor, enthused about his conception (“My mum, my dad, they had sex, it’s amazing!”) before wishing all present “peace, love and onwards.” Zhao dedicated her directing Oscar to “anyone who has the faith and the courage to hold on to the goodness in themselves, and to hold on to the goodness in each other, no matter how difficult it is to do that.”
Not every innovation worked, and the pacing in particular was often off. Things ran on too long, as they often do, with a music trivia game led by Questlove coming too late and feeling like filler. The In Memoriam segment — which included Seattle filmmaker Lynn Shelton, who died last year — felt unnecessarily rushed. And the order of the awards didn’t always make sense, and actually backfired. The show ended with best actor, won in an upset by Anthony Hopkins for “The Father” (the late Chadwick Boseman, in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” was widely favored) — and Hopkins wasn’t there to accept, causing the program to end abruptly. Why not wrap up with best picture, as usual?
But ultimately, for an awards show during this very strange time, these Oscars so often seemed to find the right note. Its winners were a group of people who looked like all of us; its program took place within the context of the pandemic and the times (Regina King, the evening’s first speaker, acknowledged the Derek Chauvin trial) and left us with warmth and kindness and maybe a little hope. Tyler Perry, winner of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, spoke of refusing to hate, of meeting in the middle, of healing and change. “I love you even if I don’t know you,” said Jon Batiste, winning for the score for “Soul.”
This Oscar ceremony may not have been a movie — I’m still not sure exactly what Soderbergh meant — but it made me want to go to a movie again, and maybe that was the point. It’s been a long, dark year, and it was nice to wallow in a bit of movie star light. McDormand, speaking for “Nomadland” upon its best picture win, urged the audience to “one day very, very soon, take everyone you know into a theater, shoulder to shoulder, in that dark space and watch every film that’s represented here tonight.” May that day speed its way here.