In most years, the Oscars are like a movie that we’ve seen before. We all have movies like this that we’ve watched over and over: something that’s maybe objectively not very good, but that gives us comfort in its unvarying, not-that-good sameness. I’ve often written in the past about how much I enjoy watching the Oscars ceremony despite its general lameness; I like how every year they say it’ll be different, and every year it’s basically the same: good dresses, dull speeches, awful banter, way too long. It’s dependable, in a world where not many things are, and it goes down well with wine and popcorn.
And now we have Oscars 2021, and, well — I have not seen this movie before. Here’s what I know of an Oscar night plan that seems rather fluid: The April 25 event, unlike nearly everything else in the past year, will not take place on Zoom; instead, it will unfold live at several in-person locations. These include the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles (where the awards usually are), L.A.’s Union Station (a busy transit hub that’s played a role in many Hollywood films, including “The Dark Knight Rises”) and a few overseas locations for nominees unable to travel/quarantine.
Filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, who’s producing the show along with Stacey Sher and Jesse Collins, gave a few hints to Vanity Fair magazine this month of what the show — the planning of which he described as “trying to build a house of cards on the deck of a speeding boat” — might look like. “There’s an opportunity here to rebuild what this show should look and feel like,” he said. “Everybody will be a character: Every nominee, every person that gives an award, will feel like characters in a film. And in the end, you’ll know who everybody was and what they wanted. You’ll have a connection to everyone in this show. What we want to do is have this three-hour movie in which some awards are given out.”
There will be a few nods to sameness: All of last year’s acting winners (Joaquin Phoenix, Renée Zellweger, Brad Pitt and Laura Dern) will be on hand to present, as will last year’s directing winner (Bong Joon Ho) and an assortment of stars including Angela Bassett, Harrison Ford, Rita Moreno, Regina King and Reese Witherspoon. Like the last few years, there will be no host. And there will be performances of at least some of the nominated songs, reportedly prerecorded on the rooftop of the Academy museum.
I’m fascinated to see how all of this will play out — will there be weird real-time glitches when a nominee in, say, London, steps up to give an acceptance speech? What does Soderbergh mean when he talks about it being like a three-hour movie? (This worries me a bit; most movies do not need to be three hours long.) Will there be a socially distant red carpet? And what, exactly, is going to be happening at Union Station, which reportedly will not be closed for the event? Heaven help the Los Angeles commuters just trying to get home that night.
This could potentially be a fascinating Oscar ceremony, at the end of a unique movie year. Major studios moved many of their films out to 2021 or later, leaving the field open for a rich assortment of lesser-known nominees this year. Would there have been room for “Minari” or “Promising Young Woman” or “Judas and the Black Messiah” in another year? Possibly not, and we’d be poorer for it; the attention given to these films will help encourage a wider variety of stories, so more of us can recognize ourselves on a big screen — and on Oscar night.
But while I’m delighted by the nominees and intrigued by the new look of the Oscars, I’m still a little wistful for the show I know too well. Of course the Oscars can’t go on in their old way this year, just because I want them to. And I’m hoping Soderbergh’s vision of the Oscars will be dramatic and different and fun to watch. But part of me is kind of hoping for a long, dull hosted telecast next year. Just a bit of sameness, these days, doesn’t sound so bad.