Low Key Pandemic Oscars Yields Some Positive Results
'Nomadland' takes top awards, Netflix nabs 7 Oscars
The 93rd Academy Awards aired Sunday night on ABC and a lot of things were different in this time of pandemic awards shows. Cinemas have been closed for much of the past year but the Oscars insisted on an in person and COVID-safe show.
The pandemic Oscars
For the first time in ages I actually found the Oscars watchable. The bloated production numbers for best song were gone and instead were pre-recorded played before the show. There was no presenter banter, no film clips, the setting was intimate (it took place at Union Station) and there was an attempt to focus on the nominees with little back stories about them. Plus, winners were allowed to talk longer, which I appreciated. There was also a vibe of social activism that felt right. So overall — I can't believe I'm saying this — I enjoyed this streamlined, low-key Oscar show.
What I also enjoyed was the fact that pool of nominees was the most diverse ever and likely a result of the Academy’s push to diversify its voting body. But I was worried that this might still yield a non-diverse list of winners.
Early wins highlight women
I was happily surprised by the evening’s early big wins for women with the first award of the night going to Emerald Fennell for best original screenplay for "Promising Young Woman." She seemed flustered by the win, tried not to cry and exclaimed with surprise that the Oscar was "heavy" and "cold."
She added: "I feel mortified that I'm here by myself when it's not just my job at all. I want to thank Carey Mulligan for being not only the most talented person in the world, but the kindest and funniest. I want to thank the producers for standing behind this film always and, you know, never giving up."
The film was provocative for addressing the issue of date rape with both horror and comedy.
In a shake up of awards order, best director, usually held back till the end of the show, was given early in the evening. Chloe Zhao became the second woman, and the first woman of color, to win the best director award. She won for "Nomadland" and remembered this about growing up in China and a game she played with her dad.
"It’s called the 'Three Character Classics' and the first phrase goes [speaks in Chinese]. People at birth are inherently good. And those six letters had such a great impact on me when I was a kid, and I still truly believe them today. Even though sometimes it might seem like the opposite is true. But I have always found goodness in the people I met, everywhere I went in the world," Zhao said in her acceptance speech.
Best international film (formerly best foreign language film, went to Denmark's "Another Round." Director and producer Thomas Vinterberg in accepting the award revealed he had been imagining this since he was 5 and had been preparing speeches ever since. He also revealed a personal tragedy.
"This is a film about letting go of control in life and as I lost control in my own... so we wanted to make a film that celebrates life and four days into shooting, the impossible happens. An accident on a highway took my daughter away. Someone looking into his cell phone. And we miss her and I love her," Vinterberg said. "Two months before we shot this movie and two months before she died, she was in Africa. She sent me a letter and she’d just read the script and she was glowing with excitement. She loved this and she felt seen by this and she was supposed to be in this. And if anyone dares to believe that she's here with us somehow, she ... you’ll be able to see her clapping and cheering with us. We ended up making this movie for her, as her monument. So, Ida, this is a miracle that just happened. And you're a part of this miracle. Maybe you've been pulling some strings somewhere,"
For the first time ever, the acting nominees represented a broad diversity of nominees with the supporting awards going to people of color. Yuh-Jung Youn, the grandmother in "Minari," displayed humor as she had done winning her BAFTA (the British version of the Oscars) award. For the BAFTAs she teased the British for being snobby and last night she flirted with presenter Brad Pitt and wondered if this award was because of American hospitality. She ended with this comment: "This is for mommy working so hard."
In his acceptance speech, Daniel Kaluuya paid tribute to Black Panther Fred Hampton, whom he played in "Judas and the Black Messiah."
"He was on this earth for 21 years — 21 years — and he found a way to feed kids breakfast, educate kids, give free medical care, against all the odds. He showed, he showed me, he taught me him. Him, Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, the Black Panther Party. They showed me how to love myself. And with that love, they overflowed into the Black community and into other communities. And they showed us that the power of union," Kaluuya said.
Theme emerges of paying tribute to the past
The Oscar show soon revealed a theme: paying tribute to the past. This came up in the back stories of nominees and in the acceptance speeches like that by the history making win for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson for best hair and make. They became the first Black women to win in this category.
Mia Neal referenced her family history: "I was raised by my grandfather, James Holland. He was an original Tuskegee Airman. He represented the U.S. in the first Pan Am Games. He went to Argentina. He met Evita. He graduated from Northwestern University at the time that they did not allow Blacks to stay on campus, so he stayed at the YMCA. And after all of his accomplishments, he went back to his hometown in hopes of becoming a teacher. But they did not hire Blacks in the school system. So I want to say thank you to our ancestors who put the work in, were denied but never gave up. And I also stand here as Jamika and I break this glass ceiling with so much excitement for the future."
What do editors do?
One of the big surprises was presenter Harrison Ford who usually shuns awards and Hollywood. He read a list of brutal editing notes for his film "Blade Runner" before giving out the film editing Oscar. I saw some people characterized him "cranky" or as "complaining" about the notes. But I think there is a more important point he or the show producers wanted to make — and that was to try and shed light on what editors have to deal with. The list correctly questioned the voice over narration and musical choices, but then ranted about the film being boring, about multiple cuts to an egg, and confusion over some narrative choices.
What’s important about this list is that it reveals the challenges an editor faces in having to deal with notes from test screenings and studio executives. I think many people working in Hollywood have no clue what an editor does and how an editor has to juggle storytelling, the director's intent and studio demands to deliver a good film. This year's editing Oscar went to “Sound of Metal” and Mikkel E.G. Nielsen. But in a year of stunning documentaries I think the work in "Collective" and "Time" merited at least nominations and to my taste wins.
To prove both a lack of knowledge and a lack of appreciation of another editing craft category, the Academy lumped together best sound editing and best sound mixing most likely because many voting members were often confused by the differences. Sound editing is placing sound elements into the film and then the sound mixer blends them all together.
So the new generic best sound category award went to “Sound of Metal,” and Nicolas Becker, Jaime Baksht, Michelle Couttolenc, Carlos Cortés and Phillip Bladh. The film seemed designed to win since it deals with using the sound design to convey what it is like for a person who is losing their hearing. And as if the Academy knew it would win, it had Riz Ahmed, the star of the film, as the presenter.
And in the paying tribute to the past, winner Bladh said: "Fellini once said, in the history of cinema, beyond the evolution of styles and techniques, what stays embodied in films is their human vitality. And whoever enjoys it receives a charge of energy, something pulsing, mysterious and vibrant."
Going out with a whimper
After seeing some exciting, well-deserved, and diverse wins the show sort of deflated at the end. In an attempt to "script" a narrative into the awards, best picture was moved to earlier in the night with a win for "Nomadland," and then the night ended with the best acting awards. Frances McDormand won for "Nomadland" and Anthony Hopkins won for "The Father." And while I cannot fault the performance of either actor they both have an armload of awards and a long career of success so I would have been more excited by wins for Viola Davis for "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" in which she completely transformed herself or for the quiet subtlety of Steven Yeun for "Minari."
But the emotional swell the Academy was hoping for was to have Chadwick Boseman, who died of cancer last year at the age of 43, win posthumously for "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." Instead, presenter Joaquin Phoenix, who seemed even more pained to be at the award than Ford (which is pretty hard to do), tossed his prepared speech and glumly announced Hopkins had won and since the actor was in Wales and not present to accept, Phoenix awkwardly wrapped the show with a kind of disinterested, I just want to get out of here vibe.
For a year in which cinemas where closed and people were watching movies mostly at home, it may be fitting that the streaming platform Netflix racked up the most nominations (36) and the most wins (seven) of any studio. This may also reflect a true change in the movie landscape looking to the future. But Hollywood did manage to give itself a little pat on the back by giving a pair of craft awards to "Mank," about the making of "Citizen Kane," and by giving a visual effects award to "Tenet," a film which did play in cinemas and tried to ignite an interest in going back to a theater in the midst of a pandemic.
Tyler Perry, a highly successful filmmaker who runs his own studio in Georgia, is not always embraced by Hollywood. But the Academy gave him its Jean Hersholt humanitarian award for all the charitable work he does. He, too, tapped into the idea of paying tribute to the past by recalling his mother: "My mother taught me to refuse hate. She taught me to refuse blanket judgment, and in this time, and with all of the Internet and social media and algorithms and everything that wants us to think a certain way, the 24-hour news cycle, it is my hope that all of us, we teach our kids and I want to remember, just refuse hate. Don’t hate anybody. I refuse to hate someone because they are Mexican or because they are Black or white or LGBTQ. I refuse to hate someone because they are a police officer. I refuse to hate someone because they are Asian. I would hope that we would refuse hate and I want to take this Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award and dedicate it to anyone who wants to stand in the middle, no matter what’s around the wall. Stand in the middle ’cause that’s where healing happens. That’s where conversation happens. That’s where change happens. It happens in the middle."
I was disappointed by the documentary win by "My Octopus Teacher," which was a gorgeous film but felt far less original and weighty than "Collective" and "Time." "Collective" was probably hurt by the fact that it was nominated as both best documentary and best international film. Without that latter nomination it might have pulled a win as documentary. Too bad, it is a riveting and scathing piece of cinematic journalism.
But all in all, this Oscar show provided far less for me to rant about and even a few things to take pleasure in. Do try to check out some of the films and as McDormand said, "Please watch our movie on the largest screen possible and 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. We give this one to our wolf [howls]."
Now that would have been a much better end to this year's pandemic Oscar show.
Here is the full list of 2021 Oscar winners:
Best Actor in a Leading Role: Anthony Hopkins, “The Father”
Best Actress in a Leading Role: Frances McDormand, “Nomadland”
Best Picture: “Nomadland”
Best Original Song: “Fight for You” from “Judas and the Black Messiah”
Best Original Score: “Soul,” Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, Jon Batiste
Best Film Editing: “Sound of Metal,” Mikkel E.G. Nielsen
Best Cinematography: “Mank,” Erik Messerschmidt
Best Production Design: “Mank,” Production Design: Donald Graham Burt; Set Decoration: Jan Pascale
Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Yuh-Jung Youn, “Minari”
Best Visual Effects: “Tenet,” Andrew Jackson, David Lee, Andrew Lockley and Scott Fisher
Best Documentary Feature: “My Octopus Teacher,” Pippa Ehrlich, James Reed and Craig Foster
Best Documentary Short Subject: “Colette,” Anthony Giacchino and Alice Doyard
Best Animated Feature Film: “Soul” (Pixar)
Best Animated Short Film: “If Anything Happens I Love You” (Netflix)
Best Live-Action Short Film: “Two Distant Strangers”
Best Sound: “Sound of Metal,” Nicolas Becker, Jaime Baksht, Michelle Couttolenc, Carlos Cortés and Phillip Bladh
Best Director: Chloé Zhao, “Nomadland”
Best Costume Design: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” Ann Roth
Best Makeup and Hairstyling: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” Sergio Lopez-Rivera, Mia Neal, Jamika Wilson
Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Daniel Kaluuya, “Judas and the Black Messiah”
Best International Feature Film: “Another Round” (Denmark)
Best Adapted Screenplay: “The Father,” Christopher Hampton and Florian Zeller
Best Original Screenplay: “Promising Young Woman,” Emerald Fennell