In Los Angeles, there’s a joke. The setup differs in telling to telling, as does the punch line. But the gist is always the same: In a city without seasons, or at least ones as dramatically differentiated as those in other places in the world, the award calendar is one of the few reliable ways to mark the passage of time.
During a pandemic that’s already thrown off our temporal senses, the upheaval of award season is just one more way the coronavirus has skewed the calendar. For instance: It’s almost the end of April and the Oscars are just now coming up, more than 14 months after Parasite made history by taking home Best Picture and more than a year after the world went into lockdown. This Sunday, Hollywood’s elite will finally converge on Union Station in Los Angeles, as well as remote “hubs” in London and Paris.
The ceremony marks the culmination of a long and strange award season, one that’s been more publicly fraught and less impactful than ones before. Delayed, decentralized, and disrupted, these Oscars already feel, perhaps inevitably, anticlimactic. But as restrictions start to ease, with California aiming to fully reopen its economy in less than a month, they also mark a strange sort of opportunity: a last hurrah (hopefully) for the strange ritual that was the COVID-19-era award show, as well as the atypical crop of films it’s set to highlight.
Normally, the Oscars are the crescendo of a monthslong drumbeat of smaller celebrations that are themselves part prologue and part weather vane. After delays of their own, the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild Awards, and Writers Guild of America Awards have proceeded more or less on schedule. But they’ve also been bogged down by scandal, sinking ratings, and a general sense of unease. Long lovingly tolerated as the Oscars’ booze-soaked little sister, the Globes faced accusations of racism and self-dealing, then delivered a glitchy, disjointed broadcast to a historically low viewership.
While other shows haven’t failed so spectacularly, they’ve mostly just been … quiet. I’m about as fanatic an award watcher as there is, and even I just had to double-check who the SAGs deemed the year’s best ensemble—the very same award that once hinted Parasite could pull off the near-impossible. (It was the cast of The Trial of the Chicago 7, for their delivery of Aaron Sorkin dialogue and prodigious wig-wearing.) Nomadland is shaping up to be an Oscars front-runner, taking home top honors from the Directors and Producers guilds. But in such exceptional circumstances, the momentum has felt largely muted. The fewer opportunities we have to watch Frances McDormand bulldoze her way through an acceptance speech, the worse off we are as a nation.
The core contradiction of toasting the films of 2020—or rather, the films released in the expanded eligibility window for this year’s Oscars that ran through February 28, 2021—is that there wasn’t much to celebrate for films in 2020, a year that decimated theaters and jeopardized productions. Hosts and producers can, will, and have argued that this makes uplifting great art more necessary than ever. Expect the Academy to calibrate Sunday’s montages accordingly.
But the fact remains that the pandemic left audiences with limited means to see and hear about movies. Prestige projects like Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch were postponed altogether, thinning out the Oscar field considerably. Many movie houses closed permanently—possibly including, to Hollywood’s horror, the hallowed Cinerama Dome in its own backyard. And without the promotion pegged to a standard theatrical release, audiences were left without urgency, or even much awareness, about what to watch and when. I caught Minari through one of A24’s virtual screenings, a nifty way to recreate the finite feel of a brick-and-mortar viewing experience. It still felt like just that: a recreation.
This isn’t entirely for the worse. Many of the films leading this year’s field are smaller, more diverse, and more experimental than more textbook examples of Oscar bait—your Green Books, Spotlights, and so on. McDormand is the sole major star in Nomadland, which is largely populated by real-life nomads in Chloé Zhao’s signature immersive style. Minari has built on the success of Parasite by breaking barriers even Bong Joon-ho’s thriller couldn’t: major acting nods for cast members Steven Yeun and Youn Yuh-jung. And for the first time in Oscars history, there are multiple women contending for Best Director, just a year after Greta Gerwig was snubbed for Little Women. (Zhao is nominated alongside Emerald Fennell of Promising Young Woman.) Even standard studio award fare has continued to evolve. The assassination of Fred Hampton is the opposite of the feel-good stories about interracial friendship that older white Academy voters love to support. Yet Judas and the Black Messiah is Warner Bros.’ current standard-bearer.
The scaling down of the Oscars arms race has cleared the way for a more interesting slate, with exceptions like Trial of the Chicago 7 proving the rule. Unfortunately, this shifting tide hasn’t lifted all boats. Film fans would’ve loved to have sees Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow or Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always get any nominations at all, or for Autumn de Wilde’s Emma. to receive recognition outside the expected costume and makeup categories. But there’s only so much the Oscars’ Overton window can widen in any given year, even one as tumultuous as this. And it remains depressing that it takes such extreme upheaval to create a scenario in which more than one woman is up for Best Director, or in which there is a field of acting nominees that’s not solely white Americans.
There’s also the matter of the show itself. Executive producer Steven Soderbergh—joined by Stacey Sher, Jesse Collins, and longtime director (slash viral proposal maker) Glenn Weiss—knows a thing or two about unconventional setups. Many of his recent films have been shot via iPhone (High Flying Bird) or heavy improvisation (Let Them All Talk); it’s easy to picture him applying a similarly innovative spirit to a production that, by all accounts, seems to change by the hour. (Even the hub system is a relatively recent development, after nominees were initially told they’d have to show up in person—no Zoom allowed.) But there are also signs that the Oscars will be riddled with the same kind of silly half-precautions that have marked all kinds of recent events, from vice presidential debates to the Super Bowl. According to Variety, nominees will not be required to wear masks on camera, but they will be asked to during commercial breaks. Makes total sense!
A pandemic award show is no longer a novelty. We’ve been at this long enough to go from embracing the chaos (the Emmys) to having a genuinely good time within their constraints (the Grammys, mostly). With a long respite until the Emmys return in early fall, though, these Oscars can at least put a button on this one strange subgenre of pandemic entertainment. Chronologically and spiritually, award season was off this year. By pushing through to the end, we can start to put it back on course.