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The 2021 Oscars Were for Die-Hards Only

In defense of a ceremony that—bad and bizarre ending aside—was refreshingly unconventional, particularly for movie lovers

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If the 93rd Academy Awards had nothing else—a traditional ceremony, a healthy industry to celebrate, live performances of the Original Song nominees—they certainly had integrity. How else do you explain the awkward, embarrassing, uproarious anticlimax of the night’s final award?

Captained by director Steven Soderbergh, the producers of the telecast upended the customary run of show, presenting Best Picture ahead of schedule. This time, the ceremony’s ending was reserved for Best Actor. The assumption was obvious: In a year of so much loss, the Oscars could conclude with a tribute to Chadwick Boseman, the heavy favorite for a posthumous win honoring the actor’s final film performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. At February’s otherwise abysmal Golden Globes, Boseman’s widow, Taylor Simone Ledward, had delivered a moving speech recognizing his achievements prior to his tragic death of cancer at the age of 43. A similar salute would have provided a fitting end to Sunday’s show, one more impactful than the usual thank yous and goodnights.

That didn’t happen. Instead, a visibly uninterested Joaquin Phoenix announced that the Oscar went to Anthony Hopkins for his work in The Father. Hopkins may have been deserving, but he was also nowhere to be seen—not at L.A.’s Union Station, where the main ceremony took place in the iconic Art Deco atrium, nor even at the satellite location in London’s BFI Southbank. Hell, he didn’t even call in on Zoom. The night’s final honoree was represented only by a headshot, closing the show with a half-hearted shrug. That was bad news for an already divisive Oscars, whose last big swing of many was an epic, objective miss. Still, it’s great news for in-house accountants PricewaterhouseCoopers—after a disastrous flub in 2017, PwC has demonstrably proved its process is airtight.

In fairness to Soderbergh, his fellow producers Stacey Sher and Jesse Collins, and the show’s director, Glenn Weiss, some other bets paid off. It would be a shame, if practically inevitable, for the chaotic end of the pandemic Oscars to obscure their many real achievements. Think back, if you can, to Regina King strutting through a train station as slick graphics and an upbeat score introduced the Oscars like the opening credits to Ocean’s Fourteen. This is very, very different, the opening gambit seemed to say. Does that have to be a bad thing?

For most of their running time—a shockingly tight, if still technically bloated, three and a quarter hours—the Oscars felt almost liberated by their lack of convention. Yes, a downsized crowd had led the Academy to ditch its long-established home at Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre. But Union Station proved a gorgeous backdrop, with Weiss and his crew taking maximum advantage of the lobby’s handsome features and natural light. (They better have, considering the massive disruptions their operations caused to everyday commuters.) And the dinner-theater style seating ended up duping the looseness and intimacy that are typically the best parts of the Globes. Considering the Globes themselves were so lacking this year, the effect came as a double relief.

Like the last two ceremonies, Sunday’s proceedings lacked a host, a once-hasty decision that’s rapidly ossified into a status quo. In lieu of an emcee, a revolving roster of presenters and camerapeople weaved through the crowd, giving the viewer a surprisingly strong understanding of the space. Laura Dern could give thanks directly to Daniel Kaluuya, who a shifting frame then revealed was sitting at the same table as Glenn Close. Without a massive theater to film like a stage show, from mostly afar, the production value markedly increased. Rather than the usual wide shots and quick cutaways, we got to see handsomely lit actors shot in close-up and presented in a letterbox, just like they’re used to.

Forced to get rid of some staples, the Oscars chose to do away with others. The first and only scripted comedy sketch didn’t show up until well past the two-hour mark. (If you’re gonna have one bit in an entire award show, make it Glenn Close doing Da Butt.) There were no teary montages about the power of movies. In the most polarizing choice of all, at least until the Best Picture shuffle, there weren’t even clips of the nominees, apart from a few seconds of the nominated feature films. Sometimes, guests were introduced with a short biography; at others, with a verbal description of their work. When Bong Joon-ho (and his translator, Sharon Choi, back for one last gig) beamed in from South Korea to present Best Director, he read statements from each nominee over still photographs of the auteurs on set. At no point did the producers play a five-second clip of a Method actor screaming about Big Ideas, capped off by polite applause and a sheepish shrug from the contender in question.

This last choice felt the most revealing, and the most indicative of who embraced these radical breaks and who missed the old routine. (“Radical” may be strong, but this is an award show we’re talking about; any update to a format, even ones mandated by the CDC, is a major deal.) Ratings for all kinds of award shows, from the Globes to the Grammys, have plummeted these past few months. It’s to be expected after a year without concerts or theaters; audiences see no need to look back on what they never saw in the first place. But the trend also meant the Oscars were staring down a small viewership no matter what choices they made. Why not cater to the die-hards who would tune in no matter what—the kind who don’t need clips to update them on movies they’ve already seen, and who’d appreciate changes to a routine they’ve seen dozens of times before?

There’s no defending the show’s last 15 minutes. Nomadland, whose director, Chloé Zhao, was the first woman of color to win Best Director in Oscars history, deserved a real victory lap. It’s a film that could have easily been overlooked in a more competitive year, even as it builds on the progress already made by Moonlight and Parasite in redefining what a Best Picture winner can look like. The sight of Zhao’s cast, most of them acting novices, accepting the honor would’ve made for a more triumphant endnote. Hopkins, too, deserves to be remembered for his actual performance, not the wrench his surprise victory threw in a carefully choreographed TV show.

But before they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, the Oscars came amazingly close to pulling it off. As vaccines circulate, theaters reopen, and restrictions start to ease, there will be a concerted effort to get “back to normal,” in Hollywood as everywhere else. The Academy Awards may have ended on a down beat. They also showed “normal” isn’t always worth preserving, whatever the cost. Necessity is the mother of invention, and some inventions—or strategic exclusions—are built to last.