The highs and lows of the Oscars 2021: new 'cinematic' format results in one of the most surreal shows yet

Though producers promised a ceremony like a 'movie', it was a largely underwhelming production

Frances McDormand, winner of Best Actress, and Youn Yuh-jung, winner of Best Actress in a Supporting Role, pose in the press room at the Oscars. Reuters
Frances McDormand, winner of Best Actress, and Youn Yuh-jung, winner of Best Actress in a Supporting Role, pose in the press room at the Oscars. Reuters

This year's Oscars left it late to bring any genuine surprises to the table. Until, that is, Anthony Hopkins picked up the evening's final award: Best Actor for his role in The Father.

There's no disputing that the British actor delivered an incredible performance as the titular patriarch in the film, which also picked up Best Adapted Screenplay.

Expectations were so high for the late Chadwick Boseman to pick up a posthumous award for his role in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, that Hopkins had not only declined to attend the ceremony at Los Angeles's Union Station, he didn't even make it to the Covid-necessitated “international hub” at London's British Film Institute.

Award presenter Joaquin Phoenix collected the prize on his and the Academy's behalf in a somewhat anticlimactic conclusion to an already surreal evening.

Up until then, everything had gone largely as predicted. Chloe Zhao and Nomadland took the Best Director and Best Picture statues, as well as a third Oscar for lead Frances McDormand. Soul picked up Best Animated Feature and Best Original Score, Another Round got Best International Feature Film, Daniel Kaluuya won Best Supporting Actor, and Mank and Sound of Metal cleaned up on the craft prizes.

Each won two apiece from the Production Design, Cinematography, Film Editing and Sound categories, without actually troubling any of the “major” awards they'd been nominated for.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was the way Steven Soderbergh and his production team chose to present the event, which – like every other awards ceremony this year – faced the many challenges posed by a global pandemic.

Soderbergh had promised a “cinematic event" closer to a film than an awards ceremony, but the resulting vibe was more “annual staff awards for a mid-sized construction company".

Kaluuya set the tone on the socially distanced red carpet early on. When asked how this year's nomination compared to his previous nomination for Jordan Peele's Get Out, the actor simply joked “there's less people", and his comment proved prescient.

The lack of guests at the strictly regulated ceremony – each nominee was allowed just a single plus one in LA's repurposed Union Station, rather than the usual host of cast, crew and family – undoubtedly affected the atmosphere.

Even so, some of the decisions the production team made seemed strange, given that evidence from the Golden Globes, Grammys and Baftas had already demonstrated how hard it is to carry these shows off in challenging circumstances.

There were undoubtedly high points. Harrison Ford reading out a bunch of studio executives' dismissive opinions about early versions of the sci-fi classic Blade Runner to demonstrate the importance of good editing; Best Supporting Actress winner Youn Yuh-jung's hilarious banter with Brad Pitt on collecting her award; and Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award-winning Tyler Perry's standing-ovation-inspiring diatribe against poverty were all moments of TV gold. Yet they were few and far between in a nearly three-and-a-half-hour screen marathon.

The cavernous surrounds of a train station made for a uniquely empty and atmosphere-free setting for the couple of hundred celebs present. With the highly talented production designers in attendance, you might think the producers could have made it look slightly more impressive than a restaurant at a train station, which, admittedly, is what it essentially was.

Brad Pitt presents the Oscar for Actress in a Supporting Roleduring the live ABC Telecast of The 93rd Oscars in Los Angeles, California, U.S., April 25, 2021. Todd Wawrychuk/A.M.P.A.S./Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO MARKETING OR ADVERTISING IS PERMITTED WITHOUT THE PRIOR CONSENT OF A.M.P.A.S AND MUST BE DISTRIBUTED AS SUCH. MANDATORY CREDIT. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES
Brad Pitt presents the Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role during the Oscars. Reuters

Perhaps the most perplexing of this year's production decisions, though, was the overall abandonment of the traditional montage of clips from the nominated films to announce each award.

In a year when cinemas were largely closed, the films were undeniably less familiar to audiences at home. They'd have needed to subscribe to Netflix, Amazon, Disney+ and Apple TV, and scan numerous video-on-demand sites, to have seen this year's films, and even that would have depended on where you live.

These montages were surely more essential than ever to offer an insight into films that haven't even been released in some territories?

Instead, producers opted for hosts reading out what appeared to be each nominee's LinkedIn profile. We learnt that The White Tiger writer and director Ramin Bahrani worked in telemarketing prior to finding success in the film industry, and the favourite childhood films of almost every single nominee on the night, but did we need to?

The lack of the traditional orchestra stood out, too – especially earlier in the night, when some of the speeches seemed like they could go on forever without winners being played off the stage. When Thomas Vinterberg revealed on collecting his Best International Feature Film award early in the night that “I have a lot of people to thank, but I'll get there", it looked like we could be in for a very long evening.

Producers did seem to get a hold on elongated speeches as the night went on, but even then some of the musical choices of the evening's musical director, DJ Questlove, were simply bizarre compared to the staid tradition of orchestral overtures.

Zhao was strangely ushered offstage to the tones of Live and Let Die, while Soul directors Pete Docter and Kemp Powers, who had just delivered a heartfelt paean to the power of jazz, were treated to Dolly Parton's 9 to 5 as they departed the stage.

Questlove's impromptu mid-show music quiz, meanwhile, was clearly designed to provide this year's viral “Ellen DeGeneres 2014 selfie" moment, but seemed contrived. It did at least reveal that Glenn Close has an unexpectedly passable knowledge of 1980s funk as she danced to Experience Unlimited's theme from Spike Lee's School Daze.

We shouldn't be too harsh, however. It's been a very strange year all round, not just for struggling awards show producers, and there are at least two major positives to take away from it. Firstly, that any films released at all in the circumstances certainly helped make a year of global lockdowns a little more bearable.

Secondly, with vaccine rollouts ramping up globally, 2022 has all the signs of returning to some degree of normality, allowing us to go back to complaining about all the simple things we used to complain about in every usual awards cycle.

Updated: May 5, 2021 11:39 AM

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