Article by Mia Sherry
In a year where the disparity between the Hollywood elite and regular Joes became increasingly visible, the appetite for a nail-biting Awards race was notably lacking this year. And for good reason; cinema closures affected releases, which means that oftentimes only the luckiest of critics may have gotten a chance to see all the contenders. The nominees– while all worthy– don’t stray too far from “Oscar-bait” material and in a year where so many of the key workers who hold up the systems that make the Oscars happen, from the cinema host to the key grip, were forgotten about, a night of celebrating the cinema only of those “public” enough to matter seemed in poor taste.
But nevertheless, the Academy persisted. With rapid COVID-testing and a no-mask policy that would raise even the most skeptical of eyes, it became increasingly clear that the night of Hollywood pageantry was exactly that– Hollywood pageantry, where the films they claim to be celebrating will always, always play second fiddle to self-congratulation and a million-dollar shoes.
In terms of the awards themselves, there’s not much to report on. Part of the reason for this year’s lackluster build up is due in part to the fact that the nominated films are almost skull-numbingly boring. There were no surprise last-minute nominees, no dark horses or underdogs. The winners, for the most part, were even more predictable– though thankfully, well deserved. Emerald Fennell took home Best Original Screenplay for her divisive script Promising Young Woman (2019), Thomas Vinterburg’s Another Round (2019) unsurprisingly won Best International Feature, and sadly for us, Soul (Pete Docter, Kemp Powers, 2020) beat out Wolfwalkers (2020, Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart) for Best Animated Picture in a win that though expected, still stings.
Daniel Kaluuya becomes the first Black Briton to win Best Supporting Actor for his phenomenal turn as Fred Hampton in Judas and The Black Messiah (Shaka King, 2020). Mank (David Fincher, 2020), the forgotten middle child of this years season, takes home Best Cinematography (in a slight upset for Nomadland (Chloé Zhao, 2020) who was a front runner) and Best Production Design. The Sound of Metal (Darius Marder, 2019) wins Best Editing and Sound, which are both thoroughly deserved. Though Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari (2019), a brilliant meditation on what it means to be American, doesn’t win any of the heavy hitters, they don’t go home empty handed and Youn Yuh-Jung wins Best Supporting Actress. Best Documentary is a slight surprise, with My Octopus Teacher (Pippa Ehrlich, James Reed, 2020) taking home that little golden god instead of more popular bets like the Romanian Collective (Alexander Nanau, 2019) or the searingly intimate Time (Garrett Bradley, 2020).
This is where things start to get messy (in the typical Oscar fashion). I really can’t stress how surprisingly refreshing it was to have a somewhat normal Oscars. There were no real technical difficulties, the host-less approach worked fantastically, and QuestLove provided some absolute bops to get us through the night. Following up from the historic wins of last year’s ceremony, and the increasing call for genuine diversity in American Awards shows, it seemed that this year’s Steven Soderberg-helmed Oscars would be continuing in a new legacy of celebration without borders. Would that we were so lucky.
Firstly, they change the schedule of awards, which at first didn’t seem like such a bad thing. Best Director was thrown into the middle of the ceremony, a category which is usually reserved for later on in the night, considering how hotly contested it is. But nonetheless, it goes to Chloé Zhao, who is the first ever Asian woman to win the prestigious award and only the second woman in the Academy’s history. Skip forward to the last segment of the night. First we have the astoundingly insensitive In Memoriam section; which, among other things like excluding Jessica Walters and Naya Rivera, goes at such a fast pace you would need to read at the speed of light to catch every name on screen. Then, we have Best Picture.
As long as the Oscar statue has been gold, Best Picture has been last. That is the way of the Academy’s world– and it makes sense! It’s the crowning glory, the victor of the season, the high note of the night. So putting Best Picture before Best Actor and Actress in a Lead Role was surprising at least and shocking at best. But, it made sense– the Academy had made much of Chadwick Boseman’s untimely passing, even including an NFT of him in their “goodie bags”. So, reason would have it that they rearranged the schedule to commemorate Boseman in the best way possible, right?
Wrong. Oh, dear reader, so, so wrong. After Nomadland’s win, followed by Frances MacDormand’s win for Best Actress in that same film, we come to Best Actor. Jaoquin Phoenix, looking like he’d rather be literally anywhere else, is presenting the award. He reads out the list of nominees– and Anthony Hopkins wins for The Father. The night ends. Literally. In the space of five seconds, three hours worth of pomp and circumstance came to an astoundingly anti-climactic close, with Hopkins not attending the event and so not able to accept his award. The credits rolled, and the night was over.
The arrogance of the Academy to rearrange the Awards to congratulate themselves on progress they hadn’t made didn’t just fail Boseman– it failed everyone. Hopkins’ performance in The Father (Florian Zeller, 2020) was a tour de force, and now will be remembered only for the wrong reasons. Zhao’s historic win, and Nomadland’s impressive feat as a quietly humanistic love letter in the face of so many louder, brasher films were completely obscured and undercut by the change in programming, unable to be properly celebrated like Bong Joon Ho’s wins for Parasite last year. But above all, Chadwick Boseman’s tragic passing was capitalized upon by the Academy, and instead of being celebrated for who he was and all he did, he’s now become emblematic of the deep-rooted systemic issues engrained in the Academy’s structures. There are a lot of words that have been used to describe the Oscars– gaudy, celebratory, flashy, progressive. The only word that seems to be on everyone’s tongue this year, though, is ‘distasteful’.