The 93rd Academy Awards: An Autopsy

The Academy Awards are always a mixed bag, but were guaranteed to be a mess like never before given the past year that led up to them. The 2020 Oscars took place on February 9th, 2020, around the time the Coronavirus was being talked about, but hadn’t reached the United States yet, and certainly before it claimed a half a million lives. As a result of the ongoing pandemic, the entire Oscar season was pushed back this year, officially coming to a head on the evening of April 25th, with the live telecast of the Academy Awards.

And the miraculous thing about the 93rd Academy Awards is, at least in the beginning, it felt like a somewhat regular awards show in a way we hadn’t seen in over a year. Movie stars were dressed to the nines, and there was a somewhat socially distanced red carpet event beforehand. The E! channel began red carpet coverage at 3:00pm when the show didn’t even air until 8:00. We moved forward without a set host, as we have for the past few years, which continues to be a good idea. The ceremony largely took place at LA’s Union Station, and reports claimed they didn’t even shut down train service.

However, the beginning of the telecast proved to me this thing is actually going to work after all. The décor and ambiance totally worked for what felt like a throwback to Hollywood’s Golden Age. There was an intimacy to the smaller location that made the entire room feel like it was overflowing with love and passion for filmmaking. Steven Soderbergh produced this ceremony and apparently wanted it to feel like a movie itself – utilizing all parts of the auditorium and having each presenter doing sections of awards, instead of reading off names and walking away. And there was a lot of trivia about the people nominated, which added to the intimate setting. And then it all went to hell.

I’ve resigned myself to the fact that my favorite movies never win Oscars, or even my favorite movies in any given category, and I’m not entirely complaining about the winners themselves. There was no Green Book or Bohemian Rhapsody option this year, where the nomination at all is ludicrous, much less a win. And while there were some upsets that genuinely surprised me, there’s nothing here I can really be angry about. I think it’s more interesting to observe the structure of the telecast and how it all fell apart from under itself.

In my opinion, it’s when Tyler Perry won the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award where it all went downhill. Even though honorary Oscars arguably don’t count in a celebrity’s EGOT, Perry now has one more Oscar than Glenn Close, Jake Gyllenhaal, Annette Bening, Willem Dafoe, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and countless others who deserve an Oscar more than he does. Perry has directed over twenty films, and he still hasn’t learned where to put the camera. The Jean Hersholt award is obviously a reflection on humanitarian efforts. I feel like Perry’s entire career as a filmmaker has leaned on empowering negative stereotypes of many kinds. I keep hearing how Perry has written such wonderful roles for women, and 90% of his female lead characters are women who are just trying to do their best, and then they go crazy! Circle back to my review of Acrimony for more on this.

But this led into a weird scripted segment about best nominated and not-nominated songs of past years, in which stars were bleeped twice and Glenn Close demonstrated her knowledge of Da Butt dance. It’s nice to see Close still have fun with this after losing the award eight times, more than any other actor or actress. At this point in the evening it was about 10:40pm and I began to wonder where everything was – we didn’t have staged performance of any of this year’s nominated songs, and we didn’t have an In Memoriam montage. And I had to wake up very early the next morning!

But alas, the In Memoriam was on its way. I don’t know why there weren’t any song performances. And if the show was struggling before, this is when it really began to go off the rails. The montage moved at a speed that felt like listening to a podcast on 1.5x speed, each person who has died over the last 14 months getting roughly 1.5 seconds of time. Of course, several names were also left out of the In Memoriam section. The quick succession of names in addition to those left out, left an ultimately distasteful impression, like we almost forgot to honor the many, many people who died in the last year, let’s get that out of the way really fast.

And speaking of tributes, this was the first ceremony since 1972 in which Best Picture was not the final award of the night. Instead, it was the third-to-last, with Best Actress and Best Actor being the final awards. Best Picture went to Nomadland, a choice I’m not crazy about. I think it’s like the sixth best film nominated for Picture, but I understand why it won. Chloe Zhao becoming the second woman and first woman of color to win Best Director was also an expected, but welcome win. Even though that’s a film I have some issues with, it’s hard to feel outrage at this choice.

Conversely, Frances McDormand won her third Oscar for her performance in Nomadland, which seems like the wrong choice. McDormand is a great actress, and gives a lovely performance in this film, however she does not need a third Academy Award. This should have gone to Carey Mulligan, who gave the performance of her career in Promising Young Woman, a film that only walked away with one award – original screenplay for Emerald Fennell. I’m glad this film didn’t go away completely empty handed, but the entire Promising Young Woman team deserved better.

And now, Best Actor. The final award of the night. On Twitter, people immediately speculated the rearranged order was due to a planned tribute to Chadwick Boseman, who was widely regarded as the front-runner to win a posthumous Oscar for his performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the only lock of the night. Or maybe this it was structured this way to end the evening on an emotional note.

Well, he didn’t win. The stunt didn’t work.

I’m sure there was a montage ready to go that was quite lovely, mourning Boseman and honoring his career. I’m sure that’s why Soderbergh and his producing partners planned it this way. Because in a year full of uncertainty, and no clear favorite in any other category, it seemed like there was no way Boseman could possibly not win this award. Your winner? Anthony Hopkins for The Father. And he wasn’t even there. He didn’t show up at either LA or London’s Oscar events and didn’t even bother to connect via Zoom, assuming that option was available. The odds of winning were so low, could you blame him? And you can’t exactly be angry with Hopkins for winning an Oscar for the single best performance of his career. He filmed a nice acceptance speech where he honors Boseman, and that went online between Sunday night and Monday morning. I think we can be annoyed at how abruptly the show ended after this uncomfortable moment, but I think it’s clear everyone was taken by surprise.

So, what has this weird, experimental Oscars taught us? Maybe don’t have someone like Steven Soderbergh act as the night’s mastermind, when he is known for risky, ballsy moves and never makes a movie the same way twice. I’m surprised he didn’t try to shoot the thing on iPhones. I think we’ve also learned that Soderbergh might hate show business and everyone in it as a whole. But I do realize some things were outside of his control.

It also makes me wonder why I care so much about awards season in general. Before every Oscar night, I make an effort to see all of the nominated movies, and have clear ideas of who will win and who will lose, and a bunch of loving and scathing opinions on who’s involved that year. And by the end of every telecast I ask myself why I care about this nonsense in the first place. I think about that for a few days and promise myself I won’t follow Oscar season as fervently the next year. And yet, by the time the next awards season rolls around, I’ve completely forgotten this and I’m back to where I started.

And there’s always the online discourse about the Oscars, and why they do or do not matter. You see a plethora of think pieces about ‘can you even NAME the Best Picture Oscar winner from five years ago?’ or ‘box office hits are never nominated for Oscars!’ and I feel comfortable in the fact that these conversations will never end. Everyone will keep having them and pretending the post-ceremony discourse means anything at all, and by the time next awards season commences, everybody will suddenly not care about all of that.

I also wonder if moving forward, we will consider 2020 with a permanent asterisk next to it. Will people remember that so-and-so won an Oscar, but they won it in 2020, when movies like In the Heights and West Side Story were supposed to be released, but weren’t? Will any of these awards mean less because of the 2020 qualifier? And also, will the next ceremony be delayed? How can the Academy justify awarding 14 months of movies this season and only 10 months of movies in the next? I guess all of this remains to be seen.

I sincerely hope this is the end of award season improv. I don’t want to see any more award shows over Zoom or even shows like this where it seems like everyone really is trying their hardest to make it work. I want nothing more for many of the same folks to gather next spring in the Dolby Theatre and have it feel like coming back home. I want musical performances, I want the clips from each movie as we move throughout the night, I want the In Memoriam section that has Lady Gaga singing Wind Beneath My Wings at a piano, I want the orchestra to play people off and not have acceptance speeches last ten minutes each. But of course, the evening will still go beyond the scheduled three hour running time. That will never change.

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