It sounds heretical to say this, because the pandemic has taken such a toll on the film industry this year, but COVID-19 is the best thing to happen to the Academy Awards broadcast.
The virus and its social distancing protocols, which previously sank the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild and other awards programs prompted Oscars producer Steven Soderbergh – an Oscar winner in his own right for 2001’s Traffic – to shake up the increasingly stodgy and stiff ceremony, sometimes with changes for their own sake.
For starters, the main venue for Sunday’s Academy Awards was Los Angeles’s historic, and frequent movie location, Union Station. The site accommodated far fewer people than the usual Dolby Theater, but that became a plus, as the guest list was pared down to just the nominees and their parties, as well as the A-list presenters.
And the show felt more like a party, with attendees seated at cabaret-style tables, not unlike the early days of the Academy Awards more than 90 years earlier. It was Soderbergh’s stated concept, “What if the Oscars were a (live) movie?” that set the tone for the evening, with some of his signature Steadicam moves that helped keep the ceremony in motion.
Surely the composers and performers of the nominated songs were not pleased, but they were relegated to not-ready-for-prime-time and slotted before the show’s official start. That sliced a good 20 minutes or so off the eventual running time. More controversial, and probably angering Best Picture nominees’ producers, was the decision to eliminate introductory clips from those movies – an internationally broadcast commercial that most of these little-seen, independent flicks could have sorely used.
Also banished were production number fillers – yes, we’re thinking of you, Rob Lowe and Snow White – and, for the third straight year, no single host for the evening, and with that no opening monologue. So it came as a startling intrusion when in the final half-hour comedian Lil Rel Howery roamed the Union Station crowd with a fairly pointless Oscar song trivia contest. That was eventually saved by a game Glenn Close getting up and shaking her booty to “Da Butt,” an unnominated ditty from Spike Lee’s 1988 School Daze.
Instead of the usual artificial banter of presenters, the nominees had been interviewed for pithy, interesting factoids of how they broke into the business, their first moviegoing experience or, in the case of the competing directors, how they would explain what a director does in 20 seconds or less. Good stuff.
However, Oscar winners were not limited in the length of their acceptance speeches and there were more than a few who abused that lenience. On the other hand, there were charming moments from Nomadland director-producer-screenwriter-editor Chloe Zhao, from best supporting actress Yuh-jung Youn (Minari) and heart-tugging microphone moments from Thomas Vinterberg (director of Best International Feature Film, Denmark’s Another Round) and Tyler Perry, recipient of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, who implored the audience to “refuse hate.”
Unlike in recent times, the Oscars went to a diverse group of individuals. Nomadland’s Zhao was only the second woman to win Best Director, and the first Asian-American. Daniel Kaluuya, a British-born Black man, picked up the Best Supporting Actor award for Judas and the Black Messiah and Youn became the first Korean-born Best Supporting Actress.
Most of the Academy Award winners were expected – that is to say, I predicted them in advance – but the late Chadwick Boseman’s loss to Anthony Hopkins (Best Actor for The Father) was a flat-out surprise. Hopkins was exceptional as the frail senior drifting into dementia, but Boseman’s succumbing to colon cancer last year seemed to seal his win. Apparently the Oscars staff felt so, because they made Best Actor the final award of the evening, instead of the traditional broadcast-ending Best Picture. A win for Boseman would have been an emotional closer, but instead the announcement of Hopkins – who was not able to be present – ended the show with a thud.
Also something of a surprise was Frances McDormand’s Best Actress win for Nomadland. Like Hopkins, she was terrific in the role, but this made her third win in 25 years (with Fargo and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), and Oscar voters usually like to spread the wealth more than that. They must – as Sally Field put it – “like her, really like her.”
Next year, when the world is presumably back to “normal,” the Academy Awards telecast will probably be back at the Dolby Theater, with attendees seated shoulder-to-shoulder watching a more traditional awards ceremony. While this year’s event will surely post low ratings – a slate of Best Picture nominees without any mainstream blockbusters will do that – here’s hoping the show’s creative crew learned a few lessons from Sunday’s unconventional Oscars.