The 2021 Academy Awards are not alone in having to adapt to a global crisis.

By Maureen Lee Lenker
April 16, 2021 at 03:00 PM EDT

For over a year, we've been hearing how we're living through "unprecedented" times. But when it comes to the Academy Awards being disrupted by a global crisis, 2021 is not a first.

The 1942 Oscars were almost canceled altogether, coming on the heels of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States' entry into World War II. The Academy feared that a glitzy, self-congratulatory event might send the wrong message.

"The Academy Awards have always had to walk a fine line," says Dave Karger, awards expert and host of Turner Classic Movies' 31 Days of Oscar (and an EW alum). "Because even though there are tens of millions of people who are fascinated by it, and it does honor the best achievements in film, which is one of this country's most important exports, it also does strike a decent portion of the population as being unnecessary — rich Hollywood elites, patting themselves on the back."

That exact fear led the Academy to temporarily cancel the awards in 1942 before ultimately deciding to go ahead with a more austere ceremony that acknowledged and honored the current circumstances. As Variety put it in a headline at the time, "Academy Will Hold Academy Dinner After All, But Nix Finery, Hoofing, and Glitter."

It was Bette Davis who had a hand in pushing the event forward. Then the president of the Academy, she put forth a plan to move the ceremony from a ballroom to an auditorium and to pivot from a celebratory dinner to a live show. She even floated the idea of selling tickets to the public with proceeds going to the Red Cross.

1942 Oscars
Credit: Bettmann/Getty Images

Ultimately, the Academy devised a different plan, but Davis' impact is undeniable. "I would like to think that Hollywood heavyweights such as Bette Davis helped turn the tide," Karger tells EW. It also presages Davis' later work with the war effort as the co-founder of the Hollywood Canteen, a free club offering dancing, food, and entertainment free of charge to U.S. servicemen and women.

So, the awards went on but in a stripped-down fashion, "sans orchidaceous glitter" as Variety so vividly put it. The tradition of an after-party with dancing was canceled. Women wore plainer dresses and men opted for suits rather than tuxedos. Both presenter Jimmy Stewart and Best Supporting Actor winner Donald Crisp were among those serving who wore their military uniforms. As Variety announced, "Black ties and decollete will be strictly tabu [sic], with business suits and informal femme garb, obligatory."

Jimmy Stewart
Credit: Peter Stackpole/Life Magazine/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Politician Wendell L. Wilkie attended as the guest of honor and main speaker, acting as representative for the Roosevelt administration and calling Hollywood to action in the war effort. "The impact of the war was visibly felt at the ceremony," asserts Karger. "Both with what people were saying and with what people were wearing."

Now, nearly 80 years later, the Oscars face a global crisis of a different nature — the COVID-19 pandemic. In the decades in-between, national crises, including the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Iraq War, led to postponements, but not talk of cancellation or wide-scale revision of the ceremony's entire approach.

"1942 was the closest the Oscars came to being canceled," Karger says. "A global war, whether it involves combat or a virus, is the only thing that will put the Academy Award ceremony in jeopardy. The big difference between 1942 and 2021 is that in 1942, it was a question of whether having a ceremony felt right. Today, we're talking about whether having a ceremony is physically safe."

1942 Oscars
Credit: Bettmann/Getty Images

Conversations for the 2021 Oscars have followed a similar trajectory to those in 1942. At first, as the pandemic raged, many wondered if they could happen at all. The Academy preemptively bumped the ceremony to April as opposed to their standard late February, early March date.

Then, as other awards shows such as the Emmys and the Golden Globes adapted to a virtual format (to varying degrees of success), questions have loomed. Would people simply Zoom in from their homes, wearing whatever suited them, echoing the more austere clothing choices of 1942? Would the ceremony be able to held with any in-person audience? Would they still take place at their home for the last two decades, Hollywood's Dolby Theater?

Just as the 14th Academy Awards had to adapt to war-time expectations, now the 93rd must accommodate our new reality. "In 1942, I would imagine you could have looked at it both ways: should we do it or should we not?" muses Karger. "In 2021, it's clear, it can't be a typical Oscars. They've had to throw all of the traditions and the usual parameters out the window and almost start from scratch. In the 79 years since 1942, nothing approaches the profundity of the COVID-19 crisis."

Donald Crisp
Credit: CBS via Getty Images

Answers have trickled in, predominantly via a letter to nominees from producers Steven Soderbergh, Stacey Sher, and Jesse Collins. The ceremony will not be virtual, but rather an intimate, in-person event at Union Station in Los Angeles, with additional show elements live from the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood. Though Bette Davis suggested a change of setting in 1942, the show didn't pivot from its hotel banquet setting until 1944. Though, that marked a permanent shift away from the dinner banquet format. This year's locale change seems a one-off, a tweak designed to allow for social distancing and other COVID-19 precautions.

Austere or casual clothing is not de rigeur as it was in 1942, though the dress code calls for anything from strictly not casual to formal if so desired. Whatever that means. Initially, Zoom acceptance speeches were banned, but in response to a backlash, the producers relented, announcing plans for more remote venues in London and elsewhere to honor travel restrictions. At any rate, pivoting due to an outcry seems to be an Academy specialty, whether it's the '40s or the 2020s.

And while the show in 1942 was a stripped-down affair, it seems as if 2021 will opt for a different approach entirely, (social) distancing themselves from both the old models of banquet and traditional televised awards show. Instead, the producers have declared their intention for the show to "look like a movie," with recent presenter announcements taking the form of film credits.

Credit: ABC

While we'll have to wait until April 25 to find out exactly how that cinematic approach manifests, one other big question remains: will the events of the last year influence who wins? In 1942, Gary Cooper won Best Actor for playing a military hero and infamously, How Green Was My Valley beat out Citizen Kane for Best Picture.

"I don't think it's a coincidence that in that year [right after we enter the war], you would see someone like Gary Cooper winning Best Actor for Sergeant York," adds Karger."Or a movie like How Green Was My Valley, which is a more sentimental family story, winning over a much more cynical film like Citizen Kane."

The 2021 crop of nominees don't directly address the pandemic, but they do reflect themes that speak to our current moment, particularly in their engagement with issues of civil rights and social justice. Karger sees ties between frontrunner Nomadland and our circumstances. "It's a movie that really embrace the idea of living more simply without as many material things, and I do think that is something many of us have been thinking about over this last year," he reflects. "I don't think that would be the reason Nomadland wins, but it could be an interesting parallel."

Whether it's 1942 or 2021, one thing remains true: the Oscars will always have to evolve with the times and rise to meet the challenges of our global circumstances.

Check out more from EW's The Awardist, featuring exclusive interviews, analysis, and our podcast diving into all the highlights from the year's best films.

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