The 2021 Oscars were not the first time Best Picture wasn't the final award of the night
But it wasn't a moment without precedent: In 17 of the first 20 Academy Awards ceremonies, Best Picture was not the final award presented. In those instances, the honorary Oscars, the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, and the acting categories were typically announced after Best Picture.
The 1948 Oscars, the 21st ceremony, marked a semipermanent pivot to announcing Best Picture as the last award of the night. That ceremony saw Laurence Olivier's Hamlet win Best Picture, marking the first time a non-Hollywood production won Best Picture and the first time an actor directed themself to an Oscar win.
From then until this year, there was one exception: In 1971, Best Picture was followed by a special honorary award for Charlie Chaplin. In an odd Oscars twist, Chaplin won his first (and only) competitive Oscar the following year, at the 45th Academy Awards, for Limelight, a film that had originally been released in 1952 but wasn't eligible for the Oscars until 1972, due to it never previously screening in Los Angeles.
The decision to change up the run of the show this year happened with little fanfare or explanation. The show simply came to the Best Picture category before the lead acting awards with no warning, confusing many viewers at home, based on reactions on social media. It's unclear whether it was meant to be a nod to the earliest Oscar ceremonies, as this year's banquet setup at Union Station was a throwback to the dinner-party settings of the Academy Awards that endured until 1944.
"It surely was a surprise," Nomadland producer Dan Janvey said of the shakeup. Speaking in the press room, he added, "I think a lot of us grew up watching the Oscars and have gotten used to that being last. It was incredibly fun that they shook it up, and I thought the producers did a great job making this possible for us to be in person and the whole Academy. As producers, it's hard to imagine what went into the making of this show, so we're very appreciative of that."
Some surmised that the changeup was meant to end the ceremony on a bittersweet note with the expectation that the late Chadwick Boseman would win Best Actor, making him only the third actor to win posthumously. But Boseman didn't win, and Best Actor honoree Anthony Hopkins was not even present to accept, making the whole thing a bit anticlimactic.
Though this year's Oscars weren't the first to bump up the Best Picture category in the show, only time will tell if future ceremonies follow suit.