What a weird Oscars: Review
It was clear right away that nobody knew where to look. The 93rd Academy Awards worked around the global pandemic by shooting inside Union Station on a multi-level auditorium. Guests sat four to a table, looking like awkward blind dates on a sunset cruise. A presenter appeared in the audience, and then a winner walked onstage, and then — hey, presto! The same presenter appeared across the room, freshly teleported! Behind them, people stared at the camera or away from the camera, or maybe we only saw the back of their beautiful heads. When Riz Ahmed was presenting, a woman above him kept turning her body around, never quite finding a comfortable position. As the Mank production designers went down to receive their award, you could see two seated attendees checking their phones. Minari's Yuh-Jung Youn gave the night's best speech when she won Best Supporting Actress — "I'm luckier than you!" — and the show seemed to have every possible camera angle on her except the right one.
The winners were exciting: the young and the oldest, diverse and international. Best Supporting Actor Daniel Kaluuya honored the real people behind Judas and the Black Messiah and also talked about his mom and dad having sex. Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson broke one glass ceiling in their Best Makeup and Hairstyling victory and turned their speech into an exhortation to break every other glass ceiling. Chloé Zhao ended the show's first hour by becoming the second woman to ever win the Best Director Oscar. She was back on stage when Nomadland took Best Picture, handing the mic over to star-producer Frances McDormand, who ended the ceremony with vital commands: "Watch our movie on the largest screen possible" and "Watch every film that's represented here tonight."
Except, wait, hold it! It didn't end there. After the commercial break, Frances McDormand won for Nomadland. It sounded like she'd used up all her Speech Juice, but we can agree she was physically present. Then Joaquin Phoenix took the stage, looking baffled as usual by his own existence, and presented the evening's final award to The Father's Anthony Hopkins — who chose not to attend. Like most of the world, Sir Anthony was apparently not watching the Academy Awards.
Was this Steven Soderbergh's plan all along? With all due respect to his fellow producers Jesse Collins and Stacey Sher, I experienced this very strange awards show as a pure auteurist effort from the man who made Ocean's 12, The Good German, and Mosaic. You felt his presence in the eternally off-kilter camera angles and the immediately annoying cuts to a wide-angle God's-eye view. There was a rigid commitment to a very forced casualness, and some creative decisions were just wrong right away. We did not need the presenters to give us pocket biographies of each of the nominees. We did not need Laura Dern telling the Best Supporting Actor nominees why their performances were world-changing. We did not need to hear the Best Directors explain what directing is. What we needed, more than ever, was to just see the damn movies, but old-fashioned film clips were mostly not on the menu. Reese Witherspoon gave us a plot summary of 1983's The Secret of NIMH, but we didn't get one single image from the animated shorts she was celebrating onstage. Steven Yeun told us the coolest parts of Terminator 2, but we didn't really see any of the Visual Effects nominees' work.
And, look, I'm a sucker for Soderbergh's kooky art projects. This Oscar night looked different from any other, and the parts that worked were exciting enough to suggest a new style for blather-y awards shows. Ahmed presented the Best Sound award, and as he opened the envelope, the camera's movement was just right: From the actor's knowing smile down to the paper in his hand, the title Sound of Metal clearly visible. The medical necessity of social distancing gave the whole setting a special-dinner intimacy, and Harrison Ford looked unusually comfortable rambling through the harsh early notes on Blade Runner. ("Why do we need the third cut to the eggs?") The sunlight slowly faded outside the windows, which I guarantee interested Soderbergh more than the embarrassingly rushed In Memoriam montage.
Many of the winners offered impassioned messages, political relevance with a personal edge. When Travon Free won for Best Live Action Short Film, he reminded the audience that police in America kill an average of three people per day. Zhao dedicated her prize to "anyone who has the faith and the courage to hold onto the goodness in themselves and to hold onto the goodness in each other," which is a nice thought, though I'm still waiting for some Nomadland person to explain why David Strathairn's character wasn't crushed by medical bills. Tyler Perry won the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, and the audience loudly applauded when he said, "I refuse to hate someone because they are Mexican, Black, or white." (There was a notable quieting of applause when he continued: "I refuse to hate someone because they are a cop.") And My Octopus Teacher taught us the most important lesson of all: Time was robbed!
Soderbergh and his collaborators made a lot of unique decisions with this show. They were working within pandemic restrictions — and, unlike the wildly off-key Golden Globes, this did not feel like a night of helpless navel-gazing from an industry out-of-touch with a year of death and reckoning. But too many obvious decisions served the material poorly. The movies are the stars of the Oscars, yet we didn't get a proper look at the Best Picture nominees until the very end. The great mass of people haven't seen a lot of these films; the great mass of people were probably wondering why The Queen's Gambit wasn't nominated for anything. So there was a missed chance to tantalize viewers with actual footage of actors acting, of scores soaring, of Tenet's visual effects inverting. On a normal Oscar night, a film like News of the World would become its own little subplot, with four nominations offering four distinct chances for viewers to groove onto Tom Hanks' mournful history beard. Even the worst Oscars can depend on tender moments from the In Memoriam montage, a few well-picked seconds of late greats speaking onscreen. Best Picture should come at the end for so many reasons, and now we know the main reason is that someone will always be there to pick up the trophy.
It's painfully obvious that Best Actor was placed last because the producers assumed the late Chadwick Boseman would win. So don't blame Anthony Hopkins for the dull thud of an ending. (Also: He is amazing in The Father.) Blame the producers for their own overplanning. As cool as parts of the evening looked, I wonder if the need to line up everything just so for their swooping camera movements contributed to an odd lack of energy. You felt like everyone was being told to hit way-too-elaborate marks. It was painful, really, to see some nominees stare blankly while they received very long introductions, their eyes darting around the ceiling, wondering what Halle Berry was about to say about them. Just show the movies, man! Oh, but there was that wonderfully symphonic montage of past Oscar nominees like Moonlight, The Fellowship of the Ring, Tree of Life, and Moonlight — wait, no, those clips were for a freaking Rolex commercial.
I preferred the loopy, improvised, half-crazy energy of the evening's only real extended comedy sketch. Lil Rel Howery and Questlove hosted a musical game. Audience members had to guess: Was this song an Oscar winner, a nominee, or a snub? Andra Day said something bleepable about the cultural improbability of a "Purple Rain" victory. "I don't know how much that cost you, ABC," Howery said, "But it happened!" He moved on to Kaluuya, his Get Out costar, and they had a surprisingly in-depth remembrance of Get Out's ending. Glenn Close, Kaluuya's tablemate, said he was too young to remember Donna Summer. Close danced "Da Butt," a moment so staged and so ridiculous and so magic. Imagine: A talented comedian doing riffs with the crowd and then performing prepared dialogue with a famous movie star. What an idea! Maybe the Oscars should try more of that. Perhaps the comedian could reappear throughout the show, like some sort of master of ceremonies — or, as the French say, a "host." Howery looked stunned, clearly realizing his bit had jumped several rails. "It's dope and uncomfortable at the same time!" he exclaimed. Couldn't have summed it up better myself. Grade: B-