EW's 2021 Oscars issue: Your guide to Hollywood's biggest night

How a historically diverse — and artistically thrilling — set of Oscar nominees beat the pandemic-clouded odds.

For months, it was the Oscars that shouldn't go on: too many delayed releases, not enough movies worth honoring, theaters facing an existential threat. Washington Post op-eds and endless Twitter wars and brewing fatigue over Zoom awards shows all came to the conclusion that Hollywood's biggest night should consider, maybe, taking a year off.

Then March's diverse, vibrant nominations arrived — the sort of groundbreaking group that makes you forget what all that hand-wringing was about. The milestones feel exciting, if profoundly overdue.

Following an awards season like no other, the Nomadland director is poised for a triumphant finish.

A record nine people of color make up the 20 acting slots, including the first-ever Korean nominee in Yuh-Jung Youn (Minari), the first-ever Muslim Best Actor nominee in Riz Ahmed (Sound of Metal), and the first time that two Black men were nominated for their performances in the same movie (Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield, Judas and the Black Messiah). In the directing category, as had been cautiously predicted by many for months, multiple women were cited in the same race — Promising Young Woman's Emerald Fennell and Nomadland's Chloé Zhao. This too had never happened before.

Davis' performance in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom cements her as the most Oscar-nominated Black actress ever.

The latter is our overwhelming frontrunner, herself groundbreaking; in 93 years of Oscars, Zhao is now the first female directing nominee of color and first woman to receive four Oscar nominations in a single year — for producing, directing, writing, and editing Nomadland. The elegiac road drama starring Frances McDormand — also a multinominee, as producer-actress — is well positioned to build on Parasite's historic Best Picture victory last year. (The South Korean thriller is the only non-English-language film to win the award.) Amid a treacherous time for the industry, Nomadland had a serendipitous journey to Oscar success: a fall-festival premiere at a drive-in screening; a last-minute bounce to streaming (Hulu) to find enough eyeballs; and a six-month-plus stretch of virtual campaign events to get the word out.

Right after winning an Academy Award for her acting, King directed her debut feature film, One Night in Miami..., to three Oscar nominations. Is there anything this woman can't do?

The pre-2020 movie marketplace, dominated by tentpoles, crushed most smaller indies' chances of standing out. But the pandemic offered low-budget players an opportunity to fight back. Best Picture nominees such as The Father and Sound of Metal were viewed as acting plays when they launched more than a year ago at various festivals. Character-driven films made in a handful of days under severely restrictive conditions, they embarked on lengthy release paths (bolstered by the uptick in at-home viewing via streamers and VOD) that wound toward well-earned recognition.

The Sound of Metal star, 38, on inhabiting a demanding role — and how the film uses sound to take the audience on his character's harrowing journey: I spent seven months, every day, just full-time learning [American Sign Language and how to play drums].… When I started becoming more fluent in ASL, I found myself getting much more emotional talking about things than I would if I was just using words. We [also] had Nicolas Becker, who is one of the most brilliant sound designers in the world. [He came] up to me with this weird contraption that he's made in his lab. Puts it against my chest and says, "Blink and breathe. And now hold your breath so I can hear your heartbeat. Now lick your lips. Now swallow." So much in the auditory landscape of this film is actually constructed from [my character] Ruben's body. It's like literally being inside his head. And it's something that's necessary as well. Because often when people are in that liminal space of losing their external hearing, they still have a lot of their vibrational hearing of their internal bodily processes. So it very much places you in the cockpit with Ruben as he's going through this experience. That, paired with the camerawork, turns it almost into a first-person movie experience, which I think helps really make it feel so visceral. —AS TOLD TO CLARISSA CRUZ

The inclusion of so many projects rigorously and artfully exploring Black history in America felt particularly prescient, as they reached viewers in the wake of nationwide protests over institutional racism and police brutality. In a first for an Oscar winning actor, Regina King helmed her debut film, One Night in Miami…, to three major Oscar nominations — and had safely completed production on it during the height of COVID-19's spread, vowing to release the movie in a moment when the conversations it sparks, about Black lives and dignity and power, would ring so urgent, necessary, and true.

The Promising Young Woman nominee, 35, reveals how she broke the film's tension with costar Bo Burnham — singing a rendition of Paris Hilton's "Stars Are Blind": The prep was like, "Here's a printed sheet of the words, go and learn it!" [Director Emerald Fennell] put Bo on one side of an aisle and me on the other [and said], "We have clearance for all of these products, so do what you want with them!" We just went into it. I was very resistant at the beginning and kept hiding behind my character, saying, "Cassie would never do this!" But two takes in, Emerald came and gave me a telling-off, and told me that I needed to enter into the spirit of what we're doing, so I was like, "Okay, fine, I'll do it." And it was very good fun! We were popping potato chip bags, but the most exciting thing that day was that Bo had, in an earlier take, picked up a tin of Spam and danced with the Spam. Then we were all in a crisis because we didn't know if we could get clearance for Spam, so the producers were ringing the people from Spam. Word went out on set like, "Guys, we got permission to use Spam!" [Laughs] It was very exciting. The whole crew was humming "Stars Are Blind" for a week afterwards....From the offset, this film has meant a huge lot to me. —AS TOLD TO JOEY NOLFI

That Miami, in a surprise, didn't make the Best Picture cut — and that King couldn't add to the history-making nature of the directing field — speaks to the work that still has to be done. (While other Black-led movies such as Da 5 Bloods and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom landed acting and tech nominations, only the late-breaking studio-backed Judas cracked the top category.) As Best Actress nominee Viola Davis — who just broke the record for acting nominations by a Black woman — says knowingly in her cover interview with EW's Leah Greenblatt: "There's a glass ceiling…. If you get one or two Black performers who win an award, then it's enough — we've made it!"

The two-­time Oscar nominee, 32, on the power — and responsibility — of taking on revolutionary icon Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah: I took this one because it spoke to me. I read the script; that's my North Star in a lot of decisions — how does it make me feel? And I felt [Fred Hampton] as a man: brilliant, wiser than his years. I'd always wanted to take a deep dive into the Black Panther party. It was an incredible opportunity to have the personal meaning about what they represented as opposed to what has been told to me, or what has been tried to be conditioned into me, about who they are. When I was on set, it was a different kind of pressure than I imagined going into it, because [Hampton's partner] would come to set once in a while and his son was there every day. His son never met his dad because he was assassinated weeks before he was born. Just having that every day was a reminder of what we were doing. There's a legacy, there's a family story, there's a community of people who have actively been erased. It keeps you focused and zeroed in on what's the truth. What are we saying here? How are we giving ourselves? Always searching for the truth — I felt that responsibility. —AS TOLD TO DAVID CANFIELD

One thing this slate of contenders is not, however? Unworthy. And so the show must — and should — go on. Here, we celebrate the extraordinary work that reminds us what the Oscars should be about: not the star-packed Dolby Theater or the red-carpet frenzy (though we'll miss those), but the films that transcend and endure.

How the Bulgarian breakout, 24, unleashed her inner wild child — and found her character's heart — during a pivotal scene in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: I think there's a lot of craziness inside of me. I wasn't sure I'd be able to match Sacha [Baron Cohen], because he's one of a kind. I had some difficulties when I was with the amazing Jeanise Jones, my babysitter[in the film]. Production had a lunch break, and they were supposed to take me with them, but I stayed with her. Something inside of me was like, "This woman is such an angel. Should I keep trying to make her feel worried about Tutar?" But [then I told myself] "Okay, stay there, it's going to make an impact. We need examples like her." We're living in a new world where everything is supposed to be possible, and women shouldn't be seen as sexual objects....Through all of the silliness, we can show some issues that aren't quite right, and it's supposed to make us think and act, not only react. I didn't need training, but I tried to learn as much from Sacha as I could. He was my mentor and teacher. [He'd say] "When you start to think people are getting suspicious, just go deep inside the character and focus on what is the most important message of the scene." So maybe Sacha trained me! —AS TOLD TO JOEY NOLFI

For more on the 2021 Oscars race, order the May issue of Entertainment Weekly — with covers featuring Chloé Zhao, Viola Davis, and Regina King — or find it on newsstands beginning April 16, and keep up with EW's Awardist online. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW. 

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