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