Oscars 2021: Anthony Hopkins' Best Actor win over Chadwick Boseman places merit above political niceties, posthumous tributes
Should the performance of an actor who unfortunately died before the awards ceremony be lauded over a better enactment by an ageing actor who also happens to be alive?
Given what a weird year 2020 has been, it was really no surprise that the Academy Awards that honours the best in cinema, also reflects the bizarreness of our times. Because art imitates life and all that jazz, right? Well, we will find out.
Many films that were nominated this year had some wonderful performances, but in my not-so humble opinion, none of them really stood out as clear winners in most of the acting categories. If the fight was a tough one in the Best Actress category, it was not because the race was that close. Viola Davis and Vanessa Kirby were intense in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Pieces of a Woman respectively, Andra Day was convincing as Billie Holiday in The United States vs Billie Holiday, Carey Mulligan was refreshing as a friend seeking revenge for her bestie in the very unique Promising Young Woman, while Frances McDormand played Frances McDormand in Nomadland.
Taking no credit away (or maybe a little) from Frances’ win, she is played this kind of role so many times before that it has become a Frances thing to do. Sometimes even in real life. We love her as an actress and as a person because she does not conform to the mainstream expectation of a Hollywood star onscreen and off it too. We live vicariously through her offbeat choices but somewhere today, her award for Nomadland seems like a popular pick… something that goes against her very raison d’etre. Does that mean the popular and the pioneering cannot meet? No, it does not. But was hers really such an outstanding performance or was there a struggle to pick a winner? Only the Academy can answer that.
Somewhere through the glorious festival of inclusion where Korean actors and Chinese directors, female directors, and Black makeup and hair artists were deservedly rewriting history, the randomness of the Oscars programming saw the Best Picture category being awarded much before those of Best Actress and Best Actor. In the last 70 years, the Best Picture Award has been the last of the finale, barring the time in 1971 when Charlie Chaplin won an Honorary Award.
It was almost like the Oscars morphed into the Filmfare Awards, whose idea of the final and most anticipated award of the night has largely been Best Actor. You cannot really blame a “hero”-worshipping industry like Bollywood (read: patriarchal) but coming from the Academy in 2021, that has spent many of the recent years trying to be politically correct — including this one — this programming decision seems unnecessary. And bizarre.
Award ceremonies like the Oscars and the Grammys are increasingly widening the circle of nominees and winners to include more coloured people and women, so much so that many a time sentimentality has trumped logic in the award distributing process. In a bid to look like they are doing the right thing, they end up awarding slightly less deserving candidates to make sure they have covered their checklist of potential “offendees." Riding high on this recent perennial wave of political correctness, was the final award for the night: Best Actor.
There has been an overwhelming chorus of support for the late Chadwick Boseman to win Best Actor, trouncing Anthony Hopkins (The Father), Riz Ahmed (Sound of Metal), Gary Oldman (Mank), and Steven Yeun (Minari) in the process. Apart from his own commanding performance as Levee Green, his role won top honours at both the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guilds Awards, making it a frontrunner in the Best Actor category at the Academy Awards as well.
He was a Black nominee along with a British Asian Muslim actor and a Korean actor, a fact that was also very visible to the voting members of the awards as well as moviegoers. That he tragically passed away last year following a private battle with colon cancer made the chorus of support louder for a posthumous felicitation. And now, I am at a loss of finding the most tactful way of saying that death has always boosted one’s brand value and market appreciation in the world of entertainment.
Not awarding them after their passing is often seen as disrespectful to the departed, but isn’t the award ceremony about felicitating the best performance of the year in every category?
Should the performance of an actor who unfortunately died before the awards ceremony be lauded over a better enactment by an ageing actor who also happens to be alive? Should an old white man’s performance be overlooked in the quest for polite niceties when there is death and being Black looming in the background? Because honestly, this fight was down to Boseman and Hopkins. Oldman’s performance in Mank was no Winston Churchill, Ahmed put up a great performance but somewhere deep down, he knew that there were slightly better ones whereas Yeun was just about alright in Minari.
Boseman’s performance was no mind-blowing portrayal like Heath Ledger’s was in The Dark Knight. Back in 2009, most of us were so overwhelmed by Ledger’s Joker, who was competing with Josh Brolin (Milk), Robert Downey Jr (Tropic Thunder), Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road), and the inimitable Philip Seymour Hoffman (Doubt). His win was guaranteed even if he were alive to pick up his trophy. That was not the case with Boseman’s performance when we first watched the film. We missed him, we loved him, and we wanted him to be honoured rightfully.
The Father was released in India on 23 April, almost as an after-thought to ensure the viewing audiences get to see all the nominees ahead of the Oscars on the morning on 26 April. The film was released in the UK in June 2020 and the US in February 2021. With so much pressure riding on Boseman’s impending (almost sure-shot) win and Oscars’ predilection for appearing to look “just” these days, the late actor’s victory in the Best Actor category seemed like a foregone conclusion.
The most honest act by the Academy Awards in the face of overwhelming expectation then was to give the award to Hopkins. Essaying the role of a man struggling to accept his own dementia in The Father, Hopkins has won much critical praise for the delicate nature with which he showcases his world and his point of view in the film. The confusion, the frustration, the self-pride, the poignancy, and dealing with the idea of mortality requires the deftness that only someone of Hopkins’ stature can bring to the role. There is absolutely no comparison between the nuanced performance of Hopkins and the effective dramatisation displayed by Boseman in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
The rightful Best Actor won, and that in no way disrespects the immensely talented deceased. Just for getting that difference right, the Academy has redeemed itself of many of its questionable choices over the years. Perhaps that is why it chose to keep the category as the final one of the ceremony.
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