Oscars 2021: Film critics chip in on ceremony's 'desperate' need for approval in a post-pandemic atmosphere
'It was impossible to tell if the 2021 Oscars was meant to signal an acknowledgement of pandemic circumstances or a guarded return to normal,' say NYT critics
On the morning after a very odd Oscars, we asked AO Scott, co-chief film critic, and Wesley Morris, critic at large, to discuss what they made of it all. The ceremony was always going to be unusual because of pandemic-related limitations, but it ended in one of the biggest letdowns in memory: when best actor, not best picture, was the final award of the night, and the winner was an absent Anthony Hopkins, not the expected Chadwick Boseman. Here’s what our critics said:
AO Scott: I’m trying to remember how I felt during most of the show, which was like a long, awkward but not entirely unenjoyable dinner party that I wasn’t sure I’d actually been invited to. But we have to start at the end. The only explanation is that Steven Soderbergh and the other producers of the telecast were, like many of us, confident that Chadwick Boseman would take best actor, and envisioned a concluding tableau of pride and pathos, combining grief and celebration. Even Joaquin Phoenix’s terse introductions of the best-actor nominees, after Renée Zellweger’s prose paeans to the best-actress contenders, seemed to set up a sombre, sublime moment.
What happened was more than just anticlimactic. Hopkins’ award and the best-actress Oscar for Frances McDormand (Nomadland), while both entirely defensible on the merits, also sent a message. The academy is only willing to go so far in the direction of the new. And apart from the Nomadland triumph for best picture (which we’ll get to), this seemed like a pretty standard Oscars, notwithstanding the weird format. The “edgy” movie (Promising Young Woman) gets a screenplay consolation prize, actors of colour (Daniel Kaluuya, Yuh-Jung Youn) get supporting wins, but for the most part, I’m reminded of the lyric to a song that Billie Holiday used to sing. “Them that’s got shall have. Them that’s not shall lose.” I guess that still is news.
Wesley Morris: Strangely, sadly, yes. And yet of those five actors, it makes all the sense in the world for Anthony Hopkins to have won. He’s titanic in The Father. His work there is like a fever dream of disorientation that was also probably in the average voter’s geriatric wheelhouse. Meanwhile, Chadwick Boseman — all of that unbridled zeal in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom came down to a promise that the academy couldn’t keep. And like Adele and Billie Eilish at the Grammys, Anthony Hopkins is left to atone for sins not of his making.
That, of course, becomes the problem with these presumed coronations, whether they’re aimed at Lauren Bacall, Glenn Close or the legacy of Chadwick Boseman. Oscars gonna Oscar. And when it comes to the academy’s enduring award practices, especially with respect to Black people and best acting, I’m not sure anybody can count on enough of 9,000 people to do even the cosmetic reparative work.
Viola Davis gave the best performance of those 14 eligibility months. She was Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, without the landscape of a such a monument. Yet there was monumentality in even the snarling she does in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a movie about the very injustices of art-industry credit, recognition and respect that, year after year, this broadcast faces down and often finds a way to turn into a fiasco.
If the final minutes of this show really did feel like something of a moral massacre — the comparisons to the finales of Game of Thrones and The Sopranos are out there; it was more like Sex and the City to me — that was because there was no time to process the surprising yet not unanticipated outcome. The show ended first in a spree (best actor and actress took, what, three minutes?), then in a mass heart attack. Then: Credits!
Tony, do you find any symbolism or admission of crisis in the demotion of best picture to the third-to-last category? What besides honouring Chadwick Boseman did that mean?
Scott: That decision underlined what has been evident over the past few years, which is that there is no coherent narrative about what movies are and why we should care about them — no enabling myth or ideology — that the broadcast could invoke. Nobody really knows what they’re supposed to be doing, and so the night becomes an anthology of odd beats and non-sequiturs, some baffling (Bryan Cranston in the empty Dolby Theater), some marvellous (Daniel Kaluuya’s mom with the reaction GIF for the ages), some a little of both (Glenn Close and “Da Butt”). These bits unfold not in an atmosphere of glamorous self-confidence, but in a mood of sweaty panic. You can feel the show tugging at your sleeve, begging for approval: Is this working? Is this OK? How about this?
The desperation was especially acute after the confusion and anxiety of the last year. Movie theatres shut down. Festivals went virtual. The already wobbly boundary between television and cinema all but collapsed. All in the midst of a public health emergency, sweeping protests and boiling political passions. What is an awards broadcast even supposed to look like? It was impossible to tell if this show was meant to signal an acknowledgement of pandemic circumstances or a guarded return to normal. Probably both, which only made it worse. The best-picture slate — an eclectic blend of interesting movies, plus The Trial of the Chicago 7 — might have looked like a liability. Had anyone seen these pictures? Did anyone know what they were?
In the streaming era, it’s hard to find the answer. But if movies are in existential limbo, at least there are still movie stars. Maybe the message in giving them the hoped-for big finish was equally a hedge, a reminder and a promise. We like these people, and we’ll look forward to seeing them again in better times.
Morris: Boy, do I hope you’re right. But it was such a perplexing night for showing those off, too. It had that great opening with Regina King picking up a statue, then taking charge, first guided by Soderbergh’s priorities of motion and verve, then in deploying her refulgence to honour the screenwriting nominees. A coming attraction for the caper to follow.
But after that start, which promised so much fun and swagger and cinema, the show became … the Oscars. But even less so than usual, since after that opening strut, there wasn’t even very much television on display. The seminal cutaway to Kaluuya’s mother was wonderful, and the glimpse of Chloé Zhao in the background of someone else’s close-up, back at her table after being named best director, still stunned, shaking her head in disbelief that, indeed, she is an Oscar winner, was a fleeting highlight. I just don’t know what the show wanted us to know about the academy or the movies. It felt defensive and desperate and hubristically abstemious. No musical performances! No comedians! No clips of anybody doing any acting!
There was no bait for anyone to stick around. When you tune in to watch the Super Bowl or a debate, you know at least what the stakes are. You have a sense of somebody’s narrative. Last night was the night for some kind of MC to guide us through what mattered, to make a case for remaining tuned in. This used to be the greatest commercial Hollywood could concoct for itself. That sort of pride now feels shameful. That’s in part because the industry, courtesy of this show, has a lot to reconsider in terms of who’s doing what both in the C-suites and among the craft guilds. But it’s also because the industry continues to forsake itself.
I mean, it’s eight years to the week that Steven Soderbergh, in a major speech at the San Francisco International Film Festival, tolled the movies’ death knell, at least as he saw it. And there he was last night helping do the academy’s custodial work after having proved himself highly adaptable to whatever it is cinema, to use his term, is becoming — or being turned into. Am I overstating this? Are we beyond the point of no return when it comes to any of these distinctions? Should a Steven Soderbergh, one of our great filmmakers and sharpest thinkers about film as a philosophy, just be happy to have a job at this point?
Scott: But what, really, is the shape of that crisis? Whatever the preoccupations and blind spots of our jobs, you and I are people who like movies. In 14 months since the last time we did this, I’ve liked a lot of movies, including a handful — “Nomadland,” “Minari,” “Judas and the Black Messiah” — that took home some statues. Those aren’t just good movies; they’re also movies that seem to me to hold a lot of promise for the future of the art form, whether audiences find them on big screens or small.
Morris: Right, Tony. I’m surrendering to the inevitable when it comes to where a movie plays. All I want is the little bit of everything a work of art can offer — surprise, insight, expansions of time, space, humanity or actors’ waistlines — to take me somewhere I couldn’t have otherwise found myself. Most of those best-picture nominees were from relative newbies, folks making their first or second or third movie. Imagine how much stronger, more daring they could be, more determined to reshape the art form itself. Starting conversations that will go on to include and inspire filmmakers we’ve yet to hear from.
Scott: But then I hear the canard that Hollywood doesn’t entertain the way it used to, that it’s sacrificed movie magic on the altar of wokeness or whatever — a point of view recently advanced by Bill Maher and some of the sources in a recent column by Maureen Dowd — and I wonder if the problem is something other than the rise of Netflix or the impossibility of finding a credible host. The Oscars would rather be anything other than a culture-war battleground, but at the moment that doesn’t seem possible.
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