The 2021 Oscars could have been a disaster. Maybe they should have been a disaster.
Even at the tail end of the Covid-19 pandemic and its associated quarantines, much of the world remains locked down. Holding an awards show in a Los Angeles train station, even at limited capacity and with socially distanced stars, could have come off as tasteless at best.
Yet the awards were actually pretty darn memorable — at least until a last-second upset in a major category ended the night on a downer note. They moved along beautifully, and a team led by head producer Steven Soderbergh (an Oscar-winning director) and director Glenn Weiss (an Emmy winner) came up with a show that looked a little bit like a movie that was being made about the very awards show you were watching. At its best, the telecast had a pizzazz and effortless cool to it that the Oscars rarely achieve. And even at its worst, it was still interesting.
Also notably, the night had no runaway winners. Nomadland led the victors with only three prizes, and every Best Picture nominee save one — The Trial of the Chicago 7 — won at least one Oscar. It was an evenly split year, perhaps fitting for a ceremony where lots of viewers hadn’t seen any of the films.
So here are the highs and lows of the 2021 Oscars, in the form of seven winners and four losers.
Winner: The wild, wacky production that somehow worked
The Oscars are — well, let’s just say it: They’re usually very predictable. Some people win, some people lose. Everyone stands dead center in the stage, with the camera shooting straight on, then occasionally cutting to the audience in search of a good reaction from some attendee. The camera moves in big arcs when a presenter walks out onto the stage. Some people give good speeches, some give bad ones. The whole thing looks and feels pretty stolid.
(Except when someone announces the wrong winner, but we don’t have to talk about that.)
But this year, the producers told us, things would be different. With the show moved mostly to Los Angeles’s Union Station, instead of its usual spot at the Dolby Theatre, things would be different. The crowd would be smaller. The telecast would look more like “a movie.”
Normally that kind of talk would just register as bluster, but this year’s producers meant business. They were a triple-threat trio: longtime film producer Stacey Sher (whose credits include many of Quentin Tarantino’s films), veteran TV producer Jesse Collins (who, among other things, has produced many Grammys and BET Awards ceremonies), and Steven Soderbergh (whose reputation as an innovative filmmaker led to his recent appointment to lead the Directors Guild’s Covid-safe production committee).
Soderbergh’s hand felt particularly evident in the show, and not just because Best Original Screenplay winner Emerald Fennell apologized to him from the stage for not having written out an acceptance speech. He’s known for being a hyper-detailed force as both a writer and director (he frequently writes, directs, produces, and even shoots his own work) and an inveterate experimenter (several of his recent films have been shot entirely on iPhones, for instance). Coupled with Sher and Collins, whose combined experience boded well, the promise to make the Oscars look more like a movie seemed … well, at least plausible.
And as it turns out, they did it. They broadcast the show in widescreen format and with a frame rate of 24 frames per second; if that means nothing to you, then congratulations, you’re a normal person, and all you need to know is that it’s the standard that most films use. Even people who don’t recognize “fps” as a term are used to seeing movies at that speed, so the visual language communicated that this year’s Oscars were a little different.
But the producers’ innovations went way beyond the frame rate. The camera moved subtly but with an interesting sweep and perspective throughout the show, whether it was framing the performers off-center or slowly tracking through the pared-down crowd. As Riz Ahmed announced the winner for Best Sound, the camera panned down to let the viewers see the card in the envelope that named the winner — something that doesn’t typically happen at the Oscars.
A truly fantastic long tracking shot started the show, with Regina King marching through Union Station and into the room where attendees were gathered at socially distanced banquettes. Credits rolled over her entrance, announcing the “stars,” a.k.a. the evening’s presenters. If it felt like an Oceans movie, well, consider who directed the first three (contemporary) Oceans movies. It wasn’t the only long tracking shot in the film — er, show — but it definitely set the tone. (I screamed a little.)
At some point it started to feel more like we were watching a movie about an awards show than a TV show broadcasting some stuff happening on a stage in Los Angeles, and that was intoxicating. This year, the Oscars had a distinct role to play: They needed to create excitement about the return of the film industry after a devastating year, and they needed to remind people why they love movies in the first place. Most likely, their viewership still dropped. But if nothing else, they reminded us what movies look, feel, and sound like — and why they’re so fun to watch. —Alissa Wilkinson
Loser: Acting clips
For as much as many of the bold choices made by the Oscars’ production team paid off, one choice seemed a bit baffling to many viewers in a year when the movies nominated were not widely seen: the absence of acting clips.
The various feature film categories — Best International Feature, Best Animated Feature, Best Documentary Feature, and Best Picture — all featured clips of the 23 different films nominated in those categories. But if you wanted to know why, say, Youn Yuh-jung was worthy of winning Best Supporting Actress for her turn in Minari, the Oscars left you a bit high and dry, as she won long before the film’s Best Picture clip (which didn’t feature her) aired.
An acting clip isn’t always a great representation of a performance, to be sure, and some clips will play extremely strangely out of context. (The Best Picture clip from Mank, for instance, seemed like it came from a warm comedy about a marriage, which Mank is not.) But lots and lots of Oscar people haven’t seen this year’s nominated movies. Why did the producers force those viewers to guess as to why these particular performances were nominated? —Emily VanDerWerff
Winner: Nomadland (and Chloé Zhao and Frances McDormand)
For much of the night, it seemed like Nomadland, the year’s Best Picture frontrunner, was a little vulnerable. It lost three of the six categories it was nominated in, and while it wasn’t precisely shocking that it lost Adapted Screenplay to The Father or Cinematography to Mank or Editing to Sound of Metal, losing all three awards sure gave the sense that it wasn’t going to be a juggernaut.
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But in the end, Nomadland won three awards (Directing, Lead Actress, and Best Picture), which turned out to be the most of the night. Those three awards were largely split between two women: Directing winner Chloé Zhao and Lead Actress winner Frances McDormand, both of whom also won Best Picture for their producing work on the film.
Zhao’s wins are notable both because she seemingly came from out of nowhere (well, actually from directing the critically beloved but little-seen 2018 film The Rider) to become one of Hollywood’s most in-demand directors (she’s following up Nomadland with a Marvel movie, of all projects) and because she is only the second woman (after Kathryn Bigelow) and the first woman of color ever to win Best Directing at the Oscars. Her pseudo-documentary style, which lets real people talk about their real lives alongside McDormand playing a fictional character, is unlike any film that’s ever won in this category, and her two Oscars are a cap on a meteoric rise.
McDormand, meanwhile, now has three lead acting Oscars (for Nomadland; 2017’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; and 1996’s Fargo) and a Best Picture Oscar for being one of the main producers on Nomadland. (She both optioned the rights to the book the film is based on and brought Zhao on to direct, which is pretty phenomenal producing.) That gives her one more Oscar than Meryl Streep, though both have three acting Oscars.
If you had asked someone in 2016 if McDormand was about to become queen of the Oscars, I don’t know that they would have said yes. I wouldn’t have. But McDormand showed why she’s become an awards show favorite with two enjoyable and laconic speeches for her two awards, including a moment in her Best Picture acceptance speech when she howled like a wolf in honor of the movie’s recently deceased sound mixer.
Nomadland’s win also pays off the Disney corporation’s decision to invest in Fox Searchlight as its prestige awards arm, as Nomadland not only gave Best Picture to a Disney-owned studio for the first time since Chicago (produced by Disney-owned Miramax) won in 2003 but also will surely drive more viewers to Disney-owned Hulu, where Nomadland is streaming.
And that Disney success is in marked contrast to… —EV
For the past two years, Netflix has had a film with Oscar nominations in the double digits. In 2020, it was The Irishman. In 2021, it was Mank. Both movies received 10 nominations. But out of their 20 total nominations, the two films combined for … two wins, with Mank taking home trophies for Production Design and Cinematography. Cinematography, in particular, is one of the more prestigious technical prizes at the Oscars, but neither of those awards is even at the level of, say, Best Adapted Screenplay.
It gets worse. The streamer also saw six nominations a piece for Marriage Story in 2020 and The Trial of the Chicago 7 in 2021, and of those 12 total nominations, the two films combined for … one win (Laura Dern’s Best Supporting Actress trophy for Marriage Story). In fact, The Trial of the Chicago 7 was the only Best Picture nominee at the 2021 Oscars to take home zero prizes.
Is it possible to argue that Netflix gets a greater benefit from having a bunch of nominations in its corner, because its 35 nominations at the 2021’s awards can all be promoted on Netflix as “Oscar nominee”? Sure. And Netflix did win the most awards of any studio this year by taking home seven prizes, including Best Documentary Feature for My Octopus Teacher. (Disney came in second with five awards — three for Fox Searchlight’s Nomadland and two for Pixar’s Soul.)
But at a certain point, Netflix’s success with nominations should start translating into high-profile wins, right? And so far, that just hasn’t been the case. The streamer has still only won prizes in the top eight categories twice — Directing for Alfonso Cuarón and Roma in 2019 and Dern for Marriage Story in 2020. What will Netflix have to do for that to change? —EV
Winner: Letting acceptance speeches go long