What just happened at the Oscars?

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It feels like a lifetime ago when Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite triumphed and became the first non-English language film to win Best Picture, which was probably the last good thing to happen before COVID crashed the party. Since then, this year’s Oscars was postponed for two months and forced to adapt to COVID restrictions. The Academy controversially adopted a No Zoom policy and reluctantly allowed nominees who couldn’t attend the ceremony in Los Angeles to virtually attend from hubs in London and Paris.

Steven Soderbergh was hired to direct the ceremony, which is no easy task in the best of times, let alone at the present, but the results were…awkward to say the least. There was a slew of changes and tweaks to the ceremony, most notably cutting the performances of the Best Original Song nominees, giving biographies of the nominees after their names were announced, and rearranging the order of categories. And strangely, the in-memoriam segment was notably shorter for some names than others. All of this, the stripped-back ceremony, and the continuation of the host-less format made for an event devoid of much levity.

The big winner proved to be Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, long seen as this year’s front runner, winning a grand total of three awards including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Lead Actress. Nomadland has recently been made available on Disney+ and you can look forward to Zhao’s next film, Marvel’s The Eternals, later this year. Importantly, Zhao has made history as the first Asian woman (and only the second woman after Kathryn Bigelow) to win Best Director.

This year marked the first time since 2006 that no film won more than three awards. This had the unexpected benefit of ensuring the awards were fairly spread out, with the only Best Picture nominee to go home completely empty-handed being Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7. Emerald Fennell’s masterful revenge thriller Promising Young Woman took home Best Original Screenplay, with The Father winning Best Adapted Screenplay. The awards for Costuming and Hair and Makeup deservedly went to Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Animated Feature and Original Score predictably went to Pixar’s Soul, Cinematography and Production Design to David Fincher’s Mank, the excellent Sound of Metal swept the Sound and Editing categories, and an absence of big effects-driven blockbusters cleared the field for Tenet to take home Best Visual Effects.

This year’s acting categories proved to be unusually competitive. Best Supporting Actress saw Glenn Close and Olivia Colman squaring off once again, this time alongside Amanda Seyfried for Mank, newcomer Maria Bakalova for Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, and veteran of Korean cinema Youn Yuh-jung for Minari. Seyfried once seemed like the early favourite, but Mank’s tepid reception shifted the conversation to Close vs Colman Round 2. It’s 2021 and Glenn Close still doesn’t have an Oscar and that’s a travesty, but it seems making up for lost time wasn’t enough to overcome the fact that while her performance in Hillbilly Elegy was praised, the film itself was critically reviled, currently standing at 26% on Rotten Tomatoes and also garnering Close a Razzie nomination.

Seeing Bakalova nominated was an unexpected pleasure. It’s so infuriatingly rare that performances in full-blown comedies get the awards recognition they deserve, and Bakalova more than earned her place in this category. Bakalova, a Bulgarian actress with little prior experience, successfully held her own opposite Sacha Baron Cohen, who’s been playing the character of Borat for over a decade and pioneering this style of prank comedy and social satire even longer. In one of the highlights of the night, Youn Yuh-jung went on to win the category and became the first Korean to win an Oscar in an acting category. This is long overdue considering that even Korean language films like Parasite, which swept last year’s ceremony, had zero acting nominations despite its performances being universally praised.

On the other hand, Best Supporting Actor was less competitive this year. Daniel Kaluuya’s compelling turn as Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah was long seen as the frontrunner. He was joined by Sacha Baron Cohen for The Trial of the Chicago 7, Leslie Odom Jr. as Sam Cooke in One Night in Miami, character actor Paul Raci in Sound of Metal, a performance that makes significant use of American sign language, and…LaKeith Stanfield for Judas and the Black Messiah. Stanfield’s starring role received widespread acclaim, so seeing him nominated was no surprise, but seeing him nominated for Supporting Actor rather than Lead raised eyebrows everywhere. Regardless, Kaluuya went on to easily win the category.

The initial frontrunner for Best Actress was Viola Davis in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, where she once again proved herself to be one of the greatest performers alive. The category was rounded out by Vanessa Kirby and Andra Day, but the two floated as potential upsets were Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman and Frances McDormand in Nomadland. McDormand won her third Best Lead Actress award, giving her one more win in this category than Meryl Streep and only one less than Katharine Hepburn. But still, Davis and Day’s losses are a bitter pill to swallow considering that this category in its 93 years of existence only has one non-white winner, Halle Berry 19 years ago.

And then they got to Best Actor, which had been moved to last when Best Picture is ordinarily announced. This rearrangement signalled that the producers were anticipating that Chadwick Boseman would posthumously win for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and end the night on a bittersweet note. Instead, we got the uncomfortable anti-climax of the award going to Anthony Hopkins who wasn’t present, leaving Joaquin Phoenix to end the ceremony in what was probably the most uncomfortable Oscars moment since the La La Land envelope mix-up.

It’s a classic story of a career-best performance being passed over to instead reward an industry favourite with a cabinet full of statuettes, but this time comes with the tragic consequence that Chadwick Boseman will never win his well-deserved Oscar. The Academy voters had their chance and they squandered it. But it didn’t end there. The producers turned the late Boseman’s face into an NFT in a “tribute” and included it in every nominee’s gift bag, turning his death into a commodity. The order of the ceremony was restructured to capitalise on Boseman’s death and in the end, they never even gave him the award.

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