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A Restrained but Revitalized 2021 Oscars Ceremony

The auteur theory of Oscar broadcasts asserted itself last night with a giddy vengeance. The show’s co-producer, Steven Soderbergh, had promised something unusual in this unusual year, and he delivered an idiosyncratic Oscar broadcast, whose blend of peculiarity and forced gaiety fulfilled his plan for a movie-like experience. In lieu of the usual venue of the Dolby Theatre, where nominees and their guests sit elbow to elbow in serried ranks, this year’s edition was held in Los Angeles’s cavernous Union Station. For the occasion, it was converted into a ballroom-like setting that allowed for the necessary social distancing. The resulting affair was intimate: presenters stood not on a stage in front of the room but on the floor of the multilevel array of round tables and banquettes, among the nominees and guests. The effect, from the start, was low-key and relatively informal, despite the star power that filled the room and the snazzy gowns and suits and styles that adorned it. The paradoxical tone, of glamour looking at itself in the face and wondering what are we all doing here, meshed aptly with the modest yet starry movies that the Academy celebrated, principally “Nomadland,” which took Best Picture, Directing, and Actress in a Leading Role.

Viewership of the Oscars has been shrinking for years. Though the numbers for Sunday night’s broadcast aren’t in yet, anticipations were dire, largely because of the sheer lack of movie buzz in a year when theatrical viewing was vastly diminished—and big-name movies were held out of circulation as a result. Yet it’s also a result of the kinds of movie that were nominated this year, ones that, even under the best of circumstances, would likely not have been multiplex hits. This is a trend that the Academy hoped to reverse, in 2018, when it considered introducing to the ceremony the kinds of popular movies—superhero movies, franchise movies—that are usually left out, specifically under the rubric of “Best Popular Movie.” It didn’t happen—the backlash was loud and derisive—but the mere idea suggests a crisis in Hollywood filmmaking today. There are studios mainly making mass-market movies that are heavily managed from the executive suite and that allow directors, actors, and writers little leeway, and they’re not the movies that members of the Academy are proud enough of to put forth as the best that the industry has to offer. (Soderbergh himself is working for Netflix and HBO Max these days, with a great deal of artistic freedom and relatively low budgets.)

The most powerful fiction that Hollywood ever crafted is that of the mainstream, a dominant audience that consumes its entertainments in large and dependable numbers and identifies with them as a sort of secular scripture. That mainstream, which used to be what was reliably, too reliably, honored at the Oscars, was, in fact, based on exclusions—and, fortunately, the Academy has worked hard, in the light of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, to overcome them. If the political tendencies of the Academy this year were manifested in many of its major awards (including to Daniel Kaluuya, as Best Supporting Actor, for his role as the Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in “Judas and the Black Messiah,” and the prize for Best Original Screenplay to Emerald Fennell for her rape-revenge drama “Promising Young Woman”), they were replicated in the ceremony’s mandatory mask-wearing, which is as politically divisive as any of the movies being honored.

In past years, the Academy has sought to make its ceremonies brisker and briefer in the hopes of attracting a younger audience. Soderbergh made this year’s ceremony brisk and—if not exactly brief (it clocked in at three hours and sixteen minutes)—then at least kinetic, with roving cameras, Steadicam shots following award winners heading to the corridors, and a stripped-down presentation largely devoid of film clips, except for the major categories. (He also tweaked the ceremony’s finale to dramatic effect, putting the Best Picture award ahead of the two for the best leading actress and actor—and the absence of Anthony Hopkins, who won the last Oscar of the night for his role in “The Father,” brought the ceremony to a sudden, piquant drop-off.) But the cinematic swirl and faux-casual air couldn’t conceal the grim spectre of the pandemic, or of the political tensions that are at the fore of public life. Regina King, in introductory remarks, movingly alluded to the verdict in the trial of Derek Chauvin and her own sense of fear as the mother of a Black son. Marlee Matlin, in presenting the documentary awards (using A.S.L.), cited the cell-phone video recording by Darnella Frazier of the murder of George Floyd as exemplary documentary filmmaking.

The nearly shtick-free ceremony had one comedic sidebar, a music-trivia collaboration between Questlove (the event’s music director) and Lil Rel Howery. They called on the nominees for answers, and—in a bit that was later revealed to be scripted—got Glenn Close to riff on the song “Da Butt,” from Spike Lee’s “School Daze,” then to do the accompanying dance. The display prompted Howery to joke, “This is the blackest Oscars of all time.” His comment brought to mind the 1988 Oscars, when Eddie Murphy, presenting the award for Best Picture, called out the Academy for its failure to recognize Black artists. He also said that he assumed that his remarks would prevent him from ever getting an Oscar. To date, he’s right—but other Black artists and artists of color have followed in his footsteps, to make the awards, and the American cinema, begin to resemble the country over all rather than an oppressive, dominant segment of it. If this is the new mainstream that Academy members aspire to forge, more power to them.


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