An Unusual Show for an Unusual Year: Thoughts on the 93rd Academy Awards

by Ken Bakely

Jesse Collins, Stacey Sher, and Steven Soderbergh had an unenviable task in producing the 2021 Oscars. With the traditional templates for devising a ceremony out of commission, even down to the venue, they had to figure out a way to keep the show as glossy as possible while working within the circumstances. Soderbergh said that he wanted the ceremony to be like a movie, and as the evening began, it felt like we were getting just that, as presenter Regina King led us in a tracking shot through Los Angeles’s Union Station as an opening credits sequence rolled in the show’s cinematic aspect ratio (video above). In the ceremony’s main venue – the station’s former ticket lobby – attendees were seated at rows of tables, and presenters freely traversed the space, giving the show an intimate, improvisational, and yet elegant feel. In short, it was everything the Golden Globes wish they could be. The on-screen talent were poised and charismatic; the location was well-appointed. The show’s best moments arguably came when the close-up format allowed the nominees and winners more of a chance to shine. I don’t think a single speech was played off, which is good, because many of the speeches were insightful and worthwhile.

The problems were in the details; if this ceremony actually was a film, it would feel like a rough cut. The award presentations could be awkward and inconsistent – nominees were either introduced with the customary clips, speeches remarking on their backgrounds and accomplishments, or a simple list of them, seemingly without a pattern as to what would be used for each category – and the show lacked an overall structure. The evening’s only traditional comedy bit, which saw music director Questlove and Lil Rel Howery quiz attendees on famous songs from movies, was strangely slotted towards the end of the show as things were starting to wrap up, instead of towards the start, where it could have helped settle the audience in for the evening (though when it came to Glenn Close’s turn to join in, she certainly delivered).

But perhaps the single biggest miscalculation came at the very end, as the production team made the fateful choice to move Best Picture to third-from-last in order to present Best Actor as the evening’s final prize. There has been speculation that this was so frontrunner Chadwick Boseman would be posthumously awarded an Oscar in the ceremony’s closing moments, and it could hypothetically be a way for there to be front-and-center attention for the Academy’s rewarding of a brilliant final performance from a remarkable artist who we lost far too soon. The problem is that Boseman did not win: the award went to Anthony Hopkins, for his (still very good!) performance in The Father. Hopkins was not present at the ceremony, leading presenter Joaquin Phoenix to awkwardly close the show on a palpable anti-climax. If this was indeed the plan, then it was an act of astonishing hubris on the part of the producers in making such a choice. It was bewildering to watch and seemed more than a little disrespectful to everyone involved.

The problem with such big debacles at awards shows is that the circumstances invariably overshadow the winners– see, well, the Best Picture envelope fiasco at the Oscars from four years ago – and it would be unfair to the winners to not mention them. In the acting categories, Hopkins, Frances McDormand, Yuh-jung Youn, and Daniel Kaluuya are all highly deserving winners who gave stupendous performances. Nomadland might not have been my personal choice for best film of the year, but I certainly don’t harbor bad feelings about it winning, and am happy to see Chloé Zhao become the first woman of color to win Best Director.

As for my predictions, which you can find at Film Pulse, I scored 17 out of 23, for a 74% accuracy rate. I faltered in the unpredictable Best Actress category, though I did go into the show knowing that just about anything could happen there. As for Best Actor, I knew that there was a late groundswell of support for The Father – I even offhandedly mention it in my piece, when I predicted it to win Best Adapted Screenplay – but I did not think it would be enough to tip the balance for Hopkins. I knew that his stock was rapidly increasing as the Oscars drew near – I very briefly mention it in my Best Actor prediction, before just as quickly dismissing it – and within the last day or so before the ceremony, I genuinely began to think there was a serious chance of an upset (though I never actually changed my mind, and I had already locked in my predictions, anyway). I can console myself that most of my other losses were ones where a “safe frontrunner” lost, though I did look at a roughly even race in Best Editing between two contenders, and ended up going the wrong way.

Overall, the Oscars this year were always destined to be strange, and they certainly were highly unorthodox, but not always in ways that felt unwelcome. However, I think most (myself included) will probably want to leave it as the historical curiosity that it is.