Frontrunners Win, But Surprises Abound: Thoughts on the 94th Academy Awards

by Ken Bakely

I know what you want me to talk about here, and sure, I’ll get to it, but first, let me say this:

It’s actually hard for me to write about this show in total. At first, I felt I just had nothing to say. I suppose this is in part because the decision to eliminate categories from the broadcast represented the strange economics that defined the entire evening. The Academy, producers Will Packer and Shayla Cowan, and ABC held firm to the decision to cut eight categories from the broadcast, despite a chorus of Oscar fans and industry professionals virtually unanimous in their condemnation. They swore it was part of an initiative to keep the show focused, streamlined, and under three hours (and include more comedy bits and musical performances). So they did it, worked clips of the speeches from the affected awards into the broadcast, and what happened? The broadcast was the longest since 2018, and in every one of them in between, all categories got their moment in the sun. 

Bottom line: category-cutting was a failed experiment that should be swiftly written off as the bad idea it was. I say this not as a value judgment, but as a simple statement of fact. It did not meet its intended objective. It should not happen again.

As for the rest of the show, Amy Schumer, Regina Hall, and Wanda Sykes never felt like they were able to come into their own as hosts – early reports that each would get to preside over a specific act of the show turned into more of a jumble. There was certainly some funny stuff, but for a production in search of singular moments you can clip and make viral online, none of the comedy bits, or the musical performances, really stood out on their own.

Now, the Oscars did get a singular moment that viewers clipped and made viral online, but it was not the performance of “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” (which wasn’t even nominated for Best Original Song). I’m going to tread lightly on the Will Smith-Chris Rock altercation, because I think having an in-depth discussion of the event, and how it should be addressed going forward, requires a presence of mind that will absolutely be absent from this story as it makes its frenzied way through the news cycle. I’ll leave it to others who wish to do so. Still, writing this in the first hours after the show’s conclusion, it’s hard to recall anything else, perhaps because the ceremony’s planned material seemed so discombobulated and lackluster.

To move onto the winners themselves – which indeed included Smith – CODA took top honors at the broadcast, winning all three of its Oscars: Best Adapted Screenplay, for Sian Heder; Best Supporting Actor, for Troy Kotsur; and Best Picture. It seemed like the surge in support for the film grew by the hour in the final voting period, and it hit the spot as a warm crowd-pleaser. It was far from my favorite movie of 2021, but I absolutely understand why it won. After a point, its rise was undeniable. The Power of the Dog, once the prohibitive favorite of the season, walked away with only one of its twelve nominations turned to a win: Jane Campion won her second Oscar, and first for directing. All four of the betting favorites in the acting prizes – Jessica Chastain, Ariana DeBose, Kotsur, and Smith – took home the trophies.

In fact, if you just went with the odds-on leaders in your own betting pool, you probably did very well for yourself last night. Over at Film Pulse, where my predictions appeared this year, you’ll see I defaulted to the favorites in most categories – at least the ones that had even a nominal favorite – and scored 22 out of 23, for an accuracy rate of 96 percent. This is the best I’ve ever done, and not a result I expect to replicate any time soon. My only miss was Best Animated Short, where The Windshield Wiper edged out Robin Robin. In the final days before locking in my predictions, I considered defaulting from the conventional wisdom – an acting upset here, a craft prize upset there – but I didn’t, and as it turned out, that was a wise choice. There were some toss-ups, including Best Original Screenplay and the big award, but if you went with the up-to-the-minute momentum from the precursors, and took little leaps of faith, you ended up on the right side of the envelope.

But will we even talk about who won today? It seems to be the last thing on anyone’s mind. After the comparatively quaint debacle regarding Best Picture at the 2017 Oscars, or the embarrassing way Best Actor was handled last year, I’ve observed that when fiascos happen at awards shows, the actual honorees are the first to be forgotten. And this year’s Oscars seemed to have little reverence for the winners from the start, considering how the show itself was structured. Now, after the so-called “slap heard ’round the world,” it’s sealed in fate. This was a lumbering evening that never found its footing, rambling from segment to segment without rhyme or reason. (You’ll notice how little I’ve talked about the ceremony, versus the winners here.) There will be something that is written and talked about to death today, but it will be nothing that the show did for itself.