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Chloe Zhao Oscar Getty.jpg

2021 Oscars Recap: A Night of Predictable Wins Right Up Until It Wasn’t

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Film | April 26, 2021 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Film | April 26, 2021 |


Chloe Zhao Oscar Getty.jpg

And that’s it over for another year. The Academy Awards wrapped things up in a manner that was tough to argue with, even if it all ended up being a touch more predictable than we were hoping for. In a season with so much potential for a radical shift in terms of winners, things concluded pleasantly but without much in the way of shocks. Well, almost.

Nomadland took home the top prize while Chloe Zhao made history as the first woman of color (and only the second woman overall) to take home Best Director, a moment that felt far more low-key in context than it perhaps should have, although Zhao, in her sneakers and braids, may have preferred it that way. Youn Yuh-jung from Minari became the first Korean actor to win an Oscar, and only the second Asian woman ever after Miyoshi Umeki (and she continued her streak of wonderful speeches.) Daniel Kaluuya, the closest thing to a lock all year, took home Best Supporting Actor, while Frances McDormand and Anthony Hopkins added more gold to their shelves in the leading categories.


This was always going to be a weird awards season, thanks to all things COVID. When you have a literal pandemic disrupting every aspect of the entertainment industry, it was inevitable that we’d see the race towards the Oscars shift in response. This was a cycle of no glitzy festival rollouts — the fall events that weren’t canceled went digital and downsized considerably — while all the fashion-plate trades campaigning was reduced to Zoom calls and mini photoshoots from actors’ respective hallways. Moreover, there was less sleaze. We didn’t hear a whisper of rumors about dirty campaigning tricks, although we’ve seen a considerable decline in such things since Harvey Weinstein, the king of such tactics, was exposed as a serial predator. The closest we got to the cycle of outrage and manufactured backlash were some pieces on Nomadland’s relationship with Amazon and the poverty cycle, but in comparison to the days of press mudslinging, everything was remarkably low-key.

The Oscars themselves, in their 93rd year, had the chance to let loose. With none other than Steven Soderbergh on co-producer duties, and the promise that the ceremony itself would ‘feel more like a movie rather than an awards show’, even us hardened awards season skeptics had hope for something fresh, or at least as fresh as an industry perpetually two decades behind the rest of the world can get.

The setting moved to Union Station, with Regina King’s introduction shot like a classic Soderbergh heist movie, and the overall mood was one that felt much looser than the Oscars are typically allowed to be. Speeches ran as long as they wanted to, nominees sat at cozy booths as if they were watching a mega-smooth nightclub act, and generally, people seemed comfortable in their space. Dare I say it, things were almost approachable for us plebs. The only thing that made the show seem traditionally Oscar-esque were the fawning nominee intros. For me, I missed the clips for moments like the actors. Not even the greatest thespian can hide their discomfort with Laura Dern or Brad Pitt talking about their greatness in general platitudes. With tech categories, it was cool to hear tidbits of their lives and inspirations, but maybe that could have been blended with some Soderbergh-esque montages of the work itself.

The Oscars have always struggled with that balance to be lofty and aspirational as well as appealing to that mythic demographic they seek with fervor every year. I’m not sure those non-existent viewers will ever be won over, but for a die-hard viewer, I appreciated a lot of the thinking behind these shake-ups, even as it confused me (they really gave out Best Director that early?! And Best Picture wasn’t the last prize?!) For some, it was a touch too haphazard, and you could feel that awkwardness shine through now and then. You missed the grandeur of the orchestra when, for example, the nominees for Best Score were announced. We needed the melodic power there over the unease of that silence. Lil Rel Howery turned up for a moment of Oscars trivia wherein all the contestants looked as though they were being held hostage (except for Glenn Close, who had the moves.) The In Memoriam segment felt unusually rushed, perhaps a sign of the sheer volume of tragic deaths in the industry this past year, but this had the effect of making what should be a moment of reflection into something to be bypassed. For every decision that made sense and brought new verve to the proceedings, there was one that left you scratching your head. Still, if this is a direction that the Academy wants to stick with for the future, they have an interesting foundation to build upon, one that is special without being unbearably portentous.



Mercifully, nobody was played off during their speeches, and that lack of a timer (or the threat of inappropriate musical cues) allowed the winners to give passionate, unwieldy, and occasionally odd speeches. Thomas Vinterberg of Another Round discussed his late daughter, while Daniel Kaluuya, winner of Best Supporting Actor, is perhaps the only person alive with the magnetism to pull off giving a sharp political speech before talking about how his parents totally f**k. His mother, live from London, seemed especially bemused by that revelation. Youn Yuh-jung cemented her status as the breakout star of awards season while Jon Batiste’s exuberant speech for Soul’s winning score was irresistible. Frances McDormand howled at the moon.



This was also an awards season devoid of villains. Every year, we see the frontrunner of a certain category become the baddie of the show, a sign that they’ve outstayed their welcome or a general sense of fatigue over, say, a beloved actor winning for the wrong role or a problematic movie. The closest we came was with the perpetual domination of Disney-Pixar in the Animated Feature category, but even then, that was less to do with Soul than Academy-wide laziness. The Best Documentary Feature win for the truly terrible My Octopus Teacher did rile up the blood somewhat but at least it was a decision that made sense in the grand scheme of the Academy’s often warped mindset.

Generally speaking, I feel satisfied to come away from an Oscars show feeling mostly content, which is often the most we can expect given how frequently the Academy loves to f**k it up with choices like Crash or Green Book. And yet, when the closing moments came, we were surprised. The decision to move Best Picture to earlier in the show and end proceedings on Best Actor suggested that the Academy and ABC were 100% certain that the late great Chadwick Boseman was going to win for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. It seemed as though the show was building to that emotional climax of Boseman’s family and colleagues coming together to honor an immense talent who left us too soon. Then Anthony Hopkins won for The Father, and he wasn’t even there to pick up his trophy. You could feel the air leave the room in that moment.



I’m personally delighted for Hopkins. His performance in The Father is nothing short of phenomenal and he deserves many a little gold man on his shelf for his work there. But one wonders if the general public will ever be able to celebrate that win for what it is. Can it be separated from the fact that this was the Academy’s one and only chance to celebrate Boseman? Posthumous wins aren’t the guarantee that some people view them as, but this one came with an urgency that Boseman’s predecessors didn’t necessarily have weighing down their shoulders. I certainly understand the potentially questionably optics of Hopkins winning in a year of actors like Boseman, Riz Ahmed, Steven Yeun, Delroy Lindo, Mads Mikkelsen, and Tahar Rahim, to name but a handful of this year’s competitors. It did feel like the voters returned to their status quo. Time will be kind to that performance, but the obvious shock and awkwardness of Hopkins’s name being announced then the show wrapping up will linger for quite some time.


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Kayleigh is a features writer for Pajiba. You can follow her on Twitter or listen to her podcast, The Hollywood Read.



Header Image Source: Getty Images.