The 93rd Academy Awards: As strange and bizarre as the times we’re living in

| April 26, 2021

The good, the bad, and the ending: A recap of the 93rd Oscars

This isn’t going to be the usual rundown of who won and who didn’t.  This year’s Oscars were so bizarre that one can only focus on how it all went down.

Really, it was hard to wrap your head around the 93rd Annual Academy Awards.  The only constant has been the commentary.  Waking up this morning, I was met by a volley of hate-fueled (and quickly tiresome) comments both on Facebook and on Twitter about the terrible monster of last night’s broadcast, and about the changes that brought the scale of the show down to . . . I’m not sure what.

The set-up didn’t look like Oscar’s usual party.  COVID precautions moved the ceremony nine miles down the road from The Dolby Theater to Union Station, a very odd location that made the show look like hastily decorated dinner theater.  The patrons set six-feet apart, save for those who were sitting with them.  The sound was strange.  It echoed to the ceiling of Union Station in a very unsettling way.

As with last year, there was no host.  The show opened with previous Supporting Actress winner Regina King who got the ball rolling on the evening’s social commentary, particularly surrounding concerns for the safety of her two sons – a long way from Billy Crystal’s comic medley of the Best Picture nominees.  These are desperate times, and one could feel that somber energy of the proceedings – issues around COVID, Black Lives Matter, unity in the face of racial issues, police violence, gun violence, fear and confusion.  They were all present, if not in the actual speeches, certainly in the air.

The jokes were restrained given the atmosphere, and the whole thing ended in a weird anti-climax that was so abrupt that I wasn’t sure that the show was really over.  The only great moment of levity happened when eight-time Oscar bridesmaid Glenn Close got up from her seat to do “Da Butt” during Lil Rel’s game of “Oscar or Not”  That was a highlight!

Still, the tone of last night’s Oscars was as strange and somber as the 13 months that preceded it – a night in which current issues were addressed but so baffling that it was hard to know how to address them.  It was a night that promised a celebration of diversity but ended on notes that waffled back and forth.  Some decisions were a long time coming (ask Chloe Zhao) and others showed how far we have to go (ask Viola Davis).

There was good news.  The Best Picture winner was Nomadland, an elegiac melodrama steeped in the broken promise of the American dream and starring possibly the only actress that could bring us through it.  Franny McD won her third Oscar as Best Actress (and yet another for producing the picture) as a woman who up and leaves a hometown that was so dependent on its gypsum industry that when the company leaves, the town’s zip code is cancelled.

The movie was directed by a Chinese-American woman, thirty-nine year-old Chloe Zhao, who became the second woman in history (and first woman of color) to nab the prize for Best Director after Kathryn Bigelow won for The Hurt Locker a decade ago.  It was a very moving moment, but given Oscar history, the population at large wonders when it will happen again.  Perhaps the inclusion of so many women into the industry gives us the shape of things to come.

But it was the acting categories where things got somewhat sticky.  Yes, it was wonderful to see Daniel Kaluuya win for playing Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah (in spite of the fact that it was a leading performance).  And, yes, it was delightful to see 73-year-old Youn Yuh-jung, a 50-year veteran of Korean films (and virtually unknown in America), win an Oscar for playing the mischievous  grandmother in Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari.

But the top awards felt a little off.  Who could complain about Frances McDormand’s third Best Actress, this time for Nomadland, except that everyone expected to see Viola Davis become the second black woman to win the award – it’s hard to complain but hard not to complain!  McDormand, who had just won the Oscar as the film’s producer, made a 31-second speech during a rare show when the producers allowed winners to just talk since there was no band to play them off.

But then *sigh* Best Actor . . .

It was clear that the show’s producers were so sure that Chadwick Boseman would win for his performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom that they rearranged the distribution of the awards so that Best Picture came before Best Actress and then Actor.  The hope, apparently, was that the show could end on a victory for a rising star who left us way too soon.  BUT!  The winner was Anthony Hopkins . . . who wasn’t there.  Presenter Joaquin Phoenix looked a little lost, and with that, the show ended on an abrupt anti-climax.

So . . . let’s get back to this whole thing about the show being boring.  I read comment after comment this morning raging about how this was the worst show ever (a commentary I hear literally every year), but let us be realistic, we are living the worst of times.  Between the virus, protests, violence, injustice, it’s been a strange year, and in the worst of times we’ve always gone the movies for comfort.  Well, that was difficult in 2020 because our movies just weren’t there.  How could The Academy – or anyone – really respond to that with entertainment?  What did we all expect?  In a lot of ways the 93rd Annual Academy Awards were just as strange and misaligned as the times we’re living in.

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About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
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