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The 2021 Oscars Had Some Great Speeches, Fewer Clips, and One Disastrous Act of Hubris

Steven Soderbergh's Oscars aspired to be a movie, but it had an awful ending.
  • Joaquin Phoenix, Chloe Zhao and Glenn Close at the 93rd Academy Awards. (Photos: ABC)
    Joaquin Phoenix, Chloe Zhao and Glenn Close at the 93rd Academy Awards. (Photos: ABC)

    Joe Reid isn't just Primetimer's managing editor. He's also an awards expert and one half of the popular podcast, This Had Oscar Buzz, so who better to break down this year's precedent-breaking Academy Awards?

    The only thing we knew for sure going into the 93rd Academy Awards telecast was that it wasn't going to be like any Oscar ceremony we'd seen in our lifetimes. The uncertainty over how the Oscars were going to be carried off in this stage of the the COVID timeline — where vaccine rollouts and the early reopenings of businesses and entertainment venues put the production in an odd spot — was only partially clarified in the last week or so before the ceremony. We knew that the bulk of the ceremony would take place at LA's Union Station, the better to allow for the distance required for COVID protocols. We learned late that producers Steven Soderbergh, Stacey Sher, and Jesse Collins were planning to stage the Oscars as a "movie," but it wasn't until 8:00 PM ET as Regina King strutted into the room, Oscar in hand, with opening credits appearing on the TV screen, that we got an idea of what that meant.

    Of course, the beginning of the 2021 Academy Awards isn't what everybody's talking about now. The only thing that's lingering from the 190-minute telecast is what happened in the final ten minutes, where the producers switched up the traditional order of the final awards, handing out Best Picture (which went to Nomadland) before the Best Actress and Best Actor awards, seemingly so the show could end on an emotional high note with the the widely-predicted triumph of the late Chadwick Boseman. That … did not happen. And the way it didn't happen was a disaster the likes of which we haven't seen at the Oscars in a very long time. At least the La La LandMoonlight debacle in 2017 was the result of an accidental mistake. The disaster of the 2021 Oscars was an act of production hubris more than anything.

    I don't imagine I need to outline all the reasons that Best Picture is traditionally presented last on the Oscar telecast. It's the biggest award of the night, the one everything else is leading up to, and the one that is most remembered in history. Even before the Best Actress and Best Actor envelopes were opened, this was a poorly thought out idea. More than anything, given that Nomadland was the winner, the displacement of the Best Picture category (as well as Best Director, which went to Nomadland's Chloe Zhao and was one of the first handful of awards to be presented) felt like a slight. It also felt like a capitulation to the undercurrent of griping this Oscar season that this year's nominees weren't big enough, that nobody had seen or cared about them, and that this year's Oscars were a sad Oscars because of the films. A trifecta of bogus notions to be sure (the pandemic-year Oscars weren't sad because of Mank and Minari, they were sad because THERE'S A PANDEMIC), but seemingly given credence by the reticence of Soderbergh, Sher, and Collins to let a movie like Nomadland close the show.

    One imagines that, besides giving the show cover to feature mask-less awards recipients gathering indoors together, Soderbergh's concept of the Oscars as not an awards show but a movie meant wanting to end on the biggest emotional note possible. That, everyone must have assumed, was Boseman. Only, surprise: Boseman didn't win; Anthony Hopkins won for his acclaimed performance in The Father. And he wasn't even there to collect his award, not at Union Station, nor at the British Film Institute in London, where the UK nominees were gathered. Which meant presenter Joaquin Phoenix was left to sheepishly say that the Academy accepts Mr. Hopkins's awards on his behalf before hastily ending the show. We're still doing the host-less Oscars that ABC is so enamored of, and it's probably worth noting that, as unenviable as the job may have been, an Oscar host might have at least been able to salvage a grace note right at the end there. Instead, it was a spectacular moment of the producers playing themselves, and if there weren't such high emotions caught up in Boseman loss, the anticlimax of it all might've been almost funny. Instead, it was just a huge bummer, an unforced error on top of what was for many an unwelcome surprise (to take nothing away from Hopkins' very worthy performance), and a reminder that awards shows are not, in fact, movies, because movies have scripts where you know what's going to happen before you film it.

    This all came at the end of an Oscar ceremony that, while decidedly mixed in its good and bad moments, had worked within its constraints to put on a show that had a unique character. The relative merit of the winners notwithstanding — almost all winners were quite deserving — as a television production, some of the changes worked better than others.

    Whither the Clips?

    The most recognizable change, aside from the setting, was that for the most part, the award presentations themselves focused far more on the nominees themselves than the films they worked on. So when the nominees for Best Costume Design or Best Animated Short Film or Best Supporting Actor were read, the cameras found the nominees at their little banquettes in the room, and the presenters either talked about their contributions or gave little humanizing factoids about them. It sounds facile, but the effect was an Oscars that was more focused than ever on the people who make the movies, putting the spotlight especially on the craftspeople who finally get their little moment of recognition.

    The flip side of that — and one that bugged a lot of viewers — was that we got very little in the way of clips or even visuals of the films themselves. Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress are usually accompanied by short clips of the nominees' performances. Not this time. Best Costume Design is usually augmented by footage of — wait for it — the costumes from the film. Ditto Production Design and Makeup and Cinematography. Instead, Soderbergh's team made the decision to only show clips in the categories where the entire (feature) film is being honored: Best Documentary Feature, Best Animated Feature, Best International Film, and finally (though not finally enough, see above) Best Picture. The clips chosen for these categories were refreshingly lengthy, countering the recent trend in Oscar ceremonies for the Best Picture nominees to present short sizzle reels in lieu of scenes. The clips were great. That they were the only clips shown was frustrating, especially when this year more than ever it would have been nice to show the home audience all these films that they've apparently been missing.

    Whither the Songs?

    Another command decision by production was that all five nominated Best Original Songs were performed on the 90-minute pre-show from various locations either at the new Oscars museum or, in one case, Iceland. The reasons for this appeared to be both logistical (there wasn't really much of a stage for anyone to perform on inside Union Station) and qualitative (this was, with one notable exception, not a great year for Best Original Song). Still, one of the highlights of the night, pre-show or not, was Molly Sandén's performance of "Husavik," from Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, live from Husavik, Iceland, accompanied by a children's choir wearing huge, comfy sweaters.

    The Pace

    One of the great things about this year's Oscars was that, for a show that ended a mere eleven minutes past 11PM on the east coast, it never felt like it was being rushed along. This puts it at a marked contrast from the last two Oscar ceremonies, which often felt like they were being cattle-prodded by ABC executives offscreen, trying to hustle the proceedings through to keep the show as short as possible. Not so this year, as Soderbergh's team trimmed the show of things like montages and comedy bits (with one notable exception, see below), but allowed the ceremony we got to flow at an unhurried pace. None of the speeches got played off or drowned out by music, which led to some lengthy but wonderful speeches by, among others, Another Round director Thomas Vinterberg (who spoke emotionally about the death of his daughter during the production of his film), Minari supporting actress Yuh-jung Youn, and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom's Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson, who became the first Black women to win Best Makeup/Hairstyling. The show even had time to bring back the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award (which had previously been shunted to the Governors' Awards) twice.

    The one notable exception to this unhurried Oscars was the In Memoriam segment, which responded to the challenge of condensing 14 months of tragic loss by scrolling past the names and photos of the dead incredibly quickly.

    The Ads

    Google scored with an ad focused on the children of deaf adults and their live closed-captioning service, which ran right after Sound of Metal's win for Best Sound. But the major story were the TV and movie trailers, including a first look at Steven Spielberg's West Side Story and the latest look at In the Heights, inadvertently setting up what may be competing New York City at musicals next year's Oscars. There was also a delicious-looking promo for Hulu's Lianne Moriarty adaptation Nine Perfect Strangers, starring Nicole Kidman and Melissa McCarthy.

    The Butt

    The 2021 Oscars eschewed comedy bits almost entirely until the final half-hour, when actor, comedian, and pre-show co-host Lil Rel Howery came out to bring some levity to the audience and ask some Oscar trivia. After managing to get not one but TWO Best Actress nominees (Andra Day and Glenn Close) bleeped for cursing, Howery quizzed Close on whether the 1988 go-go funk song "Da Butt," from Spike Lee's School Daze, was an Oscar nominee. Close, who by this point had already lost for the eighth time at the Oscars, proceeded to not only extoll the virtues of "Da Butt" but also emerged from her seat and shook her 74-year-old Greenwich, Connecticut butt for the world to see.

    A controversial Oscars to say the least, but at least it featured the best Glenn Close performance in YEARS.

    Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: 93rd Academy Awards, ABC, Anthony Hopkins, Chadwick Boseman, Glenn Close, Steven Soderbergh