First-time Oscar producers Steven Soderbergh, Stacey Sher and Jesse Collin did a lot of experimenting with the first-ever pandemic Oscars. Some of the chances they took worked, but the final result was a ceremony that felt like an endurance test, says Dave Nemetz. "Most of the innovations fell flat, and the Oscars’ worst tendencies towards bloat and self-congratulation were only amplified in the new setting," says Nemetz. "Every Oscar broadcast has its slow parts. This year, it felt like all slow parts. Taping the ceremony at Los Angeles’ Union Station was a smart move: The setting had an elegant, old Hollywood feel and helped infuse the show with some much-needed glamour. I appreciated the lushly colorful visual palette, adorning the usual gold with vivid purples and oranges and blues. Plus, the producers did what they could to preserve the glitz of Hollywood’s biggest night, thankfully keeping the Zooms to a minimum and getting most of the nominees there in person. But the show that followed, sadly, was a painfully earnest snoozefest: a sluggish, humorless mix of overly long speeches and endless pats on the back with almost no entertainment value. Did they forget that this is supposed to be a show?!? It doesn’t help that this year’s nominees weren’t exactly blockbusters — even if theaters were open, I can’t imagine that Nomadland or Mank would be setting box-office records — but strangely, these Oscars made almost no effort to introduce viewers to these films, with precious few clips from the nominated films and performances. (They somehow gave out an award for Best Costume Design… and we never even got to see the costumes! Films are a visual medium! Let us see them!) Instead, we got long, drawn-out speeches with presenters paying homage to each nominee in a fawning way that just felt phony. These Oscars committed the cardinal sin of telling and not showing: They told us we should care about these movies, instead of showing us why we should care." Nemetz adds: "The Oscars are meant to be a transporting, aspirational glimpse at Hollywood royalty, and I’ve been a loyal viewer for more than 30 years now. But this one felt more like an endurance test. Less than an hour in, I was already checking the clock. When it ended, late, at the 3 hour, 16 minute mark, I felt relieved. Anthony Hopkins not even showing up to receive the final award for Best Actor was appropriately anticlimactic. Congratulations to the winners, as always… but maybe next year, let’s go back to basics, huh?"
This year's Oscars felt like watching radio: "Up until its last moments, the show seemed to take it as a given that this was an unusual year, and no bells and whistles would make it otherwise, so better not to try," says Willa Paskin. "Thinking about the panicked, sweaty, 'We swear the movies and the movie business are in great shape and that the movies unite us like nothing else!!!' Oscars that could have been, makes me feel warmly about the show I saw, but I still could have used a bit of showmanship—you know, the stuff you expect from the movies. The telecast started strong, with King walking into the theater to the Oscars’ own Ocean’s 11-style opening credits. But after those first moments, the show narrowed visually. Instead of mixing things up, presenting information in creative ways, or even consistently showing clips of the performances in question, the presenters delivered dense fun facts about all of the nominees. It was a lovely idea, and it felt like watching radio. The whole show was pared way down, and only some of that was due to COVID restrictions. It did away with just about every typical Oscar bit—opening jokey monologue, jokes of any kind, presenter introductions, songs, sketches, montages, and even clips from the movies—and instead embraced off-center camera shots (a strategy that’s usually deployed in film to make you feel uneasy) and letting the winners speak for as long as they would like."
This was the year that the Oscars really needed a host: "This was precisely the year when meaningful introduction to the movies and performers at play early on might have kept Oscar viewers attentive to a ceremony that still stands for tradition," says Daniel D'Addario. "Instead, the ceremony felt lost and guide-less. The touches brought by executive producer Steven Soderbergh were felt from opening presenter Regina King’s stylishly filmed walk to the stage to the big bet of reshuffling the final categories. But a show that felt so willing to reinvent itself seemed consistently to choose style over user experience. The past two Oscar ceremonies had specifically shed the host; both had been mixed bags, lacking the sort of unifying structure that might have seemed even more urgent this year. Soderbergh and his fellow producers shifted to a ceremony that worked as a statement on how strange the past year had been for film culture, but failed as an awards ceremony and as advertisements for the films that won. To wit: Presenters were tasked with data-dumps on the personal histories of various nominees, and when they came to love film. (That these biographical stories were pleasantly earnest but utterly humorless goes without saying; this ceremony may have pushed away anyone who’d once associated the Oscars with occasional envelope-pushing humor.) In most cases, the nominated work was not given the luxury of a clip, and it was left to viewers to imagine what the films in question might look like, and why they deserved the Academy’s attention. Explaining what the films even were was often left to winners, who were given unlimited time to speak but who, caught up in the moment, were not their own best advocates. While some presenters managed to make the volume of information transmitted feel somewhat natural, they seemed to be filling in for an absent figure: This year of all years, a host might have introduced and contextualized some of the films in a monologue before the final few awards. They also might have provided a touchstone for a show that too often seemed to be racing past key moments even as it allowed itself to become bogged down. Also missing was a sense of fun for a ceremony honoring an industry that has historically amused as well as edified."
Sometimes, there's a reason things are done the way they are: "Traditionally, Oscar night has ended with the announcement of the winner for best picture," says Linda Holmes. "This year, as the producers — including experienced risk-taker Steven Soderbergh — tried to mix it up a little in their train-station ceremony, they decided to change the order. They presented best picture to Nomadland, then best actress to Frances McDormand, then best actor to Anthony Hopkins for The Father. Hopkins wasn't there, so presenter Joaquin Phoenix said the Academy accepted the award on his behalf, and because there was no host, that was pretty much it. Goodnight, everybody! There were those who believed that this happened because there was a cynical calculation that the late Chadwick Boseman would win for Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, and that a speech — perhaps from his wife, Taylor Simone Ledward — would be a particularly emotional closing note for such a difficult and unusual year. If true, it was a highly cynical calculation, and if not, it showed a lack of foresight not to realize it might appear to be one. And whatever the intent, the result was that, instead of ending with a celebration on stage, as has happened with films like Moonlight and Parasite and other worthy winners, the entire three-plus-hour show ended with an award given to someone who wasn't even there. Experimentation? Sure. Innovation? Of course. Breaking the structure without thinking through how it might come off? That's a dangerous approach."
The most talk-heavy Oscars in recent memory forgot about the viewers at home: "In the focus on recipients and nominees, the producers seem to have forgotten about the audience," says Brian Lowry. "Largely dispensing with clips of the nominated films -- many of which, it's worth noting, were surely seen by few potential viewers -- they delivered the most talk-heavy Oscars in recent times, with long testimonials from the presenters and no obvious 'Wrap it up' button on the acceptance speeches. Moving elements usually presented during the telecast into the preshow -- like taped performances of the nominated songs -- freed up time for that. But the gambit sapped the awards of most of their traditional entertainment assets, and in a year defined by loss, the producers inexplicably raced through the In Memoriam segment, blunting what could have been among the most emotional moments."
Oscars failed as a commercial for Hollywood: "The Oscars are always going to be a back-slapping gala," says Daniel Fienberg. "It's a professional organization's annual award show. But in the absence of visual or audio representation of so many of these movies, the Oscars frequently failed in its secondary capacity: as a commercial for Hollywood. I don't see how anything in this show is going to inspire anybody to seek out Mank or Ma Rainey or even Nomadland. Even easy sells like the best song performances weren't easy. This year's musical performances were actually wonderful, but you'd only know that if you watched them taped and edited into the pre-show. Some speeches might direct attention to the movies. Yuh-Jung Youn has been Minari's great ambassador all through the awards season, and she delivered another show-stopper, beginning with lovingly chiding Brad Pitt for bungling her name and closing by saying that she doesn't like competitive awards and she just considers herself luckier than this year's other nominees. Thomas Vinterberg's speech, touching on his late daughter as the figure pulling the strings behind Another Round, brought me to tears. Daniel Kaluuya thanked his parents for having sex and earned a look of instantly memed confusion from his mother in the audience. Emerald Fennell was hilarious. Jon Batiste was very funny. Live action short winner Travon Free and the documentary short winners behind Colette got political. Frances McDormand howled. Yet we're going to remember the long airless patches of self-seriousness; the oddly accelerated In Memoriam segment; the almost endless presentation Bryan Cranston gave about the Motion Picture & Television Fund; and the second tribute to Tyler Perry in less than a year from a major award show that will never give Tyler Perry any awards for the actual TV and movies he makes. And we're going to remember the disquieting strangeness of giving out the biggest award of the night early, taking a commercial break as a build-up to… a final award that was supposed to go to a young star who could no longer be with us and instead went to a venerable star who was simply absent."
PricewaterhouseCoopers was the night's biggest winner: "PricewaterhouseCooper’s envelope mix-up back in 2017 was a complete catastrophe, but it was mesmerizing to watch," says Matthew Dessem. "This was not, and in the immediate aftermath, social media was full of people attempting to provide the finale the Oscars ceremony lacked by retweeting videos from Hopkins’ delightful Twitter account...If anyone involved with the award ceremony knew the winners in advance, they would surely have ended the show with Best Picture, and we’d have seen Frances McDormand and company howling like wolves as the credits rolled. So congratulations to everyone at PricewaterhouseCoopers, who bounced back after their 2017 debacle to demonstrate professionalism, discretion, and integrity this Oscar season, becoming the night’s biggest surprise winner in the process. Too bad about that ceremony, though!"
Steven Soderbergh revitalized the Oscar ceremony: "The auteur theory of Oscar broadcasts asserted itself last night with a giddy vengeance," says Richard Brody. "The show’s co-producer, Steven Soderbergh, had promised something unusual in this unusual year, and he delivered an idiosyncratic Oscar broadcast, whose blend of peculiarity and forced gaiety fulfilled his plan for a movie-like experience. In lieu of the usual venue of the Dolby Theatre, where nominees and their guests sit elbow to elbow in serried ranks, this year’s edition was held in Los Angeles’s cavernous Union Station. For the occasion, it was converted into a ballroom-like setting that allowed for the necessary social distancing. The resulting affair was intimate: presenters stood not on a stage in front of the room but on the floor of the multilevel array of round tables and banquettes, among the nominees and guests. The effect, from the start, was low-key and relatively informal, despite the star power that filled the room and the snazzy gowns and suits and styles that adorned it. The paradoxical tone, of glamour looking itself in the face and wondering what are we all doing here, meshed aptly with the modest yet starry movies that the Academy celebrated, principally Nomadland, which took Best Picture, Director, and Actress in a Leading Role."
Not having Best Picture as the night's final award was heartless -- to Nomadland, to Chadwick Boseman and to Anthony Hopkins: "The debacle represents more than just the heights of miscalculation," says Jeva Lange. "Any way you look at it, the move was horribly unfair to the Best Picture winner. After 92 years of AMPAS presenting Best Picture as the marquee award of the night and allowing the winning team an emotional speech from the stage, the decision to read the winner in the antepenultimate spot distracted from the award's significance. It was an especially heartless move in 2021, when the award went to Nomadland — only the second Best Picture winner directed by a woman, and the first directed by a woman of color. This moment — this headline — should have been a celebration of Chloé Zhao and her team. They earned the spotlight on Sunday. But instead, because producers clumsily engineered a move to make the evening about Boseman, they stole that experience from the Nomadland team. The cast and crew deserved better. The decision, also, was cruel to Boseman and Hopkins. Though Boseman was the favorite, Academy voters certainly didn't owe him an award just because he died tragically. Clearly many thought Hopkins had the better performance of the year. But for the show's producers to have burdened the Best Actor award with the weight of some imposed climactic expectation ended up doing both actors dirty."
Highs include long speeches, the lows include In Memoriam segment seemingly played at 1.5x speed and set to incongruously upbeat music: "Long speeches are good, thank you very much," according to Kathryn VanArendonk and Jackson McHenry. "Not playing off the winners with overbearing music and a terrifying countdown clock is more polite, first of all. It means that this ceremony avoided any of the many issues previous ceremonies have had where the 'you’re done now' music kicked in just as some winner described a personal tragedy, making everyone watching at home want to peel their faces off in shame. Just as important, though, is that letting speeches run a little longer is better! Longer speeches are how you get Daniel Kaluuya marveling at the miracle of human reproduction, and Youn Yuh-jung taking a moment to burn Brad Pitt to a crisp for mispronouncing her name (see above), suggesting that she is just luckier than the other nominees, and then thanking her sons. 'This is the result, because mommy works so hard,' she said, holding up the Oscar. Viva la long speeches." As for the In Memoriam segment, it moved so fast it bordered on parody and it's rushed feel was an odd choice following a pandemic that took so many lives.
The Oscars came close to successfully pulling off a ceremony for diehard fans: The Oscars were poised to have very low ratings no matter what producers tired. "Why not cater to the die-hards who would tune in no matter what—the kind who don’t need clips to update them on movies they’ve already seen, and who’d appreciate changes to a routine they’ve seen dozens of times before?" says Alison Herman. "There’s no defending the show’s last 15 minutes. Nomadland, whose director, Chloé Zhao, was the first woman of color to win Best Director in Oscars history, deserved a real victory lap. It’s a film that could have easily been overlooked in a more competitive year, even as it builds on the progress already made by Moonlight and Parasite in redefining what a Best Picture can look like. The sight of Zhao’s cast, most of them acting novices, accepting the honor would’ve made for a more triumphant endnote. Hopkins, too, deserves to be remembered for his actual performance, not the wrench his surprise victory threw in a carefully choreographed TV show. But before they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, the Oscars came amazingly close to pulling it off. As vaccines circulate, theaters reopen, and restrictions start to ease, there will be a concerted effort to get 'back to normal,' in Hollywood as everywhere else. The Academy Awards may have ended on a downbeat. They also showed 'normal' isn’t always worth preserving, whatever the cost. Necessity is the mother of invention, and some inventions—or strategic exclusions—are built to last."
The Oscars should've had a stronger first half hour to keep viewers hooked: "The show starting with the screenplay and international feature awards made some practical sense—many of the nominees were overseas, and would have to stay up quite late if their categories were announced later in the evening," says Richard Lawson. "But for a broadcast that was—in addition to honoring filmmakers—trying to fight the ratings slump of all awards shows this year (and, really, in many previous years), it was a dubious choice. Regina King and Laura Dern were there for star power, but the show lacked the perhaps necessary jolt of a supporting actor giving the first acceptance speech, as is often done. I’m curious how many people on the fence about whether or not to watch the show actually stuck with it after ten or fifteen minutes of this soft-lit oddity. Throughout the evening, presenters talked at length about the nominated filmmakers and their backstories and interests. A sweet idea, but rambling and inert in practice...I am glad that the Oscars tried something other than a collage of Zoom windows, as the Golden Globes and the SAGs mostly did. It was a noble effort. But the broadcast’s alienating effect ran in bad parallel with the fact that this year’s crop of nominated movies were seen by a lot fewer people than in a typical year. Perhaps there was no saving these Oscars from indifference, and doing something so wholly new and unrecognizable with the ceremony guaranteed that no one outside the core base of Oscar viewership would care. Maybe some of the hoary old stuff could have been blended in with Soderbergh’s spare, elegant version of things. Regina King started the show off with the right energy, but perhaps there could have been a comedian-host monologue too, some kind of humorous broad survey of this challenging year for Hollywood. The show needed a playful amuse bouche like that before all the seriousness and congratulating set in."
The only thing worth watching were the speeches, and they fell flat in the cavernous Union Station: "The producers of the 2021 Oscars had said that they planned to make the annual telecast more like a film. They didn’t succeed at that, but they did change things up," says Mike Hale. "They didn’t succeed at that, but they did change things up. Sunday’s broadcast on ABC was more like a cross between the Golden Globes and the closing-night banquet of a long, exhausting convention....The solutions the producers Jesse Collins, Stacey Sher and Steven Soderbergh came up with included moving the ceremony from the crowded seats of the Dolby Theater to a tiered stage constructed in Los Angeles’s Union Station, where nominees and a few invited, vaccinated guests sat maskless at widely spaced tables. Winners walked a few steps and up a treacherous ramp to a small dais; presenters (the show was hostless for the third straight year) often spoke from among the nominees. There were charms to this arrangement. It was a nice change to see the nominees with a few people they actually cared about (or felt absolutely obligated to invite), rather than the largely anonymous studio-invited claques we’re used to. The trade-off — whether because of the smaller crowd, the social distancing, or the sound quality in the cavernous space — was what felt like a dead room, both acoustically and emotionally. There were powerful and moving speeches, but they didn’t seem to be generating much excitement, and when the people in the room aren’t excited, it’s hard to get excited at home. The other major change in the production — and this one couldn’t be entirely explained by pandemic adjustments — was that the acceptance speeches were just about the only thing to watch. Through much of the evening, nearly all of the connective tissue that usually provides diversion and entertainment was stripped out: jokes, sketches, insults, patter, songs, clips montages from the best-picture nominees. (Questlove and Lil Rel Howery’s karaoke song-trivia bit was the horrible exception that proved the rule.) One result seemed to be longer acceptance speeches, with no orchestra to play the winners off, though that might have been a collateral effect of the general flatness. What really grew, though, was scripted filler — or, as the producers would have it, storytelling. In many categories the presenters were forced to recite anecdotes about each nominee, generally on the theme of movie love, perhaps a result of the cineaste Soderbergh’s influence. These stories about seeing Jaws or some other classic for the first time were an inconsequential drone that made 'And the Oscar goes to' feel anticlimactic."
The 93rd Academy Awards were still more entertaining than the average pre-COVID Oscars: "It would be an exaggeration to say that the Oscars maintained their cinematic sheen and pace throughout the night," says Judy Berman. "But if it was no Casablanca, at least the show managed to avoid an easy worst-case scenario comparison to Titanic—a maudlin, meaningless, decadently expensive folly that spent well over three excruciating hours on a sinking ship. Soderbergh and Co. chose their presenters well; opening an awards ceremony with King and Laura Dern is like opening an elementary schooler’s birthday party with pizza and ice cream cake. Many aspects of the show that sounded dicey in theory, from the train-station venue to the relegation of original song performances to the pre-show, turned out just fine in practice. The producers struck a smart balance between glamour and safety, preventing a superspreader event while also sparing viewers the now-depressing sight of stars in sweats accepting trophies from their couches. Every part of this year’s ceremony felt more intimate and less stuffy than just about any awards show I can remember. For once, the art and community of film seemed to take precedence over the business of film."
The 93rd Oscars ceremony had a wild and wacky production that somehow worked: "The producers’ innovations went way beyond the (24 frames per second) frame rate," says Alyssa Wilkinson. "The camera moved subtly but with an interesting sweep and perspective throughout the show, whether it was framing the performers off-center or slowly tracking through the pared-down crowd. As Riz Ahmed announced the winner for Best Sound, the camera panned down to let the viewers see the card in the envelope that named the winner — something that doesn’t typically happen at the Oscars. A truly fantastic long tracking shot started the show, with Regina King marching through Union Station and into the room where attendees were gathered at socially distanced banquettes. Credits rolled over her entrance, announcing the 'stars,' a.k.a. the evening’s presenters. If it felt like an Oceans movie, well, consider who directed the first three (contemporary) Oceans movies. It wasn’t the only long tracking shot in the film — er, show — but it definitely set the tone. (I screamed a little.) At some point it started to feel more like we were watching a movie about an awards show than a TV show broadcasting some stuff happening on a stage in Los Angeles, and that was intoxicating. This year, the Oscars had a distinct role to play: They needed to create excitement about the return of the film industry after a devastating year, and they needed to remind people why they love movies in the first place. Most likely, their viewership still dropped. But if nothing else, they reminded us what movies look, feel, and sound like — and why they’re so fun to watch."
The lofty goal of making a staid ceremony feel fresh by making it cinematic may have been overkill: "The long-awaited ceremony was indeed small, but not always super cool," says Shirley Li. "More experimental than efficient, it felt refreshing in some ways, stiff in others. The lack of an orchestra to play winners off the stage allowed them time to share everything on their mind. For some, like the supporting-actress winner Youn Yuh-jung, this meant cheekily berating Brad Pitt for not visiting the set of her film Minari—which was made through his production company, Plan B—while others simply read a longer-than-usual laundry list of people to thank. The stylish camerawork—an opening one-shot of Regina King sauntering through Union Station, the zooms into the sacred winner’s envelope, and a contrived off-center framing for onstage speeches—made the Oscars look better than it has in years. But the high production values didn’t always translate into high-quality performances, especially when stars missed their mark or crew members darted across the background. And though The 93rd Oscars nixed traditional original-song performances, the running time still dragged past the three-hour mark. Clearly, Soderbergh and his co-producers, Stacey Sher and Jesse Collins, sought to make this year’s proceedings character-driven. Nearly every nominee got a backstory, delivered at a rapid-fire pace by the category presenter, who sometimes addressed those being honored directly, lending the scene a casual feel. But these well-intentioned monologues did little to showcase the work of those being feted. Film clips were shown for the feature categories, but not for the visually appealing costume design or makeup and hairstyling ones. Viewers got trivia about the producers of the shorts instead of clips from the shorts themselves. Often the presenters did the heavy lifting for these scenes, selling the sincerity of their appreciation for each nominee’s work as a proxy for what the audience couldn’t see. But if the first two hours of The 93rd Oscars started to shakily reinvent the franchise’s formula, the final stretch collapsed into confusion and chaos...Worst of all, the final plot twist backfired."
The show looked and felt, at times, like a perfunctory luncheon: "And while that often was refreshing—it actually seemed like it was produced by people who like movies and the artists who make them, not ratings-hungry egotists—it shined a harsher spotlight than usual on the fact that it is a slog to present 24 award categories," says Kevin Fallon. "When there are no sketches, montages, or musical performances distracting from the task at hand, the task does seem more like a chore. That said, past efforts to minimize the act of handing out awards never made sense to me. Why not lean into the purpose of the whole thing? Yes, presenting 24 awards is a tedious exercise, but Sunday night’s show was the most emotional exercise of tedium I’ve ever partaken in."
Oscar telecast's best creative decisions got lost in forced format changes: "Gone were the embarrassing dial-up mishaps of the Golden Globes and the looming wall of Zoom boxes of the Emmys," says Caroline Framke. "Instead, the logistical calculations the Oscars made to stage a glittery show without stuffing as many stars into the Dolby Theatre paid off, making this event — the entertainment industry’s most overtly glamorous of the year — seem like an intimate affair. Shifting from the Dolby to Union Station, the historic downtown Los Angeles train station that allowed for more of a hybrid outdoor/indoor vibe to adhere to COVID-19 safety protocols, immediately made for a distinctly different vibe than ceremonies past without losing much of the event’s traditional elegance. The red carpet took place amid cocktail party-style couches, allowing nominees to gather outside instead of in a lobby out of view of most cameras. Once inside, nominees sat in plush booths with lamps set atop their individual tables, making the Oscars look more like a cabaret than a grandiose awards show. In its concerted effort to scale the show down, the evening achieved an intimacy that, while forced by the circumstances, felt exactly right. More confusing were the show’s attempts to shake things up in ways that had nothing to do with what had to be done for safety’s sake. With no host and no clips beyond the major film categories, the 'ensemble cast' of presenters — the Oscars’ wording, not mine — were tasked with reciting an incredible amount of copy. It quickly became clear over the course of the night just how few people of Hollywood’s most famous and lauded tier are on King’s level; not many of her fellow 'cast-members' could match her deft balance of gravitas and amiable charm. The major exception to this rule was comedian Lil Rel Howery who, despite being relegated to the red carpet and a late-breaking trivia round that bafflingly appeared with just 15 minutes left in the planned broadcast, made a solid case for why he maybe should’ve hosted the entire thing."
China censored Chloé Zhao’s historic Oscar win: The 93rd Academy Awards weren't shown live in China as the Chinese government imposed a virtual news blackout on the Nomadland director's Best Director victory over negative remarks she made about her home country in the past.