“I have always found goodness in the people I’ve met everywhere I went in the world,” Zhao said. “This is for anyone who has the faith and the courage to hold on to the goodness in themselves and to hold on to the goodness in each other no matter how difficult it is to do that.”
The annual salute to Hollywood took place after the kind of faith and hope that Zhao described sometimes seemed to be in short supply. The Oscars are unfolding in the wake of a global pandemic that continues to upend cultural life — a change of circumstances that was reflected in the way that the 2021 edition of the Oscars played out. Instead of the thousands of well-heeled movie stars and powerbrokers, this year’s telecast had a tight guest list, with only nominees, presenters and a few guests allowed at Los Angeles’ Union Station.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” star Daniel Kaluuya won best supporting actor at the for his uncanny portrayal of Black Panther Party activist Fred Hampton.
“Peace, love, and onwards,” the performer urged the audience, while also alluding to the racism that Hampton fought against and that still infects society. “When they play divide and conquer, we say unite and ascend,” he added.
“Promising Young Woman” writer and director Emerald Fennell won best original screenplay, while “The Father’s” Christopher Hampton and Florian Zeller earned a best adapted screenplay prize.
Denmark’s “Another Round,” the story of four friends who embark on an epic drinking binge in order to test a theory that maintaining a certain blood alcohol content level, won the prize for best international feature. Director Thomas Vinterberg dedicated his award to his 19-year old daughter, Ida, who was killed by a reckless driver four days into shooting.
“You’re part of this miracle,” an emotional Vinterberg said. “Maybe you’ve been pulling some strings somewhere.”
It was also an important evening of breakthroughs, with “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’s” Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson becoming the first Black women to win an Oscar for makeup and hairstyle
“I know that one day it won’t be unusual or groundbreaking, it will just be normal,” Neal said.
With a glamorous event design overseen by David Rockwell, Union Station provided a completely different backdrop for a completely different year. However, some local advocates criticized the city for making access to public transit more difficult for the weekend.
Producers Jesse Collins, Stacey Sher and Steven Soderbergh promised to make this year’s ceremony unfold more like a movie and true to form the telecast began with opening credits. Nominees flanked the stage, sitting at tables that wouldn’t have seemed out of place at the Stork Club. Freeing the production from the cavernous Dolby, made the whole affair seem more intimate. The telecast also opted to do away with a staple of pandemic life, with nominees and presenters going mask-less, something the Academy said was made possible because of its safety precautions.
“Think of this as a movie set…people have been vaxxed, tested, retested socially distanced,” Regina King said at the ceremony’s opening. “Just like on a movie set when we’re rolling masks off.”
David Fincher’s “Mank” was the most nominated film with ten nods, but Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland,” the story of a van-dwelling woman travelling around the American West, was widely expected to walk away with the best picture prize despite only earning six nominations. The celebration of a life on the road was made especially poignant after a year in which many people had been stuck in their homes or their apartments.
“Nomadland” was produced by Searchlight, but was primarily released on Hulu, debuting when many movie theaters were closed. Many of this year’s major contenders were backed and released by streaming services, which filled the void left by distributors who rely on cinemas as the main vehicle for getting their films in front of audiences. This year’s crop of best picture contenders includes Amazon’s “Sound of Metal” and Netflix “The Trial of the Chicago Seven” and “Mank.” Other contenders, like “Judas and the Black Messiah,” debuted in theaters and on HBO Max, or hit on-demand platforms early, as was the case with Focus’ “Promising Young Woman.” The lack of a theatrical push appeared to have hurt the public’s awareness of these movies, with studies suggesting that most people were unfamiliar with this year’s batch of Oscars nominees.
Awards shows have been struggling in the ratings during COVID, with the Grammy Awards hitting a record low of 8.8 million viewers and the Golden Globes capturing a mere 6.9 million viewers for a 13-year low. Given the low profile of this year’s crop of Oscar contenders, that downward ratings trend could continue.
The Oscars have faced criticism in recent years for overlooking performers of color. In response to the #OscarsSoWhite social media campaign, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences took steps to add more diversity to its membership. This year’s acting nominees are the most diverse in history, with nine of the twenty nominated roles performed by people of color. Further, more women were nominated in 2021 than in any previous year.
This year’s ceremony is unfolding later than usual. The 2020 Oscars took place in early February, roughly a month before the U.S. went into lockdown. The Academy opted to push the telecast to April 25, two months later than initially planned in the hopes that the public health situation would have improved. COVID also delayed the opening of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, a nearly $500 million showcase of movie history, that was initially supposed to welcome visitors in December.