The Academy Awards peaked at Bong and died in Union Station. Not tribute nor elegy, the 2021 Oscars were simply another ceremony. Quietly marketed as a rebuke to “the way it’s always been done,” Steven Soderbergh was enlisted as a lead producer for the ceremony, one already mounted with the heavy asterisk of representing a year of cinema during a raging pandemic that threatened to overthrow the industry itself. To be fair, there’s still no evidence that it won’t further destroy the studios, but folks been wearing wide-eyed optimism lately. The movies we got in 2020 were the leftovers, the films that could be afforded to be thrown to the wolves (and a rare handful that certainly couldn’t afford to, and brutally lost the gamble), so any celebration would feel like a pitying consolation prize. The resulting broadcast felt brash and new, while also feeling as dull as we all had imagined it’s been year after year. And, yes, with pointed pleas to watch these streamers’ films as intended on “the big screen,” it was also three hours of pitying consolation. The promised reinvention that would affirm this gaudy ceremony’s existence amid passionate petitions to skip a year never materialized. To paraphrase a pal, it was yet again just a bunch of fucking freaks jerking each other off in a weird-looking room.
The ceremony felt created from the mental projections of Oscar pundits and played out seemingly just for those pundits, less resembling one of Hollywood’s most highly esteemed televised events and more like watching Smash Mouth play an insurance firm’s holiday party: a designer warehouse will likely find forgotten, crumpled drink tokens folded in Carey Mulligan’s loaned gown. Does a Best Actress win still feel good when your speech is delivered to a half-empty, makeshift dining hall plopped in the corridor of a train station your agent’s intern uses? When I was in junior high, the corny visual of the text on the page scrolling across the completed scene as Best Original Screenplay nominees were listed off was a breathtaking glimpse at the journey from conception to execution. Even with the laziest practice in recent years of playing film audio over a screen cap for the sound awards, I realized that I could recognize the moment each audio capture was from—I could see the movie. Soderbergh’s definition of the Oscars was the same stage show, but with less effort. It was a bold strategy, to put it kindly, stripping the production of spectacle after years of derisions of its tedium. Supporting actor nominees introduced with a languid name-reading, applause, and then, with the clock ticking, an extra two minutes of face-to-face praise. Rinse and repeat. But you know what? The pundits ate it up as if they were themselves invited to Union Station. I was bored out of my goddamned gourd, but from Vanity Fair reporters to podcasters to culture writers from America’s leading newspapers, people kind of loved getting to have a chill cocktail party with the talent of 2020.
Despite aiming for the die-hards, the most engrossed were still glued to the timeline, half-watching at best. It was a show meant for a niche audience, but that niche audience was only watching out of a work-like obligation to the game. I do not watch the Oscars for its intimacy nor its insight into how the upper crust truly lives: this is not the avenue from which I am seeking truth. I’m here for the show, for the ritz, and for the blown-out wonderment of getting so sucked into the art of the motion picture that I feel the compulsion to treat its distribution and celebration as a sport that drives me bouncing off the walls. I need PARASITE to beat 1917, I need it with everything from what’s in my guts to my toes so that the next wave of kids seeking personal solace in cinema at least have some good fucking food to feast on when they decide to base their budding tastes off of the Best Picture winners list. Many moaned about foregoing clips from the films to prioritize the humans who made them, but in a year marred by a not-so-quiet discourse around anyone even having seen the films nominated, the complaints over this baffling decision were warranted.
Soderbergh’s momentary remixing of the format rang embarrassingly unrehearsed. Cameramen ambled about tables struggling to hit the marks on the right faces as nominations were listed off, constantly misidentifying them. The widescreen aspect ratio prepared the eye for the finesse of practiced form in a show that felt like it was being constructed as it went along, right down to the stage having no obvious stairway or Lil Rel Howery suddenly hosting trivia with 30 slim minutes of showtime left on the clock. It was disarmingly sloppy work. Having Marlee Matlin signing her introduction, only for the camera to completely cut away as she continues to do so for the nomination-listing while the male narrator translates for the telecast? Sandwiching PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN’s spit kink between NOMADLAND’s Swankie pouring her heart out and Paul Raci confronting his patient’s addiction? Bong Joon-ho’s cheeky claim to the Oscars being a “very local” awards show carried into his declaration of Best Director, obligatorily shoving the envelope towards the camera and, as winner Chloé Zhao took the stage, him promptly asking production if he was wrapped and visibly walking off set on the screens behind the history-making winner.
Humanitarian awards to first responders don’t mean shit to channel-surfers and mean even less to the first responders haggling for hazard pay, and it especially doesn’t mean shit when dozens upon dozens of unhoused Los Angeles residents were displaced to accommodate for the production at Union Station, lest we mention the thousands of workers and local residents whose commutes were uprooted during a time of volatile employment. And for what? To painstakingly adjust Union Station (which, regardless of what city government and Metrolink believe, is still a central transit hub) to resemble the Hollywood Bowl as the Hollywood Bowl sat in its 12th vacant month a few miles away is legendary dipshittery. What a stupid fucking industry.
It wasn’t all bullshit. The Academy awarded a democratic spread of films, none declaring a clean sweep. Youn Yuh-jung slyly became the frontrunner for best supporting actress, possibly the most unpredictable race of the evening, after months of merely rooting for her to garner the recognition of a nomination. Flash-forward to the past three weeks, and she made a surprise steal of home base in the final inning. She’s just luckier than the rest. And as corny as the introduction was, with Regina King walking towards the camera and onto the stage in a prolonged tracking shot as the evening’s credits scrolled (oh no, I thought, it’s *this* version of Soderbergh), I couldn’t help but smile at Ms. King finally being seen as such a reliable, radiant talent that the first moments of this momentous, skin-saving broadcast relied on her talents and her talents alone. She can never get enough credit, and in these moments, I thought we were in for a treat. Daniel Kaluuya and Leslie Odom Jr. sneaking off to giggle and shoot the shit during the pre-show served as a gorgeous glimpse of what the face of this business could be, while simultaneously a hyper-realized practice of what it is; to actively escape the drolleries of the routine and practice some humanity on the sidelines, daydreaming about what we can do after this wraps the fuck up.
We need to talk about Chadwick Boseman. A demented, awkwardly intentioned tribute NFT of the late actor’s 3D-rendered head was included in every nominee’s gift bag, with an auctioned version’s proceeds going towards The Colon Cancer Foundation. So essentially: based on what price Chadwick’s floating head goes for in the general marketplace, nominees will then have some valued crypto to do with what they please. Ghoulish, as well as some on-the-nose hinting towards who the hotly contested Best Actor award could be handed to, but possibly more ghoulish was Soderbergh’s assumption on a MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM win so as to bank on an emotional acceptance speech from Boseman’s aggrieved family to end the night, an assumption felt so deeply in his chest that Best Picture was announced third to last instead of the usual closer. See, the downside of auteur theory is that all accomplishments rest on the laurels of the directing individual, but when no accomplishments are achieved, then auteur theory becomes really fun, so my apologies to Steven Soderbergh, but you are now the singular, proud owner of this Anne Hathaway + James Franco-sized L.
It was absolute insanity, a restructuring that dragged the show towards insufferable lengths on a pure production level, but who cares about a sludge of a show when moral rot of this caliber is broadcast globally? The sudden ending of the 2021 Oscars, wherein non-attending Anthony Hopkins pulled an upset win in Best Actor over Chadwick Boseman, was a profound, unintended anti-climax that saw an outdated awards show spending its final gasp exploiting those of a stolen icon. It was more embarrassing than the LA LA LAND mix-up of 2017, namely because this fuck up had the extra edge of shamelessly betting the house on a dead man’s memory. The house did not win. Nobody really did. There was a perverse joy in watching the producers instantly get their comeuppance for attempting to disturb the dead for self-gain, but it was hardly satisfying. As for the winner, race was a factor, though I’m not sure if in the most direct sense. I mean, the last recorded median range of Oscar voters’ ages is 62. The maestro Anthony Hopkins manifesting the final days of lost parents undoubtedly swayed—Chadwick Boseman deserved the tribute, and history will not look kindly upon his trophy-less record, but as newly diverse as the Academy hails itself to be, it be the ones who see their own fathers on screen who determine the winners circle.
Tyler Perry, the figurehead of fuckery on Black Twitter, was awarded a puff piece and a gold statue for setting aside some tax-deductible funds to pass onto the unhoused so he could go back to eliminating employees’ attempts at unionization in peace. Taking the televised stage to proclaim your refusal to hate someone just because they’re a police officer is op shit of the lowest grade. Amazon won some gold of their own with SOUND OF METAL, but gained the most prodigious pride of having their legacy enshrined in neutrality thanks to Chloé Zhao’s absolute nothingburger of a poverty-tourism lark, NOMADLAND. You can find some generous press of NOMADLAND here on Merry-Go-Round, but if you’d like to indulge this author’s informal thoughts, I certainly won’t stop you. A small part of me feels bad for Zhao, as she ventures onward from this resounding success to be malformed into a full-blown, inhuman cog in a marketing machine. Is THE ETERNALS the best pitch Kevin Feige has ever heard, or is The Walt Disney Company doing its best to keep the adrenaline pumping as contracts expire on the actors playing the iconic characters who loom larger than the brand itself? Sure wouldn’t hurt to swoon voters so that their winter blockbuster gets a “From Oscar-winning Best Director, Chloé Zhao” marketing subtitle to partially make up for the lack of recognizable IP. At the heart of NOMADLAND’s problems is the fact that I don’t think she quite minds this fate. Who’s to say, but as good as the image feels of Zhao staking herself in a patriarchal model, it’s a whole lot of op shit. It’s not really progress if it’s establishment brains at the forefront of both the image and act of change. Alas, it’s a whole lot of smoke for an underseen selection of films that may very well continue to be underseen. If you’re reading this now, be honest with me… Did you even know the Oscars were last night?