The Oscars’ purpose is twofold: to celebrate the year’s movies and the movies, writ large. Resources and attention are largely expended on the first: on promoting the annual crop of nominees, their narratives, the jockeying between them, and what various victories might reflect and portend for the industry and culture more largely. But as inescapable as much of this is, it’s just the near plot—one wave crashing ashore. And while no wave is the same—some are stronger, some are weaker, some knock down sandcastles—for the Academy Awards and Hollywood, the more important thing is that next year, there’s another wave coming. That’s the deep plot, the endless recurrence, the annual opportunity the telecast gives the movie business make the case that the movies are special.
The near plot and the deep plot can seamlessly coexist. Typically, the Oscars honor specific actors and films while also showcasing the most glamorous celebrities and the swankiest clothes, pattering about how the movies bring us together, and airing montages culled from decades of cinema. In more recent years, though, they have sometimes been riven by a tension, primarily about issues of representation. When a movie like Green Book wins Best Picture, the near plot tarnishes the deep plot. How good can the movies be if they don’t include, recognize, and honor people of color? Who’s this ocean for, if only white people feel good there?
Still, in the way that waves crashing ashore can change the shape of a rock, the Oscars have strived to address these issues. In a normal year, this ongoing change would have been the focus of the 2021 Oscars. The show had a number of heartfelt speeches and historic wins—including Nomadland’s Chloe Zhao, who became the first woman of color to win Best Director—and began with Regina King strutting into Los Angeles’ Union Station, and upon taking the stage, swiftly remarking, “If things had gone differently in Minneapolis, I might have traded in my heels for marching boots.” But it’s not a normal year. Instead, it’s the year no one went to the movies except via on-demand and streaming platforms. Many of the films found there were very good, and the year’s nominees reflected that. The near plot is in good, if underwatched shape. But the deep plot—it’s a shambles.
Another telecast would have panicked about this. What’s the Oscars supposed to look like in a year when few people watched most of the nominated films, and the ones who did watched them the same way they watch television? Nomadland might be the only Best Picture winner ever to have its star say, upon accepting the award, “Please watch our movie.” But this telecast, produced by, among others, Steven Soderbergh, who has long had ambitions to scale the show back and turn it into an intimate happening, decided to play it cool—maybe a little too cool. 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.
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 paid off very quickly, when Daniel Kaluuya made his way to the observation that his parents had sex, and isn’t life just amazing? That’s the kind of thought—and GIF—you don’t get to when you’re being played off by the orchestra.
Still, the near and the deep plot dueled. The presenters shared their early experiences with film; the fun facts about the nominees often included early influences as well. This was the auditory equivalent of the movie montage: See how the movies stick with us? The telecast was also remarkably free of talk about movie theaters (give or take a Frances McDormand plug). A cynical person might note that the future is here and it looks like streaming. It’s happened so fast that now that is the business of movies, and talking up the old business—theatrical releases—is merely biting Netflix’s hand. But a less cynical person might think that this telecast was uniquely uninterested in the business side—in blockbusters and telecast ratings—and primarily interested in the movies and the people who don’t have to be convinced to love them.
Almost three hours in, the whole thing was looking pretty high-minded, if nothing else. And then: late-breaking showmanship. It started with a round of music trivia with 20 minutes left in the show—very late for the first “bit” of the night. That went over pretty well, ending with Glenn Close shaking her rump. (The apparently impromptu bit was scripted, of course, but Close isn’t an eight-time nominee for nothing.) This led directly to an In Memoriam that played with crude, rude speed, flashing by as if it were on fast-forward, and that was then followed by a switcheroo: Best Picture would be handed out before Best Actor and Best Actress. Despite making very little concessions all night long to the underwatched nominees, the thinking seemed to be that Nomadland’s likely victory wasn’t all that exciting. So they’d get it over with, and hope to end the show on Chadwick Boseman posthumously winning Best Actor, and his widow closing the night. Instead, Anthony Hopkins won, and he wasn’t even there to accept. After all that intimate, cozy, movie love, the night ended on a very loud Pffffft.
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