Oscarland

If nothing else, the anticlimactic end to last night’s Academy Awards ceremony proves definitively that the accounts who tabulate the votes aren’t tipping off the ceremony’s producers about the winners. The shift of the Best Picture category to take place before presentation of the two lead acting awards was clearly meant to finish the telecast with the emotional body blow of Chadwick Boseman’s widow accepting an Oscar on his behalf. Instead, Sir Anthony Hopkins earned his second Oscar statuette while he snored comfortably in his bed half a world away, Joaquin Phoenix offered the boilerplate language used to note an absent victor, and Questlove hastily bid viewers a goodnight. Had the producers known the widely predicted outcome of a posthumous win for Boseman wasn’t the result of the Academy’s vote, they surely would have meticulously unshuffled the program lineup.

That marginal positive is the only kind thing I can say about the maneuvering to put the night’s biggest prize ahead of the last commercial break. Given the circumstances that inspired the placement of Best Actor at a Leading Role at the end of the night, the choice is crass and exploitative. Making matters worse, it came at the end of a program that was uncommonly committed to honoring nominated film creators rather than indulging in spectacle. Much as I would have preferred more use of visuals from the films invited to compete at Hollywood’s biggest night, taking the extra time to actually talk about the people connected to the work — the quick-hit personal histories and recounting of the inspiration behind the craft the usually accompanied recitation of the names — was a reminder that movies are conjured up fully formed. They require intense professional commitment and developed expertise. Similarly, I’ll trade away every clip package to spare winners the indignity of being rushed along by the mounting volume of an antsy orchestra. Someone clutching an Oscar after the jolt of hearing their name read aloud by a movie star holding a freshly opened envelope is living the pinnacle of their career. Let them have that moment, no matter how boring a subset of viewers might find it.

Producers Steven Soderbergh, Jesse Collins, and Stacey Sher trumpeted their intent to make the Academy Awards ceremony feel like a film, a concept ingenious in its simple elegance. It looked and felt different, helped immensely by the intimacy of the venue, chosen for its ability to accommodate a seating arrangement dictated by physical distancing choices. It smacked of old Hollywood, the grainy, black-and-white clips of bygone stars accepting trophies when an Oscar didn’t have the same historic cachet of an automatic entry into the pantheon. Better yet were the moments of inspired staging: Bong Joon Ho’s playful camera tricks when presenting the Best Director category from an empty theater in Korea and the lovely trading of language roles with stalwart interpreter Sharon Choi at the very end, the tweaking of tradition for the lead acting presenters making the moment into a passing of the excellence baton, and, best of all, Regina King opening the show by taking a long, swaggering walk with Oscar in hand, like we were all about to embark on Oscar’s Eleven.

As for the distribution of the shiny golden men, even if I wouldn’t have made every choice the same as the Academy voters did, there’s no grave injustice to be found. I had every acting winner among my personal quintet of worthy nominees in their respective categories, and Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland is probably the strongest of the films that made the cut for Best Picture. It’s a warm, detailed, subtle film, hardly the sort of thing the Academy tends to honor with their top prize. It was the consensus frontrunner for so long that it disguises what a wonderfully unorthodox choice it is. Combined with Parasite‘s victory one year earlier, it’s another marker in the Academy’s long trek away from hollow epics, genially stuff history lessons, and condescending broadsides addressing social ills. For all the changes instilled in this year’s ceremony, by both necessity and misguided opportunism, valuing strong, unique cinematic storytelling above all is the most welcome innovation.

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