That bravura gesture marked a rare bit of genuine excitement on a night when there were few surprises and the tone was low-key to the point of lugubrious. The theme of the show was “movie love,” an idea driven home by producer Steven Soderbergh, who insisted that the production values would possess the cinematic gloss of classic films. With nominees gathering with only the most modest entourages at socially distanced tables — donning masks when the cameras weren’t running — this year’s program made it a point to observe the safety protocols of the pandemic that dramatically shaped the year the Oscars were supposed to celebrate.
That year, of course, was rocked not only by a lethal virus that shuttered theaters and threatened to bring movie production to halt, but a national reckoning around racism and violence that started with perhaps the most important film of 2020: The 10-minute cellphone video that teenager Darnella Frazier captured of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murdering George Floyd. Against such a sobering backdrop, it’s understandable that Soderbergh and his co-producers, Stacey Sher and Jesse Collins, would want to keep frivolity to a minimum. Rather than one-liners and comedy bits, the host-less ceremony was a strenuously sincere affair, with the presenters’ sometimes painfully earnest mini-biographies of the nominees often exceeding the length of the acceptance speeches of the actual winners.
For the most part, those winners were expected: “Nomadland,” Chloé Zhao’s part-mythic, part-realist drama about American migrants traveling the West in search of seasonal work, took the award for best picture, with its star, Frances McDormand, winning her third Oscar for best actress (she won previously for “Fargo” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”). Zhao also won for best director, making her the second woman — after Kathryn Bigelow for “The Hurt Locker” in 2010 — and the first woman of color to earn that distinction.
In fact, “Nomadland’s” success seemed so preordained that the best picture prize wasn’t announced at the evening’s end: Instead, the climactic moment belonged to the two most competitive categories this year. Although McDormand’s win was not a shock, the best actress race was seen as a toss-up. Anthony Hopkins’s award for his leading role in the drama “The Father,” on the other hand, counted as the evening’s most high-profile upset. Although it’s hardly headline news when a British actor wins an Oscar, many prognosticators thought the academy would give Chadwick Boseman a posthumous award for his performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”
Other than “Nomadland’s” three wins, the rest of the awards were pretty evenly dispersed among the nominees: Only Aaron Sorkin’s historical drama “The Trial of the Chicago 7” was shut out. The winners making their way to the microphone in Union Station — with others tuning in from the British Film Institute’s theater in London, as well as locations throughout Europe — reflected the same global sensibilities that have characterized other recent Oscars ceremonies, when such films as “Parasite” and “The Shape of Water” have taken top honors. This year, the filmmakers winning awards came from China (“Nomadland’s” Zhao), South Korea (Yuh-jung Youn, who won best supporting actress for her role in “Minari”), Denmark (director Thomas Vinterberg, whose “Another Round,” which won best international feature, and editor Mikkel Nielsen, who won for “Sound of Metal”) and France (“Sound of Metal” sound editor Nicolas Becker, and Florian Zeller, who won for adapted screenplay for “The Father”).
Throughout the evening, well-meaning presenters did their best to personalize the nominees, honoring each one by telling a story about their early jobs in the industry, or the first movie they saw as a child. As heartfelt as the effort was, it had diminishing returns in terms of audience excitement; in the absence of clips, the most exciting movie moments of the night wound up being advertisements for the upcoming musicals “West Side Story” and “In the Heights.”
Those films, of course, were pushed back in 2020 as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The absence of big-budget blockbusters cleared the way for smaller films — like “Nomadland,” “The Father,” “Minari,” “Sound of Metal” and original-screenplay winner “Promising Young Woman” — which, although inarguably worthy and well-executed, were spread across myriad platforms, making it difficult for them to catch on with audiences.
The result was a ceremony that inadvertently reflected the disjointed, center-less year that came before — a year that wasn’t even a proper year, because the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided to extend eligibility to films that opened in the first two months of 2021. In addition to the presenters’ occasionally long-winded intros, several winners were eager to address such issues as gun violence, racism and intolerance, even while recognizing progress. After Jamika Wilson and Mia Neal made history as the first African American women to win an Oscar for makeup and hairstyling (for their work on “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”), Neal took note of the moment, adding, “I can picture Black trans women standing up here, and Asian sisters, and our Latina sisters, and Indigenous women. And I know that one day, it won’t be unusual or groundbreaking. It will just be normal.”
By the time the program introduced its sole piece of comedy during its final half-hour — an amusing but ill-timed bit in which Glenn Close dropped some surprising (and, it turned out, scripted) knowledge about the go-go music scene in Washington — viewers could be forgiven for not understanding what any of it had to do with movies that relatively few of them had watched, anyway.
To no one’s surprise, ratings for ABC’s Oscars broadcast plummeted by 58 percent, hitting an all-time low of 9.85 million viewers. (To be fair, the drop was commensurate with other awards shows, including the Golden Globes and Grammys.)
But perhaps that was the most fitting way to recognize a time when plenty of good movies came out, but felt like they were lost in the shuffle of streaming series, Zoom sessions and doomscrolling. “Please watch our movie on the largest screen possible,” McDormand pleaded when “Nomadland” won best picture, pinning her hopes on the widespread opening of theaters, when audiences can once again sit “shoulder to shoulder in that dark space.”
Will that be sooner or later? No one knows. This year’s Oscars may have ended with a giant shrug: Hopkins wasn’t even present to accept his statuette, resulting in a fizzle rather than a big finale. But the awkwardness felt somehow appropriate for the unsettling, uncertain year that had gone before — not just for Hollywood, but for the world. King might have put it best, in what turned out to be the motto for the entire night: Just moments after expressing her relief at having made it, she added: “We’re still smack dab in the middle of it.”