Suspense prior to this year’s Oscars had less to do with who the winners would be than what Steven Soderbergh might be planning for the ceremony. It was tempting to scour his own filmography for clues. Would the director of Behind the Candelabra rustle up some Liberace-style pizzazz, or just a lot of Sex, Lies and Videotape? Around 170 guests were assembling in Los Angeles (others gathered at hubs in London and Paris), making this the film industry’s own Bubble, to borrow the name of his 2005 murder mystery. And we’ve all surely had enough talk of Contagion and Side Effects.
Perhaps the organisers hired Soderbergh to oversee this year’s awards after clocking the title of his 2010 documentary: Everything Is Going to Be Fine. And it was – give or take a bizarre mid-ceremony music trivia quiz, and too many interminable speeches. Mercifully, Zoom was outlawed and casual dress discouraged. That immediately set the evening apart from February’s Golden Globes, where Jodie Foster had accepted the Best Supporting Actress prize while sitting on her sofa in her jimjams. Could that be the reason why her film The Mauritanian didn’t receive a single Oscar nomination the following month? Call it #Pyjamagate.
Soderbergh, who produced the Oscars ceremony, had promised that the whole shindig would feel like a movie this year. It’s true that it had an opening credits sequence, though the presence of Questlove at the DJ decks throughout gave it the flavour of an informal chat show. After fleeting references to the pandemic and the trial of Derek Chauvin in the opening minute of Regina King’s introduction, we were straight into the new format, with the reading of biographical titbits about each nominee as the camera panned across the diner-style booths. There were also sporadic cinema-related reminiscences from some of the presenters. Reese Witherspoon told us that the first powerful woman she ever saw on screen was in the animated adventure The Secret of NIMH. That woman, she revealed, was a mouse. Was this anecdote or free-form poetry? You decide.
The actual results were for the most part wholly predictable, even if the order was all out of whack – the Best Picture prize was announced before the main acting categories. Like every other voting body, the Academy wisely gave that top award to Nomadland, and the Best Director prize to Chloé Zhao. This made her the first female director of colour to win that award, and only the second woman at all (after Kathryn Bigelow, who won for The Hurt Locker in 2010). She gave a touching speech about believing in the goodness of people. All the more baffling, then, that the music which accompanied her exit from the stage was “Live and Let Die”.
One of Zhao’s fellow nominees in that category was Emerald Fennell, the British writer-director of Promising Young Woman – the first time two female film-makers have been nominated. This is a cause for objective celebration, but I can’t cheer Fennell’s shlocky thriller, nor her win in the Best Original Screenplay category for a crass, condescending script. Promising Young Woman is this year’s Thelma and Louise, replicating that picture’s mix of feminism-by-martyrdom and sub-Death Wish sensationalism (it even co-opts an ending that was rejected originally by the makers of Fatal Attraction). Let’s call Fennell’s win a plus for equality in cinema, and a minus for the art of screenwriting.
At least the Best Adapted Screenplay went to a genuinely adventurous piece of work: Florian Zeller’s adaptation (with Christopher Hampton) of his play The Father. And I have no argument with Yuh-Jung Youn winning Best Supporting Actress for her role as the playful grandmother in Minari. In her witty acceptance speech, she forgave everyone who had ever mispronounced her name, and pointed out that she wasn’t better than her fellow nominees (who included Olivia Colman and eight-time-loser Glenn Close). Just luckier.
There was a minor surprise when the Best Cinematography award went to Eric Messerschmidt for Mank rather than Joshua James Richards, who had been expected to win for Nomadland. Mank had gone into the race with the most nods (ten) but nabbed just two prizes (Production Design was its other win). That was still a better result than another Netflix production, Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, which failed to convert any of its six nominations into statuettes.
It had seemed at the outset of awards season that Best Actor would go posthumously to Chadwick Boseman for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. I even referred to it a “foregone conclusion” here a month ago – oops. But it was absolutely the correct decision to give it instead, as Bafta had done, to Anthony Hopkins for his career-best performance in The Father. In another repeat of the Bafta results, Frances McDormand won Best Actress for Nomadland (her third Oscar after Fargo and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), while Daniel Kaluuya won Best Supporting Actor for Judas and the Black Messiah. The highlight of his Oscar acceptance speech came when he pointed out that he was only here in the first place because of his parents having sex – cut to his mother looking aghast and his sister hiding her face in her hands.
Given that the Danish director Thomas Vinterberg had featured in the Best Director category despite his comedy-drama Another Round not being a Best Picture nominee (the two traditionally go hand-in-hand), it seemed fair to assume that the film would win the Best International Feature prize. Disappointingly, that’s how it panned out. The movie is fine, with a layered performance by Mads Mikkelsen as a teacher who turns to alcohol to temper the midlife doldrums. But as a piece of cinema, it is no match for two of the other nominees, Quo Vadis, Aida? and Collective, both of which are shattering stories unflinchingly told. Feel-good won this round.
There were three superb films and one discouraging dud in the Best Documentary Feature category (I haven’t seen the fifth title, The Mole Agent). Guess what? The dud won. My Octopus Teacher, the story of the diver Craig Foster and his emotional connection to a mollusc, shovels its sentimental homilies down the viewer’s throat in practically every shot, accompanied by a score as slick and corrosive as an oil spill. That My Octopus Teacher beat Collective, Crip Camp and Time should be a cause of consternation to anyone who cares about innovation in documentary. Feel-good strikes again.
Regardless of individual quibbles about the results, this year’s broadcast surely won’t have done anything to arrest the ratings decline that has been troubling awards show producers in recent years. At times, this one had the air of a modest industry luncheon for local shopkeepers, a reflection perhaps of the diminished status of film-going in the past 13 months. Barring any further setbacks or catastrophes in the coming year, the big screen will be back to its former might. Only a masochist, though, won’t be praying that the Oscars stays this small for ever.
Best Picture: Nomadland.
Best Director: Chloé Zhao, Nomadland.
Best Actress in a Leading Role: Frances McDormand, Nomadland.
Best Actor in a Leading Role: Anthony Hopkins, The Father.
Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Yuh-Jung Youn, Minari.
Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah.
Best Original Screenplay: Emerald Fennell, Promising Young Woman.
Best Adapted Screenplay: Florian Zeller, Christopher Hampton, The Father.
Best Cinematography: Eric Messerschmidt, Mank.
Best Editing: Mikkel E. G. Nielsen, Sound of Metal.
Best Score: Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, Jon Batiste, Soul.
Best Original Song: H.E.R., “Fight For You”, Judas and the Black Messiah.
Best Production Design: Mank.
Best Visual Effects: Tenet.
Best Makeup: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
Best Costume: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
Best Sound: Sound of Metal.
Best International Feature: Another Round.
Best Animated Feature: Soul.
Best Documentary Feature: My Octopus Teacher.
Best Animated Short: If Anything Happens I Love You.
Best Documentary Short: Colette.
Best Live Action Short: Two Distant Strangers.