- 27 Apr 21
As the saying goes, the show must go on. Just in a smaller venue, with lots of Covid tests and a much smaller audience, both in person and at home...
Hollywood’s biggest night was held in person last night, and televised live on ABC from the Dolby Theatre and Union Station in Los Angeles, but Oscar nominees and guests had more to worry about this year than their red carpet outfits, as all nominees and guests had to have a minimum of two COVID-19 PCR tests performed by the Academy’s vendor and a total of three tests in the week leading up to the telecast.
And then there was the question of whether anyone was going to watch. A huge amount of nominated films haven’t been available for the public to view yet, meaning interest is low, and other awards shows have felt the audiences’ lack of investment, with awards show ratings remaining low all year. The Grammy Awards hit a record low of 8.8 million viewers and the Golden Globes only attracted a mere 6.9 million viewers – the lowest ratings in thirteen years.
It’s a shame, because this year’s acting nominees were the most diverse in Oscar history, with nine of the 20 nominated roles performed by people of colour. Further, more women were nominated in 2021 than in any previous year. After years of very public cries for diversity, it’s a pity that their wins aren’t receiving the normal amount of attention and celebration, but here’s hoping people still see their films when they can.
But you’d be forgiven for not watching the awards show, which was even a bit odd stylistically. Producer Steven Soderbergh helmed the broadcast and was determined to make it more intimate and cinematic than usual, which involved a lot of shaky camera, off-centre framing – and , bizarrely, a severe lack of clips from the films, which removed a sense of context and celebration from the ceremony.
On the plus side, there was no orchestra rushing speeches along this year; instead Questlove did an excellent job DJing the proceedings.
Nomadland was the big winner of the night, scooping up gongs for Best Picture, Best Actress, giving Frances McDormand her third Academy Award, and best director for Chloe Zhao, making her only the second woman to ever win the award, the first woman of colour to do so, the first Asian woman to do so, and only the third Asian director to win. The first woman to win the prize was Kathryn Bigelow in 2010 for The Hurt Locker, and the first Asian director to win was Ang Lee for Brokeback Mountain in 2006, followed by Bong Joon-Ho’s win for Parasite in 2019.
While the phrase “a strange year for film” seems redundant, it is notable that Nomadland is the first film to win best picture without opening in the UK and Ireland since Platoon in 1987 – but fear not, Nomadland will be available on Star on Disney+ on April 30.
Nomadland feels like a particularly important film for a female director, taking a genre of film and indeed story that is largely populated with men’s stories and exploring it from the perspective of a middle-aged woman. Nomadland sees Frances McDormand plays Fern, a widow who loses her job when her small Nevada’s town main plant and source of employment shuts down. Left without family or income, she decides to sell her belongings and live in a can, traveling across the United States looking for seasonal work, and making connections along the way. The film is a beautiful, wrenching, contemplative drama about this subculture of itinerant Americans, mostly middle-aged and older, recovering from lost jobs, lost homes, lost pensions, lost partners, travelling the country, looking for jobs, meaning and connection. Journalism, documentaries and rhetoric around America’s economic depression and its effect on rural and working class communities largely focus on the impact on men, but Zhao’s film focuses not only on Frances McDormand’s character Fern, but also the other middle-aged and older women she meets along the way, played by real life nomads. Nomadland is based on the 2017 non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder,and several interviewees from the book appear in the film, including Linda May and Charlene Swankie, who Fern forges connections with. These connections between older, often bereaved women really makes Nomadland really unique among films about travel and exploration – films so often focused on men or young people.
The film’s beautiful, meditative tone never shies away from the harsh reality of Fern’s lifestyle but does emphasize the role kindness and connection plays in it – a message that Zhao emphasized in her warm acceptance speech.
“I've been thinking a lot lately of how I keep going when things get hard, and I think it goes back to something I learned as a kid," said Zhao, 39, in her speech. "When I was growing up in China, my dad and I used to play this game. We would memorize classic Chinese poems and texts, and we would recite it together and try to finish each other's sentences. There's one that I remember so dearly; it's called 'The Three Character Classics,' " she continues, before stating the first phrase, then translating it to: "’People at birth are inherently good.’ Those six letters had such impact on me as a kid," recalled Zhao. "And I still truly believe them today, even though sometimes it might seem like the opposite is true. But I have always found goodness in the people I met everywhere I went in the world. So this is for anyone who has the faith and the courage to hold onto the goodness in themselves and to hold onto the goodness in each other, no matter how difficult it is to do this."
"This is for you," she concluded. "You inspire me to keep going."
Frances McDormand seemed humbled by her third Oscar win, which now ties her with Daniel Day-Lewis as the actor with the most Oscars for a Leading Role with three each. Only Katherine Hepburn has more with four. (Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson, Ingrid Bergman and Walter Brennan also have three Oscars, but their wins include the Best Supporting category.) McDormand used her speech to quote Macbeth, the adaptation of which she will be appearing in opposite Denzel Washington. “I have no words. My voice is in my sword,” she said. “We know the sword is our work. And I like work. Thanks for knowing that, and thanks for this.”
The odds were on Chadwick Boseman winning Best Actor for his role as a troubled jazz musician in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which would have made him the first person to win Best Actor posthumously since Peter Finch in 1977. However, the Oscar went to Anthony Hopkins for his performance as a man struggling with dementia in The Father, a film that has yet to be shown here. Given Boseman’s incredible talent and his tragic death from cancer at age 43, as well as the wealth of Black talent on display in Ma Rainey, it would have been a welcome win – and there was a slight awkwardness around the award itself. Breaking with tradition, the show’s producers had chosen to end the evening with the Best Actor prize in place of the traditional Best Picture recipient, presumably to allow for a tribute to Boseman should he have won, and ending the show on an emotional note. When Boseman didn’t win, the loss and altered scheduling was emphasized by the fact that Anthony Hopkins wasn’t even present to accept his award, ending the show somewhat anti-climactically. Boseman did appear in the unnveringly speedy In Memoriam section, along with beloved lost Hollywood royalty like Sean Connery, Ennio Morricone, Carl Reiner, Christopher Plummer and Cloris Leachman.
But this isn’t to take away from Hopkins’ win, as his performance has been noted by critics as extraordinary, winning the Welshman a BAFTA award earlier this season. Hopkins, now aged 83, is also now the oldest person to ever win the award.
But one superb and always gloriously entertaining Black actor did get his well-deserved award last night, as Daniel Kaluuya won best Supporting Actor for his incredible performance turn as black radical Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah. The Londoner thanked his mother in his speech, saying “Thank you to my mum,” he said. “You gave me your factory settings so I can stand at my fullest height. Thank you to everyone I love from London town to Kampala.” He also said he wanted to share his award with his co-stars and crew, as well as paying respect to Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party. “Thank you for your light… The Black Panther Party, they showed me how to love myself. And with that love, they overflowed it to the Black community and then to other communities. And they showed us the power of union, the power of unity, and when they say ‘Divide and Conquer’, we say ‘Unite and Ascend.’” After those moving words, things got a bit sillier as Kaluuya got a bit overwhelmed with the excitement of the moment. “Celebrate life, man. We are breathing, we are walking, it's incredible," Kaluuya said. "My mum and my dad, they had sex. It's amazing that I'm here! So I'm going to celebrate that tonight." His mother, watching on, looked hilariously mortified.
Kaluuya wasn’t the only winner from Judas And The Black Messiah to make a meaningful speech, as H.E.R. won Best Original Song for ‘Fight For You,’ an anthem that appeared in the film, and echoed Kaluuya’s calls for tolerance. “Knowledge is power,” she said. “Music is power. And as long as I’m standing, I’m always going to fight for us. I’m always going to fight for my people and for what’s right.”
Another breakthrough for Black women came from Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’s Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson became the first Black women to win an Oscar for makeup and hairstyle “I know that one day it won’t be unusual or groundbreaking, it will just be normal,” Neal said.
Another lovely and eccentric speech came from Best Supporting Actress winner, Korean actress Yuh Jung Youn. A firm favourite, she won for her turn as an eccentric granny in Minari, making her the first Korean winner in this category. When she won at the BAFTAs, her speech was hilarious, starting nicely enough by saying “I would like to express my deep condolences for your Duke of Edinburgh," she said during the speech, referencing the death of Prince Philip. "Thank you so much for this award.” And then she continued with a gloriously (accurate) summary of how British awards are viewed by others. “Every award is meaningful but this one especially [to be] recognized by British people, known as very snobbish people and they approve me as a good actor. So, I'm very, very privileged."
Her Oscar speech was similarly joyful and mischievous, as she remarked ““Tonight I maybe had just a little bit of luck. I am luckier than you,” she said to fellow nominees such as Glenn Close. “Also maybe it’s American hospitality for a Korean actor. I’d like to thank my two boys who make me go out and work. This is the result because mommy works so hard.”
The award for Best Original Screenplay went to Emerald Fennell for the searingly brilliant Promising Young Woman, a film about rape culture starring Carey Mulligan. Fennell accepted her award very excitedly and gracefully, listing off a ream of thank you’s to people in the cast and crew, including actress Carey Mulligan. Fennell admitted she hadn’t prepared a speech which did turn out to be slightly disappointing for those expecting a searing message about rape culture and supporting women, in line with the film’s message, but the film speaks for itself and women are allowed to just have moments of joy and celebration instead of constantly using their time to educate others, so go enjoy your Oscar, Emerald.
Sadly, Kilkenny's Cartoon Saloon’s film Wolfwalkers didn’t go home with the Best Animated Feature Oscar, losing out to Pixar’s Soul, but still, a massive congratulations to the Cartoon Saloon team and their fifth Oscar nod, following on from features The Breadwinner, Song of the Sea and The Secret of Kells, and the short Late Afternoon.
If you want to up those audience numbers slightly & belatedly, you can watch all the action from the 93rd Academy Awards on RTÉ2 and RTÉ Player from 9:35pm tonight.