The Oscars are more fun to talk about than to watch. It has always been true, and it was even more true last night. For months, we complained about the delayed date of the ceremony and the extended eligibility window; we wondered what producer Steven Soderbergh meant when he teased the ceremony would be “like a movie”; and we did so many predictions that we talked ourselves out of some pretty obvious choices. It was such fun. Then the Oscars happened, and they weren’t very good, but god bless ‘em, they gave us so many more things to talk about.
It was a bad show full of choices that probably sounded great in the writers’ room but frankly didn’t work on camera. The decision to eschew montages and comedy bits in favor of longer speeches reflected the show’s overall somber tone. Appropriate for this moment in history perhaps, but also quite boring. Most of the awards presentations were prefaced by anecdotes about the nominees and how they were first inspired to make movies. It was a baffling choice. In a year when most people haven’t seen the nominated films, the primary objective should have been to get them excited about doing that. They have simply shown clips from the movies, especially the performances. Watching Daniel Kaluuya perform as Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah is a far better advertisement for cinema than learning about the first movie he went to, or whatever. The producers broke a basic rule of cinema: They told when they should have shown.
As day turned to night outside of Union Station, the ceremony got a little wilder. There were some surprising selections, including Mank for Cinematography and The Father for Adapted Screenplay (although I called that one correctly). Youn Yuh-Jung hit on Brad Pitt during her victory speech for her supporting performance in Minari. Glenn Close did “da butt,” which I knew was a comedy bit immediately because I’m three decades younger than Close, and I had never heard of that dance. Still, it was a far better performance than she gave in Hillbilly Elegy.
Then as the clock struck “just end the show already,” all hell broke loose. When the Best Picture award was announced with twenty minutes to go, the wheels started churning in the mind of every seasoned Oscar viewer. They want to do Best Actor last, so they can end the show on Boseman. It was a risky plan that panned out in the worst way possible. McDormand won Best Actress and gave a terribly short speech, which is understandable considering she had used up her speech on Best Picture a few minutes earlier; she was a producer on Nomadland, and once you have inexplicably howled like a wolf in front of the world, there’s not much more to say.
Then Joaquin Phoenix limped onto the stage and announced that Anthony Hopkins had won Best Actor. It was a shock to most Oscar prognosticators that came with a note of cringe since A) this was supposed to be Boseman’s award, and B) Hopkins didn’t show up to the London satellite site to give a televised awards speech. And so the ceremony that was supposed to end with emotional catharsis of awarding Boseman, whose work has meant so much to so many, concluded with a head shot of Anthony Hopkins, winning for the movie that, out of all the major nominees, was probably seen the least. Not ideal.
For all of these reasons, we will never forget the 2021 Oscars, and that’s probably a win for the show’s producers. But we’re not the audience that the Oscars – and the industry – needs. We’re going to watch anyway, both the movies and the show. Instead, imagine a casual viewer who hasn’t seen most of the nominated films and tuned in last night out of sheer curiosity. Is anything they saw going to make them excited about the future of cinema? Or make them want to pay $5.99 to see one of the nominated films? My hunch is that they left bewildered at an oddity of a ceremony that was more committed to doing something different than doing something good.