Do we really need a reason to be mad at the Oscars? The biggest awards in American filmmaking get dunked on constantly and, almost all of the time, they deserve it. Whether it’s the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ membership diversity, its voting choices, its historic disinclination to make any but the most basic steps forward—not to mention all the problems inherent in being a big glitzy awards show for capital-H Hollywood—the Oscars are under fire a lot. As they should be—that’s how they’ll get better.
But the 2021 Oscars were understandably different. The very delayed ceremony featured distanced nominees, with a relatively low-key and speech-heavy production from Jesse Collins, Stacey Sher and Steven Soderbergh. It’s here where things get a little wonky.
Overall, the speeches were great and intimate. The winners—aside from the documentary and short film picks—came mostly as expected for actually good movies. Heck, even The Trial of the Chicago 7, the milquetoast doofus movie that would normally win trophies by sake of its status as Oscar Bait, got shut out. But then came the weirdness at the finale: After a rushed In Memoriam (especially full in this awful, awful year) zipped by and ended on Chadwick Boseman, whose private diagnosis with colon cancer shocked the world upon his death in August, the production’s choices got gross.
Boseman, nominated posthumously for Best Actor for his role in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, was placed in swag bags as a trendy NFT (thanks to marketing company Distinctive Assets). So that’s gross. Then, right after ending its high-tempo, strangely upbeat In Memoriam on Boseman, the Oscars team decided to throw out the traditional finale (where the awards that declare the year’s Best Picture end with…declaring Best Picture) by announcing Best Picture early and saving Best Actor as its final award of the evening. Audiences didn’t have to do a lot of mental calculus to figure out what was going on: The producers seemed to be setting the night up to end on a victorious Boseman, canonized by his peers and honored once again as an artist lost well before his time. What other reason could there be for hamstringing the wins of Chloé Zhao, whose Nomadland won Best Picture after she took home Best Director early in the evening?
Well, someone should have told the producers how the Academy actually voted, because Best Actor went to The Father’s Anthony Hopkins—a deserved win for an excellent performance, caught up in drama completely fabricated by the Oscars production—and Hopkins wasn’t in attendance to accept. So presenter Joaquin Phoenix, exactly the spotlight-hating actor you don’t want closing things out with an awkward moment, hurried through his responsibilities and all but booked it for the fire exit. It wasn’t just anticlimax, it was a star-studded structural parable about pre-hatched chicken-counting.
Instead of a memorial, we got a memorable gaff. Instead of remembering Hopkins as a fantastic actor, and now the oldest actor to ever win an Oscar, he’s caught up in Collins, Sher and Soderbergh’s decision that—we can only hope—he was deeply, happily asleep for. Instead of Zhao getting to relish her groundbreaking night, she was shoved out of the spotlight for a sweaty Joker and an actor’s headshot. So, for one of the first times in recent memory—even beyond the Moonlight/La La Land screw-up that ended up just fine—we’re not actually upset with the Academy, but at the actual Oscars’ foolish choices.
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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