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The weird ’21 Oscars with one big misstep

Greg W. Locke

Whatzup Features Writer

Published April 28, 2021

The Steven Soderbergh-produced 2021 Oscars are in the books and, welp, they sure were unique — unique to such a degree that the program resembled the loose shagginess of a Golden Globes or Indie Spirit awards show more so than the formal and serious Oscars.

To understand some of the unusual decisions made by Soderbergh and his collaborators you have to consider two things:

1) The strange, COVID-driven circumstances of doing live, in-person events right now.

2) Steven Soderbergh’s adventurous creative persona and work.

Among Soderbergh’s filmography are some legitimate hits, including the Ocean’s 11 trilogy, Erin Brockovich, Contagion, Magic Mike, and Traffic. I like all of those movies, and in some ways all of them are inventive and strange. But these are movies that a broad swath of people can watch and appreciate.

On the other side, you have the artist Steven Soderbergh who takes big chances and has his heart set on innovation. Some of his movies that would fit that characterization include Schizopolis, Full Frontal, Bubble, The Girlfriend Experience, and the movies he did with and about Spalding Gray. These films are very much for cinephiles.

Taking Chances

Soderbergh, for the most part, took the chance of producing and directing the Oscars as his opportunity to take risks on one of cinema’s biggest stages.

There was no proper host, but instead, a few very famous people led segments.

No musical performances. Questlove DJ’d the night.

No one wore masks. No one accepted an award via a Zoom screen.

Lighting was provided mostly by candles at tables.

The show was presented in 2.40:1 widescreen at 24 frames per second. The cameras were almost always seemingly being manned by aspiring 19-year-old filmmakers using DSLRs on gimbals.

No one got played off during an acceptance speech.

The order in which the awards were given out was completely different than usual, with the typical closer, Best Picture, being presented before Best Actor or Best Actress.

That last choice, I think, was an especially silly idea.

It was, to say the least, an odd night. It felt as if Steven Soderbergh was center stage as opposed to the presenters, nominees, and winners.

According to Soderbergh, he wanted the Oscars to feel cinematic. And by shooting at 2.40:1 at 24fps, he was on the right track. By poorly lighting the show and using what seemed to be prosumer cameras on gimbals, he failed.

The camera operation, lighting, and staging of the entire show was awkward and, at times, so uncinematic that I wondered about some of the failures of Soderbergh’s past experimental work.

On to the Award Winners

But anyway, onto this column’s secondary subject of the week: the award winners themselves.

As mentioned above, the biggest award of the night, Best Picture, was given away with 20 minutes left in the show.

Typically the show ends with all the Best Picture winners on stage celebrating. Not tonight. After Chloe Zhao’s excellent Nomadland was announced as the winner, they cut to commercial then came back and gave out two more awards.

The second-to-last award was Best Actress, which went to Frances McDormand for Nomadland. That’s McDormand’s third time winning said award, putting her in a very rare league with just Daniel Day-Lewis and Katharine Hepburn as the only three people to win three or more Best Actor / Best Actress statues. So that was historic and, frankly, made me quite happy.

And then finally we get to the last award of the show: Best Actor. The night’s biggest blunder.

It had been assumed by pretty much everyone that Chadwick Boseman, who tragically passed away last year, was a sure-thing winner. Was his performance better than all the other nominees’ performances? No, certainly not. But he died young and was absolutely a very good actor worth celebrating.

So Soderbergh and crew had planned to end the night on a sad but celebratory note, with Boseman winning, a speech from someone in his family, and a lot of wet eyes.

But instead, Joaquin Phoenix announced the excellent Anthony Hopkins as the winner for his performance in The Father.

But Hopkins wasn’t there. He wasn’t even there remotely from Paris or wherever. Instead of the big Boseman celebration, the night ended on a static photo of Anthony Hopkins. Whoops!

The other big historic moment came when Chloe Zhao won Best Director, making her only the second woman to ever win Best Director and the first woman of color to ever win.

I love Chloe and I love Nomadland, but I left the show feeling as if maybe these wins will come with asterisks because of all the other “Oscar-y” films that were held due to COVID theater protocols.

Will Nomadland ever feel like a proper Best Picture winner? I’m not sure. I hope it does, but it seems as if this year’s Oscar season had the fewest eyes on it that I can recall an Oscars season having with very few people having seen many of the films.

More Awards

Other big winners included H.E.R. for Best Song; Youn Yuh-jung for Best Supporting Actress (Minari); the excellent Another Round for Best Foreign Language Film; Daniel Kaluuya (who I think gave the year’s best overall performance) for Best Supporting Actor (Judas and the Black Messiah); Soul for Best Animated Feature; My Octopus Teacher for Best Documentary; Promising Young Woman writer/director Emerald Fennell won Best Original Screenplay; Florian Zeller and Christopher Hampton’s The Father won for Best Adapted Screenplay; Tenet won for Best Visual Effects; Mank DP Erik Messerschmidt won for Best Cinematography; and Mikkel E. G. Nielsen won Best Editing for Sound of Metal.

An absolutely weird night. While there were certainly a whole lot of missed ideas and countless missed opportunities to show what the Oscars could be, I’m going to mark down Steven Soderbergh’s Oscars as a win if only because they’ll stand out over time as so different from all the other shows.

And hey, I like when artists take chances.

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