Transformed by Covid and Industry Shifts, the 2021 Academy Awards Sets Off
Daniel Kaluuya won best supporting actor and Emerald Fennell’s script for “Promising Young Woman” was recognized in a singular Oscar telecast.,
LOS ANGELES — A surreal 93rd Academy Awards, a stage show broadcast on television about films mostly distributed on the internet, got underway on Sunday with Regina King, a former Oscar winner and the director of “One Night in Miami,” strutting into a supper-club set.
“It has been quite a year, and we are still smack dab in the middle of it,” she said, referencing the pandemic and the guilty verdict in the George Floyd murder trial. “Our love of movies helped to get us through.”
With little more preamble, Oscar statuettes were handed out, with Emerald Fennell, a first-time nominee, winning best original screenplay for “Promising Young Woman,” a startling revenge drama. The last woman to win solo in the category had been Diablo Cody (“Juno”) in 2007.
“He’s so heavy and so cold,” Fennell said about the gold-plated Oscar statuette in an impromptu speech that revisited one she wrote when she was 10 and loved Zack Morris in the television series “Saved By the Bell.” “They said write a speech. I’m going to be in trouble with Steven Soderbergh,” she said.
Christopher Hampton and Florian Zeller won the adapted screenplay prize for “The Father,” about the ravages of dementia. “Another Round,” about middle-age men who decide to get drunk daily, won the Academy Award for international feature film (previously referred to as foreign-language film). The Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg dedicated “Another Round” to his daughter, Ida, who was killed in a car crash in 2019.
“Maybe you’ve been pulling some strings somewhere,” Vinterberg said, fighting back tears.
Going into the ceremony, there was a chance that the night could go down in Hollywood history. People of color were nominated for all four acting awards — an indication that the film industry has implemented meaningful reforms. The academy, which has roughly 10,000 members, remains overwhelmingly white and male, but the organization has invited more women and people of color into its ranks following the intense #OscarsSoWhite outcries in 2015 and 2016, when the acting nominees were all white. This year, nine of the 20 acting nominations went to people of color.
As expected, Daniel Kaluuya was named supporting actor for playing the Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in “Judas and the Black Messiah.”
“Bro, we out here!” Kaluuya shouted in celebration before growing serious and crediting Hampton (“what a man, what a man”) and ending with the cri de coeur, “When they played divide and conquer, we say unite and ascend.”
Hollywood wanted the producers of the telecast to pull off an almost-impossible hat trick. First and foremost, they were asked to design a show that prevented the TV ratings from plunging to an alarming low — while celebrating movies that, for the most part, have not connected widely with audiences. The producing team, which included the Oscar-winning filmmaker Steven Soderbergh (“Traffic”), also hope to use the telecast to jump-start theatergoing, no small task when most of the world has been out of the box office habit for more than a year. Lastly, the producers needed to integrate live camera feeds from more than 20 locations to comply with coronavirus safety restrictions.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had delayed the event, which typically takes place in February, in hopes of outrunning the pandemic. Still, the red carpet had to be radically downsized and the extravagant parties canceled.
For the first time, the academy nominated two women for best director, recognizing Chloe Zhao for “Nomadland,” a bittersweet meditation on grief and the American dream, and Fennell for “Promising Young Woman,” about the aftermath of a sexual assault. The other nominated directors were David Fincher for “Mank,” a black-and-white love letter to Old Hollywood; Lee Isaac Chung for “Minari,” a semi-autobiographical tale about a Korean-American family; and, in a surprise, Vinterberg for “Another Round.”
Zhao had already been feted for her “Nomadland” direction by nearly 60 other organizations, including the Directors Guild of America and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. In 93 years of the Academy Awards, only one woman, Kathryn Bigelow, has ever won. (Bigelow was celebrated in 2010 for directing “The Hurt Locker.”) The directing category has also been dominated over the decades by white men, giving the nomination of Zhao, who is Chinese, even greater meaning.
Netflix was back in the best picture race.
Netflix received its first Oscar nomination in 2014 for “The Square,” a feature documentary about the Egyptian revolution. Since then — in large part because of copious amounts of money spent on awards campaigns — the streaming giant has come to dominate the nominations. It amassed 36 this year, more than any other company, with “Mank” receiving 10, more than any other film.
But Netflix and its sharp-elbowed awards campaigners keep whiffing in the end.
Last year, the company’s best-picture hopes rested on “The Irishman.” It failed to convert even one of its 10 nominations into a win. In 2019, Netflix pushed “Roma.” It won three Oscars, including one for Alfonso Cuaron’s direction, but lost the big prize.
On Sunday, Netflix had two nominees, “Mank” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” Those films were competing against Zhao’s “Nomadland,” an entry from Searchlight, a division of the Walt Disney Company. The other nominees for best picture were “Sound of Metal,” “Minari,” “Promising Young Woman,” “Judas and the Black Messiah” and “The Father.”
There was nothing usual about the broadcast.
Soderbergh was not your usual Oscar producer, which is why he may have been the perfect choice for this very unusual year. He and his producing partners for the event, Stacey Sher and Jesse Collins, eschewed Zoom and implemented enough protocols to enable a mask-free environment for the nominees.
In the lead-up to Sunday, Soderbergh kept referring to the show as a three-act film. The telecast’s writing staff included the “Surviving R. Kelly” filmmaker Dream Hampton and the veteran writer-director Richard LaGravenese (“The Fisher King”). Presenters were referred to as “cast members.” They included Zendaya, Brad Pitt and Bong Joon Ho, last year’s winner for best director.
The ceremony has typically included performances of the five tunes nominated for best song. Not this year. Those were moved off the main stage and onto a preshow, which allowed them to be performed in their entirety.
This year, however, the academy decided to hand out two honorary Oscars during the primary show. (Since 2009, honorary statuettes have been awarded during a nontelevised banquet in the fall.) The nonprofit Motion Picture & Television Fund, which underwrites a nursing home and retirement village for aging and ailing “industry” people (actors, executives, choreographers, lighting technicians, camera operators), received one. The organization, founded in 1921 by stars like Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin, also provides a wide range of other services to Hollywood seniors.
The second went to Tyler Perry, who the academy cited as a “cultural influence extending far beyond his work as a filmmaker.” Perry, of course, started his entertainment career as a playwright. Since ending his popular, nine-film “Madea” series in 2019, Perry has focused on making television shows like “Bruh,” “Sistahs” and “The Oval” for BET. He owns a studio in Atlanta.
The Dolby Theater, which holds more than 3,000 people and has been the home of the Academy Awards since 2001, was not the epicenter of the telecast. This year, with just the nominees and their guests in attendance, an Art Deco, Mission Revival train station in downtown Los Angeles served as the main venue.