Oscars 2021: What to Watch For

It has been a surreal time in Hollywood, but Sunday night’s Academy Awards, which begin at 8 p.m. Eastern, could go down in movie industry history for several reasons.,


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LOS ANGELES — Preventing the TV ratings from plunging to an alarming low, while celebrating movies that, for the most part, have not connected widely with audiences. Attempting to jump-start theatergoing when most of the world is more than a year out of the habit. Integrating live camera feeds from more than 20 locations to comply with coronavirus safety restrictions.

This is going to be one hard-working Academy Awards ceremony.

The surreal 93rd edition — a stage show broadcast on television about films mostly distributed on the internet — will finally arrive Sunday night. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences 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.

The night could go down in Hollywood history for happier reasons, however. The famed “and the Oscar goes to” envelopes could contain these names: Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis, Daniel Kaluuya and Yuh-Jung Youn. If that happens, as some awards handicappers have predicted, it would be the first time that people of color swept the acting Oscars — an indication that the film industry has kept its promise in response to the #OscarsSoWhite movement and implemented meaningful reforms.

Voters, of course, could always veer in other directions. Is this the year that Glenn Close, a supporting actress nominee for “Hillbilly Elegy,” finally gets to take home a little gold dude? Or will she tie Peter O’Toole’s sad record for eight winless nominations? Carey Mulligan (“Promising Young Woman“) or Frances McDormand (“Nomadland“) could edge past Davis (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom“) to win best actress. And a posthumous best actor win for Boseman (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”) has lately been less of a sure thing thanks to a surge of academy support for Anthony Hopkins (“The Father“).

In other words, it could be another Lucy-pulling-away-the-football moment for those who hope the film academy is on the verge of revealing itself as a definitively progressive organization. (Kaluuya is considered a lock for supporting actor for his performance in “Judas and the Black Messiah.”)

Here are three more things to consider before the ABC telecast, which begins at 8 p.m. Eastern time.

Netflix’s “Mank” is one of eight movies nominated for best picture; from left, Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies and Gary Oldman as Herman Mankiewicz.Credit…Netflix

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 its black-and-white love letter to Old Hollywood, “Mank,” directed by David Fincher, 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 — despite the pandemic hastening the rise of streaming services — Netflix is poised to three-peat as a best-picture loser, with its two nominees, “Mank” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” expected to be eclipsed by “Nomadland,” about a grief-stricken woman retreating to the margins of society. It hails from Searchlight, a division of the Walt Disney Company.


Chloe Zhao, left, was nominated for “Nomadland,” and Emerald Fennell was nominated for “Promising Young Woman.”Credit…Taylor Jewell/Invision via Associated Press

There is a chance that women will shine in both writing categories.

Emerald Fennell is the favorite to win the Oscar for best original screenplay for “Promising Young Woman,” a visceral revenge drama, having triumphed at the Writers Guild Awards. Fennell, a first-time nominee, would be the first woman to win solo in the category since Diablo Cody (“Juno”) in 2007. As for adapted screenplay, Chloe Zhao (“Nomadland”) is in a tight race with Florian Zeller (“The Father”). If Zhao joins Fennell in the winner’s column, it will be the first time that two solo women win the writing prizes in the same year.

Zhao’s big moment, however, will come toward the end of the ceremony, when she is expected to win the best director Oscar. In 93 years of the Academy Awards, only one woman, Kathryn Bigelow, has ever won. The category has also been dominated over the decades by white men, giving recognition of Zhao, who is Chinese, even greater meaning.


Union Station in Los Angeles will be the main venue for the ceremony this year.Credit…AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images

Steven Soderbergh is not your usual Oscar producer, which is why he may be the perfect choice for this very unusual year.

As a director who is constantly pushing boundaries with form, subject matter and scope, he is seemingly always on the lookout for a new challenge. And what could be a bigger hurdle than producing the Academy Awards in the middle of the pandemic? He and his producing partners for the event, Stacey Sher and Jesse Collins, have eschewed Zoom and implemented enough protocols to enable a mask-free environment for the nominees.

Mr. Soderbergh also keeps referring to the show as a three-act film. The telecast’s writing staff includes the “Surviving R. Kelly” filmmaker Dream Hampton and the veteran writer-director Richard LaGravanese (“The Fisher King”). Presenters are being referred to as “cast members.” (They include Zendaya, Brad Pitt and Bong Joon Ho, last year’s winner for best director.)

The Dolby Theater, which holds more than 3,000 people and has been the home of the Academy Awards since 2001, will not be the epicenter of the telecast. This year, with just the nominees and their guests in attendance, Union Station — the Art Deco, Mission Revival transit hub in downtown Los Angeles — will serve as the main venue.

And if it’s the song performances you love most, then be sure to tune in to the pregame show, since those five performances have been kicked out of the main event.

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