In all my years of watching the Oscars, I have never seen a show so simultaneously predictable (dare I say, boring?) and chaotic at the same time. While Chloé Zhao’s powerful Nomadland won the top prize of Best Picture, as was expected, the rest of the show remained relatively tame until its final hour, where it gave us shock after shock after shock.
But let’s start with the most obvious results, shall we? Nomadland managed to win its three biggest awards: Best Picture, Best Director for Zhao, and, in one of many surprises, Best Actress for its star, Frances McDormand, who became one of only 7 performers to win three Academy Awards. Surprisingly, these are the only three Oscars the Best Picture winner won, which marked one of many ways the show resembled the early days of the show, which featured a small audience, tables instead of seats, and a wide variety of winners. The wins were a real joy to watch, not only because of the film’s power, but because Zhao and McDormand are such charismatic, powerful speakers. The introverted Zhao, who surprisingly won Best Director in the middle of the show, gave one of the night’s most humble and loving speeches – and enters history as not only one of the youngest winners ever, but becomes only the second(!) woman and first(!!!) woman of color to ever win the award. I mean, exciting for her, but…come on. Way overdue. Meanwhile, McDormand gave two speeches (one as producer and one as actress) that were entirely on brand: one about the power of cinema that involved a wolf howl, and one where she demanded a karaoke bar and immediately left the stage. God, I love her.
However, here’s where things get…interesting. Producer Steven Soderbergh made the bold choice to shift the order of the awards around for the first time since 1939, so that Best Picture would come before the acting awards. On paper, this decision makes sense: Best Actress was completely up in the air, and Chadwick Boseman was the favorite to win Best Actor. They could end the show with a powerful speech by Boseman’s widow, giving the show an emotional capstone and a standing ovation. However, clearly Soderbergh wasn’t paying attention: in recent days, Anthony Hopkins had been gaining ground, and there were a lot of rumblings about an upset, making the decision incredibly risky. Because the way it ended up playing out, Anthony Hopkins did end up winning the Best Actor award. And he wasn’t there, because he’s 90 and can’t travel from Britain. Meaning that the show had to end with Joaquin Phoenix wandering offstage as the credits rolled. It was one of the weakest, most confusing endings to an award show I’ve ever seen, and while I’m ecstatic for Anthony Hopkins, it’s hard not to feel a little bummed out and confused at how such a decision could possibly be made and greenlit.
Outside of the chaos of that ending, things went pretty smoothly – and occasionally, beautifully. Daniel Kaluuya and Youn Yuh-Jung handily won their categories (Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress, respectively), and gave two of the best speeches of the night. Kaluuya was full of absolute exuberance, interrupting his call for working together to make the world a better place to marvel at the fact that “my mom and dad had sex, and now I’m here getting an Oscar” (much to his mother’s horror, a great moment). Meanwhile, Youn Yuh-Jung was gracious and funny, as we’ve come to expect, beautifully accepting her award between bouts of playfully flirting with presenter Brad Pitt. Emerald Fennell won Best Original Screenplay for Promising Young Woman and opened the show with a top-notch speech, Soul won Best Animated Feature, Another Round won Best International Film (which seemed to visibly shake Thomas Vinterberg) and My Octopus Teacher won Best Documentary Feature. And things were similarly straightforward in terms of the tech categories, with Soul winning Best Score, Sound of Metal winning Best Sound, Ma Rainey in Costumes and Makeup, Mank in Production Design, and Tenet for Best Visual Effects.
When it comes to the surprises, things weren’t really too crazy. They were mostly #2s in very close races. The only real surprise came in the fact that the surprises always came in twos – that is to say, they were all the second award for already-beloved films. The Father doubled down on that Hopkins love with an award for Best Adapted Screenplay (something many people predicted, but I refused to follow the tea leaves), Mank upset in Best Cinematography (a real bummer, if you ask me, but I suppose I get it), and, in the most angering surprise, Sound of Metal in Best Editing. Not angering in that it shouldn’t have won – I’m just angry that I had Sound of Metal and changed the day my predictions were due. Dammit. In fact, the only major surprise was H.E.R. winning for “Fight For You,” the song for Judas and the Black Messiah, beating out both Leslie Odom Jr. and Diane Warren. It’s my second favorite song of last year, so I’m not mad about the win, even if I was secretly pulling for “Husavik.” And the shorts went exactly as expected: the school shooting drama If Anything Happens I Love You in Animated (which I called), the police brutality pseudo-comedy Two Distant Strangers in Live Action (which I also had picked before changing to the far-superior Feeling Through), and the Holocaust reflection Colette in Documentary (which I thought had a shot, but didn’t predict).
Now that I’ve recapped the awards, let’s talk about the show itself. Soderbergh put together…a mixed bag of the show. There were a lot of decisions made that were confusing, to say the least. I’ve already talked about Best Director appearing in the middle of the show, and the horrific ramifications of Best Picture being presented before Actor and Actress. The show eliminated the use of acting clips, which saved time, but made the presentation of awards needlessly bland, and the fact they’re usually used to prove why the Makeup/Costume/Cinematography winners deserve their trophy. And the In Memoriam segment, while faster than previous years (as requested), went by too fast. By the time you processed one name, we were already on to the next one. Now, some of these decisions were made to allow the speakers to go on a little bit longer. And while that’s occasionally a good thing, like the aforementioned speeches, or Tyler Perry’s pretty solid and genuinely touching acceptance of the Humanitarian Award, it also kind of dragged things down. I like giving the speakers more than 30 seconds to speak, but three minutes feels like…a lot. On the bright side, the speeches were less dourly political (mainly because the clout-chasing Hollywood types think their work is done now that the former President is out of office), only touching on important issues of the moment in more personal, pointed ways. These speeches are always better when they have an actual ethos behind them, whether police brutality, racial equality, or an appreciation of nature.
However, as negative as people may (appropriately) be about the show overall, I’ve got to say, there were a lot of solid decisions made as a whole. Soderbergh has been adamant about “Making The Oscars A Movie,” and as weird as that notion may be, it made for an interesting ceremony, at least visually. The opening bit, featuring Regina King walking from the Union Station patio into the auditorium, complete with old-fashioned tables, while holding an Oscar and scored to the Ocean’s Eleven theme was one of the most kinetic openings to the ceremony in years. It also helps that it led to King’s opening speech, which was the exact type of perfect we’ve come to expect from her. The presenters ranged from “fine” (most of them) to “great” (Steven Yeun and Rita Moreno) to “Harrison Ford’s drunk again,” my favorite type of presentation (this time, he presented Editing by reading the infamous Blade Runner producers’ notes). And while the lack of a host made for a depressing lack of comedic interludes, musical producer Questlove did come up with an entertaining bit at the end where he quizzed attendees on which famous songs won Oscars, and resulted in Andra Day cursing and Glenn Close doing Da Butt. If only the show had more of that.
Which brings me to the Pre-Show. This year, the Academy incorporated the red carpet into the show itself, with interviews and musical performances performed and presented by Ariana DeBose and Lil Rel Howery. It mostly worked, thanks to Lil Rel’s comedic timing, but man, Ariana is not a host. Still, it was mostly harmless. And as disappointing as it was to move the Original Song performances to the Pre-Show, it did make for better performances. “Speak Now” was stripped down and beautiful, “Fight For You” was a damn spectacle (and H.E.R has unbelievably played a different instrument every time I’ve seen her play live); hell, even “Hear My Voice,” the most ridiculed nominee, featured a fantastic performance by Celeste. Of course, none of these nominees held a candle to “Husavik,” performed in the actual town by actual Icelandic musicians and elementary school students, and featuring a fireworks display. It is the gold standard for award performances from now on. In fact, the only dud was Warren’s “Io Sí,” which honestly, is just a boring vibe.
Well, that brings us to the end of the 2020 Oscar race. It’s been a long season, folks – fourteen months, to be exact. And it’s been a hard year – and I don’t just mean because I only got 15 out of 23 nominees right. I hope you’re all taking care of yourselves, and I hope you managed to find both some joy in this season and some great films to check out. As for me, I’ll be taking a week off from heavy, award-winning fare to detox with gooey rom-coms, cheesy actioners, and gangsters named Paulie Walnuts. And maybe I’ll provide a write-up later this week on the takeaways from the weird-ass show we just watched. But don’t you worry – I’ll be back in one week’s time with my predictions for the 2021 Academy Awards. In the meantime, you can see the full results of last night’s show below, and until next year, thanks for joining me during this wild and crazy process.
Best Picture: Nomadland
Best Actor: Anthony Hopkins – The Father
Best Actress: Frances McDormand – Nomadland
Best Supporting Actor: Daniel Kaluuya – Judas and the Black Messiah
Best Supporting Actress: Youn Yuh-Jung – Minari
Best Director: Chloé Zhao – Nomadland
Best Original Screenplay: Promising Young Woman
Best Adapted Screenplay: The Father
Best Animated Feature: Soul
Best International Feature: Another Round
Best Documentary Feature: My Octopus Teacher
Best Documentary Short: Colette
Best Live Action Short: Two Distant Strangers
Best Animated Short: If Anything Happens I Love You
Best Original Score: Soul
Best Original Song: “Fight For You” – Judas and the Black Messiah
Best Sound: Sound of Metal
Best Production Design: Mank
Best Cinematography: Mank
Best Costume Design: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Best Makeup and Hairstyling: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Best Film Editing: Sound of Metal
Best Visual Effects: Tenet