Sunday night’s 93rd Academy Awards ceremony was a night of historic highs and disappointing lows. It was a ceremony that aimed to correct the Academy’s track record of failing to recognize the talents of women and people of colour, an event to delay the slow death of the televised awards show. In the former, it more or less succeeded; in the later, it sorely failed.

“Shifts in the line-up of contenders proved beneficial to the smaller films often overlooked.”

2020 and 2021 have been grim for the film industry as cinemas closed, productions stopped, and blockbusters such as Black Widow and The Batman delayed their releases by nearly a year. Prestige films that usually court Oscar nominations vanished as anticipated releases like The French Dispatch were pushed back until summer. However, these shifts in the line-up of contenders proved beneficial to the smaller films often overlooked in favour of projects with large budgets and famous names. While the traditional dramas and “films about films” loved by Academy voters got their due, with Mank and Trial of the Chicago 7 receiving multiple nominations, it was the low-budget indie Nomadland that swept the awards, winning Best Picture, Best Actress for Frances McDormand, and a historic win for Chloé Zhao as Best Director.

Amongst the most diverse group of nominees in the Academy’s history, Zhao emerged as the second woman and first woman of colour to win Best Director. Other landmarks were achieved as Yuh-Jung Youn became the first Asian woman to win Best Supporting Actress since 1957, Emerald Fennel the first woman to win Best Original Screenplay in 13 years, and Mia Neal and Kamika Wilson the first Black-led team to win Best Hair and Makeup. In an industry where inclusion has always been a critical issue, to see such representation at the Oscars is long overdue.

However, while these historic wins were celebrated, the reaction to the ceremony itself has been far less kind. The stakes were high: ratings have been plummeting, and the awards are increasingly considered out-of-touch. Unfortunately, the “awards show shot like a movie” approach touted by producer Steven Soderbergh was a dismal failure, demonstrating the very pretentiousness it sought to dispel. Gone were beautifully edited montages of nominees; instead there were awkward close-ups of visibly uncomfortable nominees as presenters waxed poetic about movies. Poor lighting left actors blinded by sunlight or hidden in darkness; an air horn sound after an acceptance speech was tonally jarring; the rushed in memoriam was a disrespectful display after a year of so much loss.

But the most egregious decision was to change the order of the awards, ending not with the traditional Best Picture, but with Best Actor. Many believed that Chadwick Boseman was guaranteed a posthumous Oscar win for his performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a belief the creative team clearly held as well, presumably hoping for a poignant (and viral) end to the night. However, with Anthony Hopkins’ win the show fell apart, and since Hopkins was not there to give an acceptance speech the ceremony ended with a sudden cut to black. In attempting to make an awards ceremony “like a movie,” Soderbergh instead exploited the death of one beloved actor and undercut the achievements of another.

The 93rd Academy Awards reveals an industry in flux, unsure of how to remain relevant in a COVID and post-COVID world. At its best, it was a night of change and promise, heralding a new, diverse generation of filmmakers willing to tell the stories of the overlooked and misunderstood. But at its worst, it was a sluggish and self-congratulatory affair, one that has sounded the death knell for an increasingly irrelevant awards show.


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