Oscar emergency: Hollywood's biggest night swings and misses

'Nomadland' leads a night of change for Academy Awards

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Fitting for a year that Hollywood would rather forget, Sunday night's Academy Awards was a show few will want to remember. 

It wasn't all bad: Visually it had some pizazz, at least during the opening tracking shot that made it look like the title sequence for one of Steven Soderbergh's "Oceans" films. And yes, there was some inspired awkwardness, from winner Daniel Kaluuya celebrating his parents' lovemaking to Glenn Close doing "Da Butt." And it's not every year that Taylor, Michigan, gets a shout-out on the Oscars.  

But the changes it instituted stripped away a lot of the things that make the movies great: the magic, the glitz, the escapism, the fun. It was a show that continually told viewers how wonderful movies are but then failed to show what's wonderful about them. It practically dared viewers to watch until the end and then mocked them for doing so. 

Where to even start in the show's autopsy? It's like going over the low points of a bad meal. Should we start with the service, or the part at the end where we got food poisoning?

In the context of pandemic awards shows, which have ranged from inspired (last month's Grammy Awards) to Zoom window hellscapes (February's Golden Globes), it was an interesting failure, but a failure nonetheless. And it came at a bad time for Hollywood to not only swing and miss, but to swing, miss and whack itself in the head with the baseball bat, causing little birdies to circle above. It may take some time to recover from this one. 

"Nomadland" was the night's big winner, winning Best Picture, Best Director (for Chloé Zhao, only the second woman to ever win the category and the first woman of color to do so) and Best Actress (Frances McDormand, her third Best Actress win). Anthony Hopkins won Best Actor for "The Father" in a last minute shocker, while Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress honors went to "Judas and the Black Messiah's" Kaluuya and "Minari's" Yuh-Jung Youn, respectively.

But those wins — as well as historic wins for Best Makeup & Hairstyling for "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom's" Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson, the first Black women to ever win in the category, and for "Ma Rainey" costume designer Ann Roth, the oldest woman to win an Oscar at age 89 — will be eclipsed by the overall feel of the show, a self-serious awards telecast honoring a group of movies that no one has seen after a year where most theaters across the country were shuttered. The message the show wanted to portray was that the movies are back, baby. The message that came across was they've never mattered less, and to fewer people.

Mia Neal, winner of the award for best makeup and hairstyling for "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," poses in the press room at the Oscars on Sunday, April 25, 2021, at Union Station in Los Angeles.

Producer Soderbergh and his team shot the show tight and filmed it like a movie, even playing with the frame rate to make it look less like a TV awards show and more like something you'd see on the big screen. It aired from Los Angeles' Union Station, a functioning train station, with guests sitting at tiered tables where they were apparently not allowed to eat or drink.

Everything was rethought, even things that didn't need to be: clips from nominated films were largely eschewed, in favor of surface-level bio info about the nominees, which meant viewers barely got to see any footage of the movies themselves but they did get to hear what the first movie they ever saw in the theater was; the nominated songs were performed in the pre-show telecast rather than the main show; the order of several of the major awards were flipped just for sport. Bold strokes were taken, but didn't pay off.  

For the third year in a row there was no host for the show, and in this year of all years, a cutting wit who could steer things in the right direction was badly needed. Good hosts set a tone for the evening and a through line for the show. They provide structure, and can both rescue a bad bit and heighten a great moment. Of course the Oscar hosting gig is a job that invites so much scrutiny that it's gone from Hollywood's most coveted job to one that literally no one wants. So on Sunday there was no one home, and rather than a host providing humor and levity up front, we got a solemn tone and a room full of people who seemed unsure if they were able to laugh or even crack a smile. 

Not that there was a whole lot to laugh at. Aside from a largely humorless crop of nominated films, jokes were scarce throughout the broadcast, until a bit late in the show where Close danced to "Da Butt." Lil Rel Howery, also a welcome presence during ABC's pre-show telecast, helped steer the segment and give the show the viral moment it needed. (It was at least better than anything in Close's nominated film, "Hillbilly Elegy.")  

Other structural changes brought unwanted issues. The practice of cutting winners' speeches off by interrupting them with an orchestra was thrown by the wayside, and winners were allowed to go on for as long as they'd like. Which is fine in theory, but it turns out when the pressure's on and the clock is ticking, good things often happen in those rushed speeches. Otherwise you get in a situation where less than a half hour into the show your Best International Film winner makes a four-minute acceptance speech, which is deadly for a show's pacing. (McDormand, whose speech came in around the 30 second mark, was the evening's sole concise speaker.) 

Frances McDormand in "Nomadland."

And the show was done no favors by its attempts to shake up the order of presenting major categories. It was around 11 p.m. when the Best Picture prize was being awarded. But wait, Best Actor and Best Actress had yet to be handed out. This swerve — Best Picture is traditionally the final award of the evening, as it's the Big Kahuna of the show — seemed to telegraph an emotional finish where the late Chadwick Boseman would win the evening's final award, sending the show off on a poignant, emotional note.

Instead, Hopkins won Best Actor for "The Father," as shocking an upset as there was all evening, but he wasn't on hand to accept the award. So just like that, the show ended with no closing speech, no exclamation point on the night, and no host to save the unintentionally awkward moment. (Remember the chaos when "La La Land" was named Best Picture but "Moonlight" was the real winner? Take all the intrigue and human emotion out of that moment, and you had this. Womp womp.)

Ratings most likely will be deadly, but that will be hashed out later. For now, Hollywood's biggest night mirrored Hollywood's last year and change in a way it couldn't escape. It was never going to be pretty, at least it wasn't worse. It could have been on Zoom. 

agraham@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @grahamorama