It was supposed to feel like a movie.
The 93rd annual Academy Awards were produced by filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, with Stacey Sher and Jesse Collins, and the director promised a show that will feel like a great big movie, with characters we care about. From the director behind the new Ocean’s Eleven franchise, an all-time all-star hangout series, this sounded fantastic. This column, therefore, is not as much about rightful victors and misses, and more a movie review of the show itself.
The live broadcast was never going to be easy. Days before the ceremony, Soderbergh likened the process to “trying to build an airplane while it’s in the air.”
Take-off was perfect. Beloved actress Regina King — whose directorial debut One Night In Miami was up for acting Oscars — strutted from a red carpet to a train station in a striking tracking shot with crayon-coloured opening credits highlighting names big and cool. Her gown was blue, her shoulders were winged, the single-take shot held her gaze, and she held an Oscar as if planning on stealing it. Then, as she took the stage of a star-studded yet intimately lit ballroom, she stumbled. “Live TV!” she laughed. “Here we go.” The con was on.
Who better to mastermind this audacious broadcast heist than Soderbergh? The director is an iconic film nerd — he releases a detailed annual log of films and shows he watches, and re-edits great movies to study them better — plus he made the one film everyone rewatched last year, Contagion, the one we seem stuck inside. This mission, of saving us from video-call award shows with stars in sweatpants, sounds right for the man who made Julia Roberts play a woman who looks like Julia Roberts.
So here we had a show with black bars letterboxing the picture to preserve a cinematic aspect ratio, a decision that felt immediately radical. Then Daniel Kaluuya, the remarkable British actor who won Best Supporting Actor for Judas And The Black Messiah, realised no orchestra was cutting him off. There was no orchestra at all, just Questlove playing hits to keep the vibe bouncy, and finding himself on a podium with seemingly unlimited elbow room, Kaluuya, Oscar in hand, spoke about that miracle. “My mom, my dad, they had sex, it’s amazing, I’m here!” he gushed, as audiences were treated to the sight of his mother gaping in disbelief.
As movies go, these Oscars may not have created make-believe characters, but real people speaking about the movies gave it real character. Thomas Vinterberg, who won Best International Film for Another Round, spoke not only about his film but about the tragic death of his daughter when he began filming, and how she may be “pulling some strings” to make his film fly. We learnt that Mikkel EG Nielsen, who won Best Editing for Sound Of Metal, had kids named Mingus and Ella, after the great jazz musicians, and that Emerald Fennell, who won Best Original Screenplay for Promising Young Woman, a film she directed in 23 days while pregnant, wrote her first Oscar speech at age 10, thanking Zack Morris of the sitcom Saved By The Bell as her “very supportive husband.”
Hosts? Who needs them? With presenters like King, Don Cheadle, Laura Dern, Bryan Cranston, Riz Ahmed and Harrison Ford — who delighted Nomadland director Chloé Zhao just by saying her name — Soderbergh put together a smashing crew, arming them with backstories about the nominees: the films they grew up on, their first jobs in the industry. The highlight was Korean master Bong Joon-ho showing up from a distant, dramatically lit auditorium, telling us how the Best Director nominees each defined directing. The Parasite director who memorably told American audiences last year about the need to “overcome the 1-inch barrier of subtitles” compelled Oscar audiences to do the same as he presented the directors’ words in Korean, with subtitles.
There was no rehearsed banter, no joke-filled monologue. King opened the show by referencing last week’s conviction of the policeman who had killed George Floyd. “I have to be honest,” she said, “If things had gone differently this past week in Minneapolis, I may have traded in my heels for marching boots.” I believed her. It didn’t seem like the time for gags, or for teasing the underdog films that made up this year’s nominees. It is, instead, a time to be grateful for the movies that have — genuinely — gone a long way in getting us through this damned year.
The awards themselves were almost entirely free of upsets — the top eight winners mirrored the recent BAFTA awards — but the unpredictability of the ceremony was liberating. Best Picture, traditionally the last prize of the night, was given out early to Nomadland so the show could close with Best Actress and, finally, Best Actor. This felt like a misstep, with eventual Best Actor winner — Sir Anthony Hopkins — home in Wales and asleep. Many online commentators assume this was done in anticipation of a grand celebration of the late Chadwick Boseman, but frankly any victor other than Hopkins would have worked.
Imagine, if you will, history being made by a win for Riz Ahmed (Sound Of Metal) or Steven Yeun (Minari). Imagine Gary Oldman defying all odds to win for Mank, and making an Orson Welles joke. Had Hopkins been there — or had Soderbergh allowed nominees to zoom in, which they did not — it would have been fine, since in a year of death and devastation, the 83-year-old became the oldest actor ever to win an Oscar. Soderbergh, like one of his characters, played the percentages and lost. He needed an exit strategy, like queen King coming back to talk about Hopkins. Instead all we got was an announcement, an abrupt end to a fine film.
Still, it was bloody memorable. Irrfan Khan heartbreakingly showed up in the In Memoriam segment, though Soumitra Chatterjee was left out. Glenn Close danced to Da Butt. Most of all, I’ll remember the words, like Yuh-Jung Yeon — the veteran Korean actress who won Best Supporting Actress for Minari — asking presenter Brad Pitt (one of the film’s producers) why he didn’t show up during filming, and calling herself luckier than her fellow nominees.
Winners spoke from the heart, about cinema and awards, without an orchestra forcing them aside. They finished their lists of thanks, took a breath, then got real. We may have been expecting the wrong Soderbergh film. With these Oscars, the storyteller conjured earnestness and familiarity as those who bring movies to life gave us a peek into their own. He… let them all talk.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.