Over the weekend, New York Times opinion columnist Maureen Dowd wrote a piece entitled “Crushed Dream Factory,” arguing that people generally weren’t planning to watch the Oscars this year, and it was because the Oscars are out of touch. “Sex, glamour, excitement and mystery are relics of a bygone era,” Dowd wrote. “Hollywood is now focused on worthy, relevant, socially conscious and lugubrious. […] As a Hollywood writer friend of mine said after she watched Nomadland: ‘That was not entertainment. That was Frances McDormand having explosive diarrhea in a plastic bucket on a van.'”
Dowd went on to quote New York Times Hollywood reporter Brook Barnes, who told Dowd, “The Oscars forgot about its primary job — to sell Hollywood to the world, to be a big, fat commercial for the dream factory, the kind that makes financiers open their wallets and wannabe actresses get pinwheels in their eyes about the day they might be able to stand on that stage and give their acceptance speech.”
Writing that the Oscars are hopelessly insular and out of touch with the common man because all the movies are critic-bait downers is an evergreen take you can recycle every few years. It’s almost always sort of true. For every lame, too-broad grandpa pleaser like Green Book, there’s an overly conceptual, extended navel-gaze destined to be hated by “middle America” like The Artist. The cycles simply reverse and repeat every few years, like the cycle of flood and drought in California (full disclosure, I will still defend The Artist to the death).
But after one of the dullest Oscars in recent memory, in which The Frances McDormand Diarrhea Movie won Best Picture, and the touching send-off to posthumous best actor winner Chadwick Boseman was spoiled with an upset victory for Anthony Hopkins, who didn’t even show up to collect his award, we were left to ponder an even more horrifying possibility: had Maureen Dowd actually been right?
The short answer: no, not really. Are New York Times opinion writers ever publishing anything but lazy clickbait these days? It’s easy to say that Hollywood is out of touch, because they are. But even the critics in Dowd’s own article argue that being a “dream factory” is half the point. So wait, do you want movies to reflect the common man or don’t you?
Now, Are they more out of touch than ever? That’s harder to say, but I doubt it. The 2020 movies were probably worse and more depressing than usual. I certainly liked them less than usual (no Palm Springs or Sylvie’s Love?), but that tends to happen at least as often as we get a legitimately great winner like Parasite (partly because, as I’ve written, critical consensus is a myth, and awards are only ever just the lowest-common denominator with a smaller sample size). Moreover, everything was worse and more depressing than usual in 2020. Why would movies be any different?
The easiest answer for why people weren’t as into the 2021 Oscars is the most obvious one: it was a celebration of things that happened in 2020, a historically shitty year that everyone would just as soon forget. This year’s Oscars was our collective COVID hangover, a solemn requiem for a shitty time. With the 93rd Oscars ceremony, 2020 finally died its drawn out and depressing death like Anthony Hopkins’ character in The Father, riding off confusedly into the great beyond. Now we can finally move on.
This year’s ceremony looked different from past ceremonies, and how could it not? It’s hard to work out the logistics of a kids’ soccer game these days, let alone a self-congratulatory extravaganza for the most image-conscious people on Earth. Rather than a massive auditorium full of hired seat fillers for when entertainment royalty have to use the toilet, there was an intimate gathering of nominees, who had been meticulously vax-checked and tested and were wearing masks in between shots. Or so first presenter Regina King took pains to explain to us in the opening two minutes. Because hey, what’s more fun than a dutiful recounting of your company’s HR protocols? Let’s hear it for the company handbook, everyone!
Even with all the logistical constraints, the flaws of this year’s telecast largely seemed like unforced errors. The lack of a host meant the presenters varied widely, with most leaning towards stilted and dull, but with the occasional bright spots like Riz Ahmed, and Steven Yuen telling a story about seeing Terminator 2 with his mother when he was young. “Oh yeah,” we collectively seemed to remember in that moment, “telling stories about movies can be fun.”
“Stories Matter” was the theme for this year’s Steven Soderbergh-produced telecast, which replaced clips from the nominated films with presenters telling stories from each of the nominated artists’ respective formative years. I’m sure the idea was to highlight the intimacy of this year’s ceremony, but personal stories tend to work better when actually told in the first person. Having someone else read it feels like a staged reading of that month’s centerfold’s list of turn-ons. I called this the “who are your guys” Oscars, where instead of clips, we got the nominees’ pre-filled responses to Marc Maron’s infamous opening question on WTF. (“Amanda Seyfried grew up playacting The Sound Of Music for her family before being nominated for Best Supporting Actress in Mank, and her guys are Carey Grant, Douglas Fairbanks, and Sir Laurence Olivier….”)
The show was mostly boring but with isolated moments of greatness, usually occurring when a non-American offered a respite from the preachyness and seemed genuinely excited to be there. Such moments this year included Daniel Kaluuya taking time to appreciate us all being alive in this moment, saying “My mom, my dad, they had sex, it’s amazing!” while the camera was pointed at his embarrassed mom and sister. I laughed at Yuh-jung Youn of South Korea’s adorable acceptance speech for Minari, and nearly cried at Thomas Vinterberg’s tear-jerking tribute to his daughter, who died in 2019 before she could see Another Round, Vinterberg’s winner for best foreign language film. All of which is to say: it mostly kind of sucked but wasn’t all bad. Isn’t that more or less true of the Oscars every year?
If there was a moment of the evening that everyone seemed to be talking about, it was Glenn Close demonstrating her suspiciously vast knowledge of “Da Butt” from Spike Lee’s School Daze, before getting up to perform the dance. It was both pre-scripted and it worked, not to mention that it came during one of the only segments of the show that had a traditional, comedic emcee (Lil’ Rel Howery, who probably should’ve just hosted the whole show) and a pre-written bit. If we were to categorize, the segment was essentially a glammed-up rappin’ granny, an old trope reinvented for a new age. It was illustrative of arguably the night’s great truism: Hollywood is great at producing the illusion of spontaneity, not at being spontaneous.
The final presenter of the night was Joaquin Phoenix, whose turbocharged ambivalence towards awards season pomp is one of the best things about him. Phoenix pointedly declined to read his prompter spiel, something about coming to embody your character, which Phoenix said had never been true for him, and instead explained how inspired he’d been by all this year’s Best Actor nominees. This was the final award of the evening, which was presumably all a build-up to give the last award to the recently departed Chadwick Boseman, a suitably cumulative honor for an actor who managed to play Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall, and Black Panther all before dying at 43. Who could argue with that?
Only actual Academy voters, it turned out, who gave the award to Anthony Hopkins for The Father (in which he was, admittedly, very good). Hopkins wasn’t even there to collect the award, leaving Phoenix to awkwardly accept the award on the actor’s behalf, in an almost comically anti-climactic and unsatisfying ending.
And yet, a perfectly fitting one. How could 2020 end in any way except disappointingly? This was a ceremony that bucked tradition only to remind us how much we actually appreciated those traditions. God willing, 2021 can be the year of appreciating things that we took for granted.