Warner Strausbaugh mug 2019 PPN columnist

WARNER STRAUSBAUGH

If there was ever a time for the Academy Awards to reassert their place at the epicenter of global pop culture, it was this year.

The surprise “Parasite” Best Picture win of 2020 marked the last notable public event before society was forced into lockdown, when the already-fragile fate of movie theaters might have taken its final, irreversible blow. As the world now reopens with vaccinations and cautious optimism abound, the 2021 Oscars could have represented a symbolic bookend to the 14 months of the coronavirus pandemic.

Instead, the Oscars continued to dig their own grave in an April 25 ceremony that ended not with a bang but a whimper.

The most notable part about the ceremony itself was that it was almost all in-person. The 93rd Academy Awards carved a corner in Los Angeles’ Union Station (with satellite locations in London, Paris and elsewhere for international nominees), allowing for the nominees and presenters to be in the same room. This was a stark contrast from the most recent Emmys and Golden Globes, which nearly all took place over Zoom.

Having Regina King and Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand all in the same frames was a nice sight to see, but what the show did with it was anything but. In an attempt to mix things up, the show stripped away many of the staples that catered toward both film buffs and casual viewers, leaving us with three-plus hours of speeches and monologues.

There was, again, no host; King did guide us into the evening with a walking-and-talking tracking shot as the opening credits rolled, which was one of the cooler parts of the new format. The Best Song nominee performances were benched to the pre-show. There were no montages on the power of cinema. The clips showcasing the nominees were scarce.

That last bit is as important as any. In a movie year that lost just about every big-budget studio release, the movies being honored at the Oscars were all smaller films with ever-changing release dates across the plethora of streaming services people may or may not have. While “Judas and the Black Messiah” was part of HBO Max’s well-marketed, same-day-as-theaters 2021 release calendar, films like “Minari,” “Promising Young Woman” and “The Father” all landed as premium rentals whose releases were difficult to keep up with.

The hope, surely, is that anyone who is tuning in to the Oscars will have made an effort to see some or most of the movies up for awards, that just isn’t going to be the case anymore these days — especially when movies like 2019’s “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood,” “Little Women” or “1917” aren’t having theatrical runs that do draw in the more casual moviegoing crowds.

This year’s Oscars removing the built-in advertising through clips for something like “Sound of Metal” or “Nomadland” strips away the casual audience’s ability to gain some sort of context and intrigue for the film they just saw awarded. Instead, presenters like Laura Dern, Harrison Ford and Reese Witherspoon read a short statement about each of the nominees (which did allow for some heartwarming biographical facts).

After the first few, the exercise became so tedious, and when all you have is a speech about the nominees, followed by a speech — with no time limit — from the winners, that three-hour runtime starts to weigh heavily. The TV ratings were an abysmal 9.85 million viewers, a 58.3% drop from 2020.

Some of the speeches were treasures, like Daniel Kaluuya’s for his Best Supporting Actor win for “Judas and the Black Messiah,” or Thomas Vinterberg’s for Best International Feature Film for “Another Round.” Chloe Zhao became the second woman, and the first woman of color, to win Best Director, and Frances McDormand picked up her historic third Best Actress win. But it all got lost in the ... meh.

And then there was the ending. The order of the awards was shaken up pretty radically, for those who pay attention to such things, and the result was an outright disaster to put a cherry on top of the disarming ceremony. Among other changes, Best Picture, for the first time, was not the finale. “Nomadland” took home the top prize, then McDormand got hers, then came Best Actor.

There had been an expectation for months that Chadwick Boseman would posthumously win for his work in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” a transporting and transformative performance worthy of the golden statue. The victor was, shockingly, Anthony Hopkins for “The Father.” The presenter, Joaquin Phoenix, told us that Hopkins was not there to accept the award, and the show’s last image was a still portrait of Hopkins.

The final moment played out in a way epitomizing the 200 minutes that preceded it: awkward and disappointing.

Warner Strausbaugh is a page designer for The Denver Gazette and columnist for Pikes Peak Newspapers. Contact him at warner.strausbaugh@gazette.com.

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