“Nomadland,” the story of a van-dwelling woman traveling around the American West, won best picture at the 93rd Academy Awards on Sunday, a celebration of moviemaking that unfolded at a time when cinemas are in crisis and streaming is reshaping the entertainment landscape.
It was an evening of barrier-breaking and precedent-shattering moments, one that saw “Nomandland” director Chloé Zhao make history by becoming the second woman and the first woman of color to win an Oscar for directing. The lyrical character study of a life on the road earned three Oscars in total, including a best actress win for Frances McDormand, and the story it told took on an added poignance after a year of plague and pandemic in which many people were stuck in their homes and unable to see loved ones.
“I have always found goodness in the people I’ve met everywhere I went in the world,” Zhao said. “This is for anyone who has the faith and the courage to hold on to the goodness in themselves, and to hold on to the goodness in each other, no matter how difficult it is to do that.”
The annual salute to Hollywood took place after the kind of faith and hope that Zhao described sometimes seemed to be in short supply. For the first time in its nearly century-long history, the Oscars unfolded in the wake of a global health crisis that upended cultural life, shuttering cinemas and temporarily halting production — a change of circumstances that was reflected in the way that the 2021 edition of the Oscars played out. Instead of the thousands of well-heeled movie stars and power brokers, this year’s telecast had a tightly controlled guest list, with only nominees, presenters and a few significant others allowed at Los Angeles’ Union Station.
“Nomadland’s” big night resulted in McDormand’s third acting Oscar — she has previously been recognized for her performances in “Fargo” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” Best actor went to “The Father’s” Anthony Hopkins, who was honored for his role as a man battling dementia, over the heavily favored Chadwick Boseman, who was expected to win the prize for his work in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Boseman, the star of “Black Panther,” died of cancer in August at the age of 43. It also concluded the telecast on an awkward note, as the show’s producers had opted to close the evening with the best actor prize in place of the traditional best picture recipient, presumably to highlight Boseman’s posthumous victory and end the show on an emotional note. Instead, Hopkins didn’t make the trip to Los Angeles to pick up his award in person, with recent Instagram posts indicating he is in Wales. At 83, he is the oldest person to win an acting Oscar.
Award winners used their time at the podium to draw attention to a range of political issues and social causes, speaking out on gun violence, prejudice, and police reform. “Judas and the Black Messiah” star Daniel Kaluuya won best supporting actor at for his uncanny portrayal of Black Panther Party activist Fred Hampton.
“Peace, love, and onwards,” the performer urged the audience, while also alluding to the racism that Hampton fought against and that still infects society. “When they play divide and conquer, we say unite and ascend,” he added.
H.E.R., the winner of best original song for “Fight For You,” an anthem that appeared in “Judas and the Black Messiah,” echoed Kaluuya’s calls for tolerance. “Knowledge is power,” she said. “Music is power. And as long as I’m standing, I’m always going to fight for us. I’m always going to fight for my people and for what’s right.”
Yuh-Jung Youn earned the best supporting actress prize for her work as a woman who forms a strong bond with her young grandson in “Minari,” becoming the first Korean acting winner.
“I don’t believe in competition,” Youn said, nodding toward “Hillbilly Elegy” star Glenn Close, unlucky in her eighth nomination, and the three other women up for the prize. “How can I win over Glenn Close?…I’m luckier than you. Also maybe it is American hospitality for the Korean actor? I’m not sure.”
“Promising Young Woman” writer and director Emerald Fennell won best original screenplay, while “The Father’s” Christopher Hampton and Florian Zeller earned a best adapted screenplay prize. “Soul,” a Pixar film that revised its plans to debut theatrically in favor of a Disney Plus debut due to COVID, won the prize for best animated feature, as well as the best score statue. Disney Plus is one of a handful of new streaming services that have launched in recent months as legacy media companies have attempted to challenge Netflix. HBO Max, another of these new entrants, also had a strong showing. “Judas and the Black Messiah” was produced by Warner Bros., but debuted simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max.
Denmark’s “Another Round,” the story of four friends who embark on an epic drinking binge in order to test a theory that maintaining a certain blood alcohol content level inspires creativity, won the prize for best international feature. In the night’s most moving speech, director Thomas Vinterberg dedicated his award to his 19-year old daughter, Ida, who was killed by a reckless driver four days into shooting.
“You’re part of this miracle,” Vinterberg said, his voice cracking with emotion. “Maybe you’ve been pulling some strings somewhere.”
In other breakthroughs, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’s” Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson became the first Black women to win an Oscar for makeup and hairstyle “I know that one day it won’t be unusual or groundbreaking, it will just be normal,” Neal said.
The Oscars have faced criticism in recent years for overlooking performers of color. In response to the #OscarsSoWhite social media campaign, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences took steps to add more women and people of color to its membership. This year’s acting nominees were the most diverse in history, with nine of the 20 nominated roles performed by people of color. Further, more women were nominated in 2021 than in any previous year. Many prognosticators believed that the 2021 telecast could mark the first time that all four acting winners were people of color, but that record remained out of reach with Hopkins and McDormand’s victories.
With a glamorous event design overseen by architect and designer David Rockwell, Union Station provided a completely different backdrop for a completely different year. Not everyone was a fan. Some local advocates criticized the city for making access to public transit more difficult over the weekend.
Producers Jesse Collins, Stacey Sher and Steven Soderbergh promised to make this year’s ceremony unfold more like a movie and, true to form, the telecast began with opening credits and featured presenters who were billed as cast members (though they still mostly just read out and occasionally butchered the pronunciation of nominees’ names before doling out prizes). Stars and contenders flanked the stage, sitting at tables that wouldn’t have seemed out of place at the Stork Club. Freeing the production from the cavernous Dolby Theatre made the whole affair seem more intimate. The telecast also opted to do away with a staple of pandemic life, with nominees and presenters going mask-less, something the Academy said was made possible because of its rigorous safety precautions.
“Think of this as a movie set…people have been vaxxed, tested, retested, socially distanced,” Regina King said at the ceremony’s opening. “Just like on a movie set when we’re rolling, masks off.”
“Tenet,” one of the rare pandemic era films to have a traditional theatrical release, was honored for its visual effects. But it was an outlier. Many of this year’s major contenders were backed and released by streaming services, which filled the void left by distributors who rely on cinemas as the main vehicle for getting their films in front of audiences. The lack of a theatrical push appeared to have hurt the public’s awareness of these movies, with polling suggesting that most people were unfamiliar with this year’s batch of Oscars nominees.
“Nomadland” was produced by a traditional distributor in Searchlight, but was primarily released on Hulu, debuting on the service when many movie theaters were closed. Its star and producer McDormand used her time at the microphone to pay tribute to the power of cinema, sounding one of the evening’s only pleas to support struggling theaters. “Please watch our movie on the largest screen possible and one day very, very soon take everyone you know into a theater, shoulder to shoulder, in that dark space and watch every film that’s represented here tonight,” she said.
Despite the fact that Netflix dominated the nominations and won a leading seven statues, the films it released failed to capture the most prominent prizes. Netflix’s “Mank” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” earned two awards apiece in below-the-line categories, while its “My Octopus Teacher” nabbed best documentary. Among the other streamers, Amazon’s “Sound of Metal” earned two prizes for its sound and editing.
Awards shows have been struggling in the ratings during COVID, with the Grammy Awards hitting a record low of 8.8 million viewers and the Golden Globes capturing a mere 6.9 million viewers for a 13-year low. Given the low profile of this year’s crop of Oscar contenders, that downward ratings trend is expected to continue.
The telecast acknowledged the impact of COVID in its selection of winners of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. One, Tyler Perry, helped establish safety protocols that allowed production crews to go back to work during coronavirus. The other, the Motion Picture and Television Fund, experienced the devastation of the disease firsthand, as several of the elderly residents at its Woodland Hills facility, and the staffers who cared for them, died of the illness.
This year’s ceremony aired much later than usual. The 2020 Oscars took place in early February, roughly a month before the U.S. went into lockdown. the Academy opted to push the 2021 telecast to April 25, two months later than initially planned in the hopes that the public health situation would have improved. COVID also delayed the opening of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, a nearly $500 million showcase of movie history that will now open at the end of September. The chair of the institution’s board is Ted Sarandos, the co-CEO of Netflix, who helped usher in an age of streaming content that has fundamentally altered the trajectory of the medium that the museum was created to memorialize.