Yuh-Jung Youn poses backstage with the Oscar® for Actress in a Supporting Role with Brad Pitt during the live ABC Telecast of The 93rd Oscars® at Union Station in Los Angeles, CA on Sunday, April 25, 2021.
The question now isn’t how to save this monster, it’s how to put it down before it can do any more harm. The Oscars have become the birthday cake that has turned rancid. It’s as if our own promotional campaign became self-aware and turned against us, Skynet-like. – Richard Rushfield, The Ankler
Probably one of the worst things that can happen in an Oscar race is what I call the “Don’t Think Twice” bait and switch. It comes from the line in a Bob Dylan song Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right:
“I ain’t saying you treated me unkind. You could have done better, but I don’t mind. You just kind of wasted my precious time, But don’t think twice, it’s all right.”
The night before the BAFTAs, I was having a conversation with a friend about the acting categories. This year, because the BAFTA had been accused of racism, their privileges were curtailed when a jury was brought in to select the nominees for the acting categories and Best Director. The jury was made up of a small number of people, and only some of them were BAFTA members. That meant there was to be a healthy amount of nominees of color and women in these categories.
I said to my friend, “why would they have gone through all of this trouble only to then pick white actors?” And my friend said back to me something that stuck with me and should have stuck harder, “That’s WHY they would do it.”
From then on I was thinking about the “BAFTA revolt” and wondering if it would play out at the Oscars and to what degree. What I didn’t expect was that they would match the BAFTA 100% in the top categories. Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Adapted and Original Screenplay. They matched the BAFTA with editing, going with Sound of Metal instead of the Ace winner, Chicago 7.
True, many of these wins were consensus picks already and weren’t surprises. Actor and Actress, though, were. What makes the Academy and BAFTA different from almost every other awards bodies? Their demographics. True, the Academy has roughly 3,000 more members and many of them younger and non-white voters – if you split up those extra voters (Boseman vs. Riz Ahmed, Davis vs. Day) you are left with the BAFTA, more or less. They basically showed their defiance for a season that was mostly telling them what and whom to vote for and they clearly resented it and decided to do whatever the hell they wanted.
That is sometimes referred to as “white privilege” and sometimes referred to as “white fragility,” but to me, removing the prestige of being a BAFTA member at all and forcing them to pick from a hand-picked selection of nominees to change their own image for the sake of their own image was a bridge too far for them and they just said, “screw it” and “screw you.” Not to the people of color but to the higher ups who made them comply with a mandate that stripped them of their privileges as honored members of their industry.
Hopkins beating Boseman and McDormand beating Davis (or Day) is a bad look for an institution that just sold you for a couple of hours on who they wanted to be. It is a Crash-like bummer that unfortunately erases the legacy of Hopkins, who delivered maybe his best performance in The Father, and it erases the legacy of McDormand who is largely responsible for the existence of Nomadland at all.
For Davis, that makes it twice she’s won the SAG and twice she’s lost it to a white actress, Meryl Streep for The Iron Lady and now, McDormand. There is no other actress in all of SAG/Oscar history who has that happen to them.
The Golden Globes, who ironically were hounded all season as racists, ended up with two black actors winning in lead, and the SAG ended with all four acting winners people of color.
The award ceremony itself had a few great moments, like Yuh-Jung Youn’s hilarious speech where she said the quiet part out loud, “maybe you are showing American hospitality to a Korean actress.”
Tyler Perry’s speech was a plea for unity – the kind Joe Biden should be making and never has wherein he asks us not to hate each other – not to hate people for skin color, not to hate cops because they are cops – to meet him in the middle. It was powerful and memorable and exactly what this country, and this industry, needs.
But it didn’t really matter how great the individual moments were. Because it ended on a bummer note, that is likely much of what people will take away from this year’s Oscars after such a hard year, a year where the black community rose up and demanded to be seen and heard and the Academy, the institution itself, tried to show it was listening.
Perhaps they tried just a little too hard to portray themselves as something other than what they actually are. So who are they? Well, they are more like the BAFTAs than anyone wants to admit. According to Statista, as of February 2021, the Academy is: 84% white. That would mean the BAFTA is probably, I’m guessing, site unseen, something like 90% white.
As Rushfield put it, in another beautifully written piece of savagery (of the kind rarely seen in journalism anymore):
The whole proceedings were fueled by this magical elixir of self-absorption and self-importance mixed with incompetence. A more potent potion to chase away audiences it is hard to imagine; and not just chase them away from the Oscars but to disgust them with Hollywood itself and all its works, above and beyond the normal sea level of disgust with Hollywood.
I think I liked the whole show better than Rushfield did. I think they did a decent enough job, given what they had to work with. But the decision to scramble the awards order turned out to be an honest mistake. But it was disorienting and, frankly, messed with the one aspect of the Oscars that wasn’t broken. I appreciate the daring choice, however, to shake the tree a little but again, when your two top winners are Hopkins and McDormand it makes it all the more strange with the categories scrambled.
The Academy itself, and the producers of the show, are not the voters.
They had every reason to think that this year, 2021, a black actress would finally beat Halle Berry’s record of being the only one to win in 93 years of Oscar history, so she was invited to present an award. They had every reason to think Chadwick Boseman would win in Best Actor since he’d won the Globe and the SAG. That is why they saved his award for last, to put his win in the highest possible place of the night — these are the two awards we think will top the night, those choices said.
Hopkins clearly not only didn’t think he would win, but he didn’t really even want to compete, out of respect, with Boseman so he never showed up. He didn’t get his moment for the performance of his life, but at least he wasn’t Chadwick Boseman’s widow, brought all the way there only to watch him lose. She was very likely thinking, “I ain’t saying you treated me unkind. You could have done better but I don’t mind.”
And he wasn’t the many fans of Boseman’s who’d tuned in specifically to see him win the Oscar at last to complete the circuit of award wins posthumously. The Academy was somehow making their whole show about appealing to the black community, but like ABC’s The Bachelor, they somehow managed to fumble the ball in the final play.
Despite it all, I would advocate for more understanding of what the awards are supposed to be – they are not supposed to right the wrongs of society, though it would be great if they could. Their purpose is to award high achievements in art. But of course, Boseman and Davis and Mulligan and Day and Ahmed and everyone else – these were high achievements in art and therein lies the problem. Did they pick the best or did they go with the one the most people (the BAFTA voters, essentially) thought were best?
I did do an actual happy dance when Mank won Cinematography and many here at AD also predicted that tough but right call. Citizen Kane lost that Oscar in 1941, Mank just won it back. And as we know, it’s all about me.
The joke about the Oscars is that they are just the industry patting itself on the back. That is what they are, what they are designed to be, and they have to be honest about who they are and not necessarily try to present themselves as anything else. This is why we need honesty in art, journalism, humor – sooner or later you figure out the ship is sinking, despite your best efforts to tell the passengers it isn’t.
All things considered, I thought the producers of last night’s telecast really do deserve a pat on the back. They made something out of nothing and did the best with what they had. It was mostly a disaster of a year all around, that’s true, but they can be proud that they stitched it together and presented something resembling the Oscars. And that’s not nothing.
We’ll close out this year’s Oscars with a farewell note later today.