“If we can get out at three hours and deliver a show that we see on paper right now,” Academy Awards co-producer Jesse Collins told the New York Times just last week, “we feel like we will have had a cultural moment where the nation, the world, will say, ‘Yes, I love movies!’ ”
You can tell the story of last night’s Academy Awards broadcast in so many ways. I’m uncertain whether “Yes, I love movies!” — a sentiment likely felt most strongly by the nominees and their peers by night’s end — was really one of those ways for everyone (the depressing few) watching from home. Typically, the Monday-morning quarterback wants to home in on the snubs and surprises, the iffy writing, the curiously low-key vibe and slackened pace of the speeches in particular — the shoulda, coulda, wouldas that people mostly care about when they’re paid to do so. Telling the story of the night as a one of historic wins is also valid: the fact that 39-year-old Chinese native Chloe Zhao became the first nonwhite woman (and only the second woman in the Academy’s 93-year history) to win best director; historic numbers of women (in all categories) and nonwhite creatives (dominating the acting categories in particular) up for trophies against staid industry titans, and often enough winning against them; an Anthony Hopkins headshot winning Best Actor.
You can also bypass all of that in one sharp, clarifying example: Oscar winner Marlee Matlin introducing the best documentary category with a nod to Darnella Frazier, whose shattering video of the murder of George Floyd was indeed the most important visual document produced in 2020, before announcing that the winner of the category was, not Garrett Bradley’s Time — a film about black incarceration that’s also, simply, a beautiful, astonishing piece of collaborative filmmaking — but My Octopus Teacher, a nothing Netflix doc composed almost entirely of footage that would pass for BBC nature special b-roll.
All of this as, just beyond the walls of the ceremony, as if overseeing it all, L.A.’s Metropolitan Detention Center, a federal prison, loomed in the background.
Not that you could see it. In the strictly contained and Covid-proofed, hollowed-out halls of Los Angeles’ Union Station — a transit hub — the effort to tell a straight story about Hollywood and why it matters, buoyed by the relaxed and canny DJ’ing of Questlove, must have seemed appreciable. This much, at least, played relatively well for television. Love of movies, love of movie theaters, love of the movie business: all sentiments thoroughly scripted into last night’s proceedings, all of which, while hardly new to “Hollywood’s biggest night,” felt like more of a feature than the usual try-hard bug it’s become in recent (20-to-30-plus years) history, however successful or not. In favor of grand theatrical tricks and comical vamping between the announcements of winners and awkwardly scripted repartee between mismatched presenters, we got life stories. Movie stories. Origin stories — as if we were kicking off a new franchise.
How screenwriters turned away from Ph.D.s and J.D.s, careers in journalism, and the like to pursue their real dreams of making movies. How seeing Kramer vs. Kramer and La Strada at a young age made people want to become actors. How the children of Tuskegee and Jim Crow — sounding not a little unlike Kamala Harris on the debate stage, wielding the story of her experience in the educational busing system — were raised with a particular image of the world, one in which inequity rules, but in which hard work, that most powerful of vaccines, could still result in personal triumph. An image shattered, somewhat, by their wins.
Everyone has a story. Like that of a young Aaron Sorkin’s Hollywood journey that started out with him serving popcorn to the unsuspecting — and now, here he is (and you can too!). Or of how Promising Young Woman director Emerald Fennell shot her best picture nominee, for which she would win an Oscar for screenwriting, in only 23 days — while seven months pregnant (and you can too?). Directors, Fennell among them, were instructed to send in elevator-pitch responses to the question of what the hell it is they even do, to be read in a prerecorded voiceover by last incumbent best director winner Bong Joon Ho. No one said, “Make movies … obviously.” Yet of the many feelings — political and otherwise — flying around that temporarily refashioned transit station over the course of the night like an errant pigeon trapped indoors, this is the sentiment that stuck out most: We make movies.
Let’s not totally begrudge them the sentiment. Oscar ratings have been declining for years. The impact of the pandemic has, here as in the case of every other major industry and mass social event, proved to be the kick in the ass that these tried and truly boring proceedings needed to even imagine reimagining themselves. Theaters in the U.S. have, by and large, been out of commission for the past 14 months thanks to the pandemic. Nostalgia for Hollywood’s dominance as an art-forward industry, rather than as a petty business subject to the whims of economy and production, is false. It was always a business. But we can forgive the artists themselves — people who’ve devoted themselves to that system or, more likely, struggled against it for many years — for indulging it. The premise of Oscar night is that we’re celebrating the art, not the business, even as the art is a business, even as the art of culling a year’s slate of movies into a minority of chosen nominees is a business (to the tune of $30 million and more, if you’re Netflix), and even when — in so many ways — business ain’t booming.
This year, the scaled-down, banquet-style ceremony — abandoning its now-usual haunt of the Dolby Theater — told the same stories as usual. But it told them in a different way, a more personal way. This much, we can appreciate. The ceremony this year was about the people; the occasion fell just short of putting its finger on Hollywood being an industry of laborers, first and foremost, yet this year it came closer to telling that story than in any Academy Awards telecast that I can remember. Social-distancing protocols, combined with the fact that much of the viewing public only wants to see the name-brand celebrities anyway — hence moving the top actor categories to the end of the ceremony? — made the affair more intimate. Or knocked it down to size, you could say. Daniel Kaluuya turning to Laura Dern, presenter of the Best Supporting Actor trophy, as she recalled to him his own life story, felt pointed. Andra Day’s (censored) remarks about Prince’s thunderous “Purple Rain” not even being nominated (“and that’s some bullshit”) was refreshing for noting, as she did, that the best things usually aren’t.
Stars: They’re just like us. As flawed, as vain, as eager, as utterly, erringly human — as effective or ineffectual as they choose to be, with bigger microphones than all but the social media stars among us, and with more latitude than most to air their political grievances on the world stage. Yet despite all that excitement, the Academy Awards have, for quite some time now, largely felt akin to mediocre sex with a convenient acquaintance, the kind that encourages mental double-tasking; you’re mid-sex and thinking about all the laundry you could be doing, thinking, “Who is this guy again, and why was I so excited?” They’re like watching SNL week to week in want of that one good sketch, the one that justifies a commitment you can’t explain to even yourself.
Well, it’s Hollywood. That’s the commitment. Hollywood is a dream factory: a manufacturer of images, fantasies, celebrity, with some visions coming at the expense of — practically being produced in order to deliberately obscure — others. It’s only appropriate that last night’s ceremony be a case in point in its own right. In the weeks leading up to the ceremony, after the announcement that the event would be held in Union Station, city officials and Academy representatives faced a litany of complaints about access, with people with disabilities noting that the detours around Union Station planned by the city severely inconvenienced them and even put their lives in danger. On the Friday before the ceremony, unhoused Angelenos — who account for many of the city’s residents — were reportedly booted from nearby encampments by the city. “They were coming and harassing us three or four times a day,” one affected person told the press. “They forced us to go to the Grand Hotel on 3rd and Figueroa, and they kicked everybody out of Union Station so it looks better for the image.”
Toward the end of the night, Nomadland — a film about unhoused laborers — won Best Picture. Image, as ever, remains Hollywood’s business. And on that front it remains king — even if we’re barely watching.