You can pretend not to care about the Oscars, but even the most hardened souls secretly thrill to their glamour. The sometimes heartfelt, sometimes pretentious speeches; the occasional surprise underdog winner; and for sure the gowns—the tradition of the event still means something.
But this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, on April 25, has demanded some imaginative compromises on the part of both attendees and producers—one of whom is Steven Soderbergh, head of the Directors Guild task force on COVID-safe film production. Last year, in the midst of pandemic uncertainty, the Academy pushed the awards from their scheduled date, in February, to late April. The initial hope was that the pandemic would be well under control by then, and that movie theaters in all states would have reopened. We all know how that went.
And now our strange year of movie watching—one year, plus, of having to watch movies designed for big screens on small ones—will be celebrated in a similarly unconventional Oscars ceremony, most likely a sort of live event–virtual hybrid. Everything about the upcoming ceremony has felt uncertain, a little improvisational and therefore a little more thrilling. The vibe this year is different, not just in terms of the reformulated ceremony, but also in the choice of nominees. It’s as though the Academy, like so many of us, somehow recognized it needed to change not just its way of watching, but also of seeing. Hollywood, arguably the most ego-filled industry in the world and run largely by control freaks, has been humbled—if only temporarily—by a public-health crisis it had no way of controlling. If the glamour of the Oscars has always been presented as aspirational, this year it’s meeting us on our home turf: a world where we must compromise on certain things we can’t change, even as we force change on the things we can no longer live with.
The Academy Awards will be one of this year’s first major entertainment ceremonies to be conducted at least partially live, taking place on two sites in Los Angeles: Union Station and the awards’ usual venue, the Dolby Theatre. Strict protocols will be observed; the event will be treated as a COVID-compliant movie set. (Soderbergh isn’t fooling around.) Attendees will be limited to nominees and their guests and presenters. Originally, Zoom attendance wasn’t even an option, although the organizers may loosen that restriction. Presumably, there will be some form of red carpet, and casual attire—that means you, sweatpants—has been strongly discouraged.
No one knows what our next new normal will look like, but the Oscars are determined to set one bejeweled sandaled foot into it, no matter what. This is strangely heartening. Who among us hasn’t had to rethink almost every routine this year? Similarly, the lead-up to the awards has been low-key but also more intimate. And this year, unlike other years, just about anyone who cares to see the nominated movies—and can find the time—can mostly do so from home. That alone could make the event more egalitarian and engaging for most people. At the least, it should give them more favorites to root for.
Because miraculously enough, the quality of the movies on offer this year didn’t suffer because of the pandemic. Obviously, most of the releases were completed well before it kicked in. But the postponement of certain big-ticket releases—among them No Time to Die, West Side Story and In the Heights—didn’t mean we saw fewer good movies. It simply meant that a different type of good movie was more likely to grab the Academy’s attention. The most glittering example is Romanian filmmaker Alexander Nanau’s Collective, a superb documentary about the aftermath of a deadly 2015 nightclub fire in Bucharest. In any normal year, Collective might have attracted attention in the Documentary Feature category, but this year, it has been nominated for International Feature as well. That’s unusual for any documentary, but even more so for a Romanian one dealing with an intense subject that may seem—although it isn’t—remote from American interests.
Our strange viewing year has changed the awards landscape for fiction features too. For years, the classy, grownup A Beautiful Mind–type movies have generally flowed into theaters beginning in early fall. This year, those prestige-movie slots were filled by Netflix releases: Mank, David Fincher’s paean to Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, and The Trial of the Chicago 7, Aaron Sorkin’s 1960s-set historical drama, have both been nominated for Best Picture, among other categories.
But if it’s not surprising that the Academy would notice attention-grabbing Netflix releases like these, some of the other Best Picture nominees tell a different story. This year marks the first time two pictures by Asian or Asian-American directors—Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, a semi-autobiographical drama about Korean immigrants starting a farm in 1980s Arkansas, and Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, a fictional story set against the real-life backdrop of “houseless” Americans living on the road—have been nominated for Best Picture. What’s more, Zhao is the first woman of color to be nominated for Best Director.
This is good. But let’s not give the Academy too much credit just yet. We’ll know more when we see what they choose to honor next year, and the year after that. Yet for now, the nominees across all categories show more imagination than usual—albeit with some enigmatic Academy logic thrown in. Shaka King’s potent and timely historical drama Judas and the Black Messiah, which tells the story of Black Panther leader and activist Fred Hampton, has earned nominations in several categories, including Best Picture. Even so, the categorization of two of the film’s award nominees represents typical Academy weirdness: Daniel Kaluuya’s portrayal of Hampton and LaKeith Stanfield’s performance as William O’Neal, the FBI informant who betrayed him, have both been recognized in the Supporting Actor category, although these actors are indisputably the movie’s co-leads. As the Oscars remind us every year, you can’t have everything.
But incremental change is better than no change at all. In another milestone, this is the first year the Best Director category has included two women, Zhao for Nomadland and Emerald Fennell for her candy-colored feminist polemic Promising Young Woman. (Both films have been nominated in the Best Picture and screenplay categories as well.) And across all acting categories, the Academy recognized great performances by Black actors, including a posthumous nomination for Chadwick Boseman, for his portrayal of an ambitious, dazzling jazz trumpeter in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and for Andra Day, who, in The United States vs. Billie Holiday, gave us a portrait of the revered singer as a woman who was as defiant as she was fragile. What’s more, Steven Yeun, a gifted but long underappreciated actor, has finally earned Oscar attention for his leading role in Minari, as a Korean-born aspiring farmer striving to build a life for his family.
Do these shifts in the Academy’s thinking mean that its voters, like many of us, are trying to reckon with a radically changed world, one shaken not just by a pandemic but also by explosive racial injustice and violence? It’s hard to measure any group’s thinking across a span of only a year, and change so often creeps in, over time, from the margins. It might be wiser to look at these nominees in the context of how, after our pandemic year of watching, we’re different, rather than how they’re different. If we’ve somehow opened ourselves to a wider range of experience, in a year when we could barely leave our living rooms, that has to count as a silver lining.