The world has fallen prey to a pandemic. Millions of people have died. Millions have become sick or lost their jobs. Hundreds of millions have stayed home and watched TV, forbidden to visit a cinema and trapped in shame by their self-administered haircuts. For the sake of universal morale, therefore, it was deemed to be of paramount importance that the ninety-third Academy Awards should go ahead on Sunday. And it was only right that the bulk of the ceremony should be staged at a railroad station—to be specific, Union Station, in Los Angeles. An obvious choice. If it was good enough for the climax of “Garfield: The Movie,” it’s good enough for the Oscars.
For Harrison Ford, who was presenting the award for Best Film Editing, the whole night must have felt like a flashback. Here he was, returning to the high-windowed place that had taken the role of a police station, in “Blade Runner,” the only difference being that he was now wearing a tuxedo instead of a dark-brown trench coat with the collar turned up. The years have done little to smooth away Ford’s grumpiness, and on Sunday he played it up in style, growling softly as he drew a crumpled scrap of paper from his pocket, like a cop with a clue, and read out some old studio notes on “Blade Runner.” The implication was clear: given the purgatorial slog of creating a film, we should count ourselves lucky that any coherent movies, let alone great ones, make it through the system at all.
For those of us whose hearts plummet, on an annual basis, at the very sound of the phrase “awards season,” there had been a faint but lingering hope that the Oscars, for once, might be scrapped. How about taking the year off? Why must the show go on? One reason, of course, is the money that the Academy earns from the telecast, although the pot is hardly brimming, since the number of viewers who sit through the ceremony has lurched and slipped. The 2020 audience was twenty per cent smaller than that of 2019, and it would be a real surprise if this year triggers an upswing. Be honest: Did you stick around for the lengthy excursus into the origins and duties of the Motion Picture and Television Fund, or did you take the opportunity to duck out and reheat the calzone?
The true stalwarts of the Oscars have nothing to do with the Academy. They are, of course, the commentators on E!, who bravely and knowledgeably steer us through the complexities of the red carpet. Sunday’s rug was a little sparser than usual; Viola Davis surveyed it regally and pronounced it “calm,” while Amanda Seyfried, who plays Marion Davies in “Mank,” and whose hairstyle was itself a moving tribute to the nineteen-forties, reported that the prevailing atmosphere was “ ‘Twilight Zone,’ in a good way.” What way?
Yet the eyes of the experts were as sharp as ever, and it wasn’t long before two outstanding trends had been identified: bare midriffs for the women, and jewelry for the men. Daniel Kaluuya, a round-the-clock mesmerizer both on and offscreen, and soon to be acclaimed as Best Supporting Actor for “Judas and the Black Messiah,” was sporting a necklace and a pinkie ring by Cartier. “Daniel has been loving his jewelry and his diamonds this season,” we were told, which raises the possibility that, come summer, he may have a change of heart and throw his pearls away. Among the nominees for Best Abs was Andra Day, a blinding vision in gold—courtesy of Vera Wang, according to Brad Goreski, the fashion magus of E! He added, “Vera actually worked with a welder to make this gown, because it’s totally made of metal.” For anyone who has spent the past year dozing in sweatpants, here was your wake-up call.
The Academy Awards, as a rule, are composed of two things: riches and embarrassment. Every year, the organizers like to tinker with the rubric, on the principle that, if it ain’t broke, try fixing it a little more and you will end up breaking it. The big tinker of 2021, apart from the hiring of a major transport hub as a venue, was the cute—and, needless to say, calamitous—notion of introducing the contenders with a brief résumé of what their movie-flavored habits used to be before they entered the business. We learned, for instance, that Aaron Sorkin once sold popcorn, and that Glenn Close enjoyed watching Disney films. Who’d have guessed? All in all, it’s fortunate that no one at the Academy had this bright idea back in 2003, when Roman Polanski was voted Best Director, for “The Pianist.” His backstory might have raised less of a smile.
There were warmer hints of history, if you kept your ears open and knew where to look. Laura Dern paid tribute to Giulietta Masina, in Fellini’s “La Strada,” and Chloé Zhao, having collected her award for directing “Nomadland,” offered a tip: if making a movie seems like a heap of trouble, simply ask yourself, “What would Werner Herzog do?” (In practice, you’ll almost certainly treble the size of the heap by following Herzog’s example, but, still, what larks!) Around the podium, the physical layout of the evening was also a nod to the past; the nominees, arranged not in serried ranks, as they are at the Dolby Theatre, but in dining booths, bore some resemblance to the guests at the inaugural Academy Awards, in 1929, who sat at tables, at the Roosevelt Hotel. The one drawback, for modern nominees, was the COVID-driven lack of alcohol, plus the unhelpful fact that some of them had to crane round the edge of their velvet banquettes to accept the praises of a presenter, like normal mortals asking a waiter for more ketchup.