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The Most Surreal Moments of the Pandemic Oscars

Multiple choice! Which of the following took place at the ninety-third Academy Awards?

a) Zack Morris, the main character from “Saved by the Bell,” was thanked in an acceptance speech for the first time in Oscar history.
b) Daniel Kaluuya, accepting the Best Supporting Actor award, said, “My mom, my dad, they had sex. It’s amazing! Do you know what I’m saying? I’m here!” as the camera pointed to his bewildered mother.
c) Glenn Close, after becoming the most nominated living actress not to win an Academy Award, shook her booty to “Da Butt.”
d) Frances McDormand howled like a wolf.

The answer, of course, is all of the above. And none of those moments was the one I’d award Most Surreal. That came during the acceptance speech for Best Documentary Feature, when one of the directors of “My Octopus Teacher” mused, in all earnestness, “If a man can kind of form a friendship with an octopus, it does sort of make you wonder what else is possible.” Sadly, the octopus was not in attendance, having (spoiler alert!) died a natural death off the coast of South Africa. But a sense of boundless possibility seemed to have governed the entire ceremony, with results that were alternately fun, boring, moving, tacky, rushed, sluggish, stylish, and chaotic.

We were warned. Steven Soderbergh, who produced the telecast, along with Stacey Sher and Jesse Collins, previewed the ceremony for Vanity Fair by explaining, “Everybody will be a character: Every nominee, every person that gives an award, will feel like characters in a film. And in the end, you’ll know who everybody was and what they wanted.” It sounded like a murder-mystery theme party, or like the afterlife. But why not? Awards shows during the pandemic have been awkward, hybrid affairs, with comedians lobbing jokes into a silent ether and nominees Zoom-boxed together from their living rooms. Whatever slim playbook existed, Soderbergh vowed to trash it. These are, after all, the Oscars, and they have to stand out from the pack.

But I don’t think anyone was prepared for how radically these Oscars departed from protocol. For decades, viewers have complained about the pomp and ritual of the telecasts, which often seem yoked to the format of a nineteen-seventies variety show. Soderbergh & Company discarded it all. No auditorium. No zinger-filled opening monologue or musical number. No orchestra playing people off. No Best Original Song performances, which were dispensed with during the pre-show. No ending with Best Picture (more on that grievous misfire in a bit). Not all of these changes, you’ll notice, stemmed from COVID restrictions, but the pandemic seemed to provide an excuse to liberate the Oscars from nine decades of trappings and to try something new.

And so we opened on Regina King, in a blue Louis Vuitton gown with winged shoulders, strutting into Los Angeles’s Union Station, as funky music played and opening credits flashed in Fiestaware colors. Filmed in a tracking shot that brought to mind the scene of Pam Grier gliding through an airport at the beginning of “Jackie Brown,” King emerged into a makeshift theatre that looked like an Art Deco speakeasy, with nominees and their guests on tufted banquettes—a throwback to the days when the Oscars were given out at the Cocoanut Grove. It was all so effortlessly cool, until King got onstage, immediately stumbled, and said, “Live TV! Here we go!” This happens to be exactly how I imagine entering my first post-pandemic party, suave and confident for about two seconds. And that’s how the entire evening felt, starting with the cocktail-party pre-show: like a tentative first attempt at socializing after months of lockdown.

The next sign that we were in spring, 2021, and absolutely no other moment in time came when King, after a brief welcome, confided, “I have to be honest, if things had gone differently this past week in Minneapolis, I might have traded in my heels for marching boots.” The upheavals of recent times felt close to the surface, with speeches that addressed gun violence, police killings, and racial equity. Five years ago, the Academy was scrambling to respond to the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, and it has since made far-reaching efforts to diversify its membership. Not only was this year’s ceremony full of firsts, including the first woman of color to win Best Director, the first acting winner from Korea, and the first Black winners of Best Makeup and Hairstyling; the cutaways to international participants in Paris, Berlin, Kilkenny, and Seoul made the Academy feel more global than usual, much like the virtual roll call at the Democratic National Convention displayed the breadth of the country.

There were aesthetic decisions, too, that seemed designed to kick your grandpa’s Academy to the curb. Instead of sweeping orchestral music, we had Questlove in a d.j. booth, setting the whole thing to a funky, laid-back beat. (His choices could be pleasingly nonsensical, like playing Brad Pitt on to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.”) The point was to loosen things up, but the night-club atmosphere just as often seemed airless and cramped, as audience members craned their necks to see presenters positioned in odd corners. If you’ve ever been to a Hollywood set, you know how flimsy the “movie magic” is, and the Oscars, minus their scope and grandeur, felt at times like an open mike at a weird new night spot that’s open only during the day. (Elton John, hosting his annual viewing party remotely, complained that the venue looked like a Starbucks.) It took a while to acclimate to the speed and scale of the whole thing. When Emerald Fennell won the first award, for her screenplay for “Promising Young Woman,” her breathless excitement—a totally normal response to winning an Oscar—felt out of proportion with the casual vibe. (She was also the one who name-checked Zack Morris.) Winning an Academy Award is only as big and meaningful as what we invest in it, and that, too, seemed up for grabs.

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