After a winding road of pandemic awards shows, the end of the 2021 film awards season is at last upon us. On April 25, the highly anticipated 93rd Academy Awards — also known as the Oscars — took place live and in-person at Union Station in Los Angeles.
Though it had already broken tradition by leaving behind its historic Dolby Theatre venue, the Oscars attempted to recreate its pre-pandemic atmosphere as much as possible, allowing only in-person acceptance speeches and attendees to unmask while on camera.
This was a considerable departure from other ceremonies this year, shows from the Golden Globes to the Screen Actors Guild Awards fully embraced a virtual modality. The Academy, instead, made a point to roll out the red carpet and bring the nominees to Los Angeles — an unprecedented move that could yield polarizing results. Having seen my fair share of virtual awards shows since the pandemic hit, though, I was glad for a change of pace and the possibility of a semblance of normalcy once more.
The ceremony began in a wonderfully cinematic way, with the camera following actress and director Regina King as she made her way through the transformed Union Station. There was no better way to showcase the stunning production design, which all but completely morphed Union Station’s outdoor spaces into an art deco lounge nestled beneath a ceiling of flowers. All the while, vibrant credits rolled on screen.
King proceeded to open the show, which had no host for the second consecutive year. Her classy monologue made for a great beginning, trading the sometimes cringe-worthy jokes of years past with important, timely remarks about the pandemic and police violence.
After she finished, no time was spared in jumping into presenting the categories, with one followed by the other in relatively quick succession. However, this year’s show had a few notable changes, the foremost of which was presently evident when the first category of the night, Best Original Screenplay, was presented.
Rather than rattling off nominee names as per usual, the presenter singled each one out to describe their firsts, mainly either first jobs in the industry or first cinematic experiences. Rare and refreshing, the Oscars took the time to acknowledge the people behind the famous names and injected a personal tone into the ceremony. This trend continued throughout the night, giving us often heartwarming glimpses into nominees in categories from Best Costume Design to Best Animated Feature.
It was this very idea that made for an exceptional presentation of the Best Director category. Presenter Bong Joon-ho, last year’s winner in the category for his masterpiece Parasite, presented each of the five nominees’ responses to what directing means to them from Seoul.
This served as the perfect build-up to the announcement of the winner, which was Chloé Zhao for her stirring film Nomadland. Though she had been a clear frontrunner for months, her win was history in the making as the first Asian woman and woman of color to win Best Director. It was empowering for me, as a Chinese Canadian, to see the top honor passed from one great Asian filmmaker to another, watching them blaze the way for those to come right before my eyes.
Another change I greatly welcomed was the decision to not cap the acceptance speeches at all — a world away from the 45-second time limits of last year. It allowed for insightful speeches to thrive, which I believe was worth the cost of a few dreaded laundry list speeches sneaking in too.
Director Thomas Vinterberg’s speech after his Best International Feature win stood out both for his wry sense of humor and his touching tribute to his late daughter. Youn Yuh-jung’s historic win for her role in Minari was paired with a hilarious yet earnest speech that quickly became the talk of the night.
But of course, like all shows, the Oscars wasn’t without its faults. The traditional In Memoriam portion of the ceremony, devoid of a live musical performance and with names flashing by too quickly, seemed to be trying to make up for lost time rather than give a respectful, proper tribute to those who had passed on.
A second ill-informed decision was the choice to mix it up and end with presenting Best Actor rather than the customary Best Picture category. While all bets were on the late Chadwick Boseman to win the statue, Best Actor instead went to Anthony Hopkins, for his role in The Father. His inability to attend in-person meant that no acceptance speech could be made, leaving the show to end abruptly with lots of confusion.
Though the finale may have underwhelmed, the Oscars were filled with highs that undoubtedly made it a milestone in the entertainment industry. People of color shone in an assortment of categories, including Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Live Action Short Film and Best Supporting Actress. And of course, new ground was broken with Best Picture, which was, in an immensely raw moment, scooped up by Nomadland. Much work must still be done when it comes to diversity in the film industry, but this year’s Oscars mark one of many promising first steps.
Throughout the night, the ceremony maintained an intimate, even casual feel at times, while expertly preserving its prestige and weight. Seeing such passion and tenacity on display, I came away more than inspirited. If anything, the Oscars served as a reminder of the power of film, its ability to break through boundaries and set new precedents, forging authentic human connections even in these uncommon times.