Over the Oscars’ 93-year history, there have been a number of memorable moments, from historic wins (like Sidney Poitier becoming the first Black man to win Best Actor), unforgettable acceptance speeches (like Cuba Gooding, Jr., defiantly continuing his speech over the play-off music, or Marlon Brando sending Apache actress and activist Littlefeather to accept his award), unbelievable errors (the La La Land debacle, or John Travolta absolutely mangling Idina Menzel’s name), and even streakers. But all of these moments have been a result of the fact that the Oscars are live and unscripted, a night of tremendous emotion for many people, and a chance for people with large platforms to make a stand. You cannot manufacture an Oscars moment. But the 2021 Oscars were determined to try.
The 2021 Oscars, held last night in Union Station (not the traditional Dolby Theater), were produced by Steven Soderbergh, and was emphasized as being an homage to movies. Indeed, it certainly tried to be. Instead of the usual opening monologue or skit, the ceremony began with just a shot of Regina King, the night’s first presenter (there was no host), strutting into the station, as movie-like credits announced the names of the celebrities who would be presenting awards.
The night was about as untraditional as an Oscars ceremony can get. In addition to the whole no-host thing, and the ceremony being held in Union Station with a reduced-capacity crowd, there were almost no cringey in-between bits, nominees were introduced with personal tidbits rather than film clips (except in cases such as Best International Feature and Best Picture), there was no play-off music for speeches that ran over (there was no orchestra! just Questlove acting as DJ), and the categories were read out of order. The most notable was, of course, that the two top acting categories were reserved for last, and not Best Picture.
This is where the 2021 Oscars faltered. It was fairly obvious that most people, including producer Soderbergh, expected the late Chadwick Boseman to win the coveted Best Actor statue for his role in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, his final performance, a film he literally shot while he was dying. Boseman had won the honors at the Golden Globes and the SAG Awards, with his wife, Simone Ledward Boseman, accepting the award on his behalf. The ceremony was therefore structured around the emotional moment that would come from Boseman’s posthumous win.
But Boseman did not win. Anthony Hopkins did. And Anthony Hopkins did not even attend the ceremony (he’s in his 80s and there’s a pandemic, so I don’t necessarily blame him), so instead of a poignant final remembrance of a beloved actor gone too soon, the night ended abruptly, with Joaquin Phoenix accepting on Hopkins’s behalf, Questlove giving a little goodbye speech, and that was it. I saw someone on Twitter liken it to a bar turning its lights on before announcing last call.
I’ll be honest, even if Boseman had won, I’m not sure saving his category for last was the right answer. The Oscars are about movies and not an individual actor. True, the only other time that Best Picture was not the final award of the night was in 1971, when Charlie Chaplin received an honorary Oscar, but still. I understand that attempting to end the night with Boseman’s triumphant win was meant to be a tribute, but it just seems crass. I thought that even before he lost.
That faux pas capped off what was by far the weirdest Oscars ceremony I can remember. My Twitter timeline was torn on whether it was the best or worst Oscars, and my vote is that it’s neither.
I missed the clips introducing the nominees. What’s the point if you can’t see why a particular individual or film was nominated for the category? Especially this year, when film releases were so chaotic. Some of the introductions seemed a little self-congratulatory. This person started as an assistant and is now nominated for an Oscar! Great! I know that’s meant to be motivating – you, too, can win an Oscar – but the truth is it’s an exception and not the rule, and a failure to recognize that is one of the many reasons why the Oscars remain out of touch. These moments, clearly meant to humanize the nominees, dragged, and made the ceremony feel much longer than it was. I felt myself often remembering fondly how the SAG Awards were literally an hour.
I missed the song performances. I understand why they might not have been able to have them on stage, but I missed almost all of them because they were shown pre-ceremony, when I’m usually not watching.
The In Memoriam segment lacked the gut punch it normally has, with its emotional music and montage of the stars we’ve lost. 2020 was a particularly bad year, what with the pandemic and all, and so I realize that they likely went with a photo slideshow because otherwise the segment might have been ten minutes long. But I feel like they could have cut out the Questlove and Lil Rel Oscar music trivia bit (which was funny, but not nearly three hours into a ceremony that was clearly running long) and given more time for the tribute. (And, as usual, they forgot people. Where was Jessica Walters, Academy?) It felt almost disrespectful with how fast it was – and that they returned from commercial too late and missed the beginning of Angela Bassett’s introduction.
The speeches went on and on. DJ Questlove was apparently not allowed to play anyone off when their speeches ran over, and it looked as though very few people prepared remarks in advance, so some of the speeches felt endless.
Despite the chaos and confusion, there were some extremely memorable moments from the 2021 Oscars, but they came, naturally, from the unscripted and unrehearsed spots – the fashion, the speeches, and the victories themselves.
While the winners were overwhelmingly white men again, there were some notable wins that should not be ignored. Chloé Zhao’s Best Director win makes her only the second woman ever to take home that prize (after Kathryn Bigelow won for The Hurt Locker) and the first woman of color to do so. Minari‘s Yuh-Jung Youn is the first Korean actor to win an Oscar. Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson, accepting Best Makeup & Hairstyling for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, are the first Black women to win that category. Jon Batiste, accepting Best Original Score for Soul, is only the second Black man to win that award. Hopkins became the oldest actor to win an Oscar at 83. Ann Roth, who won for Best Costume Design on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, was the oldest woman to win an Oscar at 89.
Oscars fashion has produced some memorable moments in past years (Halle Berry?), but it tends to be from the women, who get a little more adventurous with their looks than men. (Well, white men. One plus about greater diversity in the nominees is that we finally have some men who understand what style is.) Last night, as Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe went on stage to accept their award for Best Live-Action Short for Two Distant Strangers, I noticed that they seemed to have coordinated their tuxes, which I remarked that I would love to see more of. It’s actually much deeper than just matching outfits – the inner lining of Free’s jacket contains the names of 17 Black men who were killed by police.
The personal reflections of “what movies mean to me” from the 2021 Oscars presenters were hit or miss, but Steven Yeun’s story about his mom taking him to see Terminator 2: Judgment Day at age 7, possibly because she misunderstood what the movie was about, was one of the better moments of the night. As was Harrison Ford roasting himself by reading original production notes of Blade Runner (which were not at all complimentary) as he announced Best Film Editing. And also Rita Moreno proclaiming that of the 10 Oscars West Side Story won, obviously the most important was hers.
But, aside from Glenn Close dancing to “Da Butt”, most of the memorable moments from the 2021 Oscars came from the acceptance speeches. Yuh-Jung Youn’s speech was one of the funniest moments of the night, with her shooting her shot and introducing herself to Brad Pitt (who presented the award), forgiving everyone for not being able to pronounce her name, and telling her fellow nominees that while they weren’t really in a competition (because their roles are so varied), she was obviously the luckiest, or maybe that everyone had just felt bad for the Korean actress.
Daniel Kaluuya’s speech, as he accepted the award for Best Supporting Actor for Judas and the Black Messiah, will no doubt go down in history, for his off-the-cuff remarks about his parents having sex and for the reaction gifs that remark prompted. It was definitely an interesting way to cap off what until that comment had been a fairly emotional speech about Fred Hampton’s legacy, and how much he was able to accomplish in his short life.
There were heartbreaking moments as well, such as when Thomas Vinterberg, accepting Best International Feature for Another Round, talked about the loss of his teenage daughter, who died shortly into filming. Travon Free, in his acceptance speech, pleaded with the world at large to not be indifferent to the pain the Black community is suffering right now. Will McCormack and Michael Govier, accepting Best Animated Short for If Anything Happens I Love You, talked about how we as a country deserve better than the seemingly constant gun violence.
Suffice it to say that the 2021 Oscars was a pretty memorable event, but even though it produced genuine moments that should live on in Hollywood, it will no doubt be best remembered for the one moment it tried – and failed – to manufacture.
Author: Jamie Sugah
Jamie has a BA in English with a focus in creative writing from The Ohio State University. She self-published her first novel, The Perils of Long Hair on a Windy Day, which is available through Amazon. She is currently an archivist and lives in New York City with her demon ninja vampire cat. She covers television, books, movies, anime, and conventions in the NYC area.
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