What is the greatest film ever with an unsatisfactory ending? Orson Welles's The Magnificent Ambersons feels like the most appropriate analogy for the 93rd Academy Awards. Not just because it plays out like a masterpiece until a half-baked denouement. Observe also that, in both cases, the catastrophic final act was not entirely the creators' fault. Welles lost control of the editing and was stuck with a famously botched cut. The organisers of the 2021 Oscars – including the director Steven Soderbergh – took a gamble at the close, and fate leapt in to scupper their ambitions.
None of this is meant to diminish Sir Anthony Hopkins’s win as best actor or to undermine his perfectly sensible decision, at 83, to remain asleep in Wales throughout the ceremony. He deserved the Oscar. His performance as a man with dementia in The Father is among the strongest in a distinguished career.
The problem is that the narrative – the theme of the evening was "storytelling," after all – seemed to be pushing in a different direction. For the past five months or so, Chadwick Boseman, who died in August of 2020, had been pencilled in as favourite for his performance as a tormented jazz musician in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.
The decision to move the two top acting prizes to the end of the show looked to be aimed at an emotional finale. Boseman's widow had delivered a moving speech after his Golden Globes win. You could see how that might work
The startling decision to move the two lead acting prizes from their usual penultimate position, before best picture, to the end of the show looked to be aimed at delivering an emotional finale. Boseman’s widow had already delivered a notably moving speech after his win at the Golden Globes. You could see how that might work.
Not only did Hopkins win. He was the only one of the acting honourees to appear neither in person nor on camera. Joaquin Phoenix read out the Welshman's name and the credits crashed down on a slightly stunned Union Station. (I have no idea why they reversed the usual pattern of having the previous year's best actress and best actor present the awards for the other competing gender, but that now seems like a small thing.)
No such deflation would have occurred if we still had the highlight of best picture to come.
We don't yet know for certain if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences really was trying to engineer a final emotional catharsis. But it has form on these sorts of manoeuvres. It was no coincidence that Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg jointly presented best picture the year their old pal Martin Scorsese won for The Departed.
The gamble looks to have gone wrong before, but rarely so conspicuously. Harrison Ford, star of Indiana Jones, was surely supposed to hand best picture to Spielberg in 1997, but, when he opened the envelope, he discovered that Shakespeare in Love had beaten Saving Private Ryan to the prize. (Ah, the Weinstein years.)
If this year's producers – who genuinely don't know the results – were rejigging with Boseman in mind they will have developed sweaty palms days before the ceremony kicked off. Awards watchers such as the Gold Derby website were reporting countless academy members saying: "Chadwick will probably win, but I'm voting for Hopkins myself." Sentiment cannot always be relied on.
To that point (well, nearly to that point) these most unusual of Oscars had gone like a dream. Despite the delay of several high-profile titles and the shift to a streaming universe, the voters had nominated an impressive array of memorable pictures and fine performers.
Over the past week or so the usual blowhards have popped up to argue that the Oscars were too worthy, too miserable, too earnest. This has been going on since they erected the Hollywood sign. How the academy was supposed to nominate more blockbusters when virtually all blockbusters had been kicked forward to 2021 was not explained.
In fact, over the past decade, with wins for films such as Parasite, Moonlight and, now, Nomadland, the awards have found a new spurt of imaginative energy.
In retrospect, little bar a few more hours of sunlight was gained by delaying the ceremony from February to late April – most competing films were ready for release long before the later submission date – but who could have guessed that we’d still be socially distancing more than a year after Covid hit?
Soderbergh and his team were initially criticised for a prohibition on the bedroom Zooming that had worked reasonably well for the Emmys and less successfully at the Golden Globes. If we trust that the health precautions did their job then we must reasonably conclude the Oscars made the right decision here.
Most of the ceremony was moved from the Dolby Theatre, in busy, sleazy Hollywood, to Union Station, in the historical (by Los Angeles standards) core of the old city.
Sitting on padded banquettes as orange light illuminated the sparsely populated space, the attendees looked to have been cast back to the Oscars in the days before television. We could have been waiting for Grand Hotel to win at the Ambassador Hotel in 1932. What a lovely way to make a virtue of necessity. In a year when so much changed, Soderbergh and his team, relaying in cinematic widescreen, reminded us that some things remain the same.
There was less showboating from the winners. Distance added poignancy to shots of family watching loved ones triumph. Sitting in the BFI at London’s Southbank, Daniel Kaluuya’s mom choked up and then looked daggers when the perky performer, winner of the best-supporting-actor Oscar for Judas and the Black Messiah, made a gag about his parents having sex. He will have been grateful for the geographical intervention of the Atlantic Ocean and the American land mass.
That connection with the past was emphasised by the rewriting of a few records. Frances McDormand becomes, after Katharine Hepburn, only the second woman to win three best-actress awards. (Miss H is still alone at the top, with four).
Anthony Hopkins just passes out Christopher Plummer to become, at 83, the oldest winner of an acting award. Twenty-nine years after triumphing for Silence of the Lambs, he sets the record for the longest gap between wins for a male actor. Who holds that overall record? You guessed it. Hepburn had to wait 34 years between her wins for Morning Glory and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.
Hopkins was, however, not even the most venerable winner of the evening. At a mighty 89, Ann Roth, who won best costumes for Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, became the oldest woman in any of the disciplines to ever take an Academy Award. Meanwhile, Chloé Zhao became only the second woman and the first woman of colour to win best director. One more oddity. Only one person born in the United States has taken best director since 2010. We can take this as further evidence that the Oscars are opening up to the world.
It was a shame it fell apart at the end. Twenty minutes or so before the curtain came down, a hitherto dignified event went peculiar when Glenn Close, perennial bridesmaid, was coerced into dancing to Da Butt during a misconceived novelty section compered by Lil Rel Howery. Then the plot rammed into its miscalculated finale.
Still, the 93rd ceremony will be remembered by what we must, under these special circumstances, expect to be an unprecedently low TV audience. The 2021 Oscars? That was the pandemic year. The one in Union Station. The one where Frances McDormand howled like a wolf. The one that began with a cool movie walk from Regina King. The one where Chadwick didn't win. Good luck remembering what happened in 1994 or 2008.