Oscars 2021: Has the awards season already gone wrong?

This year we’re back with historical dramas treating real-life figures with qualified respect

 Viola Davis in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: Leaner versions of the old-school “Oscar Film” could still boss awards season. Photograph: Netflix

Viola Davis in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: Leaner versions of the old-school “Oscar Film” could still boss awards season. Photograph: Netflix

 

Has the 2021 awards season already gone wrong? Maybe so, but not for the reasons that some US commentators claim. Welcome to our world, America. 

When the Covid crisis set in, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided, not unreasonably, to relax its eligibility qualifications. Certain films that opened only on streaming services will be allowed to compete. The deadline for release was extended to the close of February. As a result of that last alteration, a number of tipped films are not yet available to view in the US.

Consider the recent Golden Globes nominations. Two of the five titles nominated for best drama picture — The Father and Nomadland — have yet to be put before the general American public. Other Globe competitors such as Minari, Judas and the Black Messiah and The Mauritanian became available 10 days after the nominations landed. For the first time, the American public finds itself left out of the conversation.

“The disconnect … between the announcement of this year’s awards contenders and the ability to actually watch those movies isn’t doing anyone any favours,” Jeva Lange writes in This Week. 

This side of the Atlantic

It was ever thus on this side of the Atlantic. Just last year, Parasite, eventual winner of best picture at the Oscars, opened here nearly a month after nominations and just two days before the ceremony itself. Lucky jerks such as your current columnist saw it over eight months earlier at the Cannes festival, but the Oscar strategists wanted, here in the Old World, to capitalise on expected nominations and wins.

The ploy worked. Parasite had just enough time to become the highest-grossing “foreign language” title ever in the UK and Ireland before the Covid shutters came down.

Up to the end of the last century, it was common for films to open in these territories many months after debuting in the United States. In 1986, Oliver Stone’s Platoon arrived in the UK and Ireland a full three weeks after winning best picture. The Oscars were, for us, often a preview of upcoming entertainment. It was only the relative lateness of the ceremony — landing in the last weeks of March or even early April — that saved us from feeling entirely shut out of the party.

So we have limited sympathy for the current protests from American Oscar fans. The awards will, this year, not arrive until April 25th (the latest they have been since Grand Hotel won in 1932). There will, we hope, be time for us all to catch up with Promising Young Woman, Nomadland, The Father and The Mauritanian as they move onto streaming services. We may even get to see them in cinemas before then. There have been worse inconveniences during the coronavirus emergency.

Other disappointments are, however, bubbling up. Writing in this place a few months ago, I expressed a hope that this year’s competition would be among the most interesting in the Academy’s history. As the big blousy awards-bait films scurried off towards a 2022 release, it looked as if smaller,more eccentric films — those odd projects getting unexpected media attention on digital release — might compete for the big prizes.

Maybe Eliza Hittman’s abortion drama Never Rarely Sometimes Always would score. There would surely be room for Kelly Reichardt’s hugely acclaimed First Cow. What about Kitty Green’s The Assistant? After all, by recently honouring films such as Moonlight and Parasite, the Academy had shown an admirable taste for the adventurous. 

The news is not all bad. Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, a raw film with an independent sensibility, has been nominated everywhere. It seems unlikely that Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman, a feminist revenge saga on a Jacobean scale, would be registering so strongly in an ordinary year. There is every chance that woman directors will do better than ever when the Oscar nominations are announced on March 15th. Wolfwalkers, the best film yet from Kilkenny’s Cartoon Saloon, is still in the hunt for best animated feature.

But a glance at the recent Bafta shortlist for best film — an award that, in recent decades, tacks close to Oscar’s shores — suggests that leaner versions of the old-school “Oscar Film” could still boss the season.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Mank, One Night in Miami and The Trial of the Chicago 7 are all decent entertainments, but we’re back with historical dramas treating real-life figures with qualified respect. Imagine Gandhi and The Last Emperor as chamber pieces and you are halfway there. Shaka King’s superior Judas and the Black Messiah, an angry, thrilling take on Black Panther history, does not, alas, make Bafta’s last 15. Never Rarely Sometimes Always and The Assistant also failed to register on that list, and neither they nor First Cow — probably ineligible for Bafta — picked up a single Globe nomination.

It is as if the awards economy has adjusted to render the closest possible simulacrum of the most unchallengingly typical year. There is still time for things to turn around, but this is beginning to feel like a missed opportunity.

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