Oscars 2021: What worked, what did not and what comes next

The never-ending awards season ended Sunday — abruptly. It was as if Joaquin Phoenix was as exhausted as the rest of us when he shuffled off the stage at the end of the 93rd Oscars, having mumbled that Anthony Hopkins won lead actor. He didn’t explain that the 83-year-old actor wasn’t even there because he was at his father’s grave in Wales, reciting Dylan Thomas. Which … all things considered … stands as a justifiable excuse. To be honest, there were moments Sunday night when being at a cemetery would have felt preferable to watching the strange brew Steven Soderbergh and his fellow producers served up.

The Oscars are the Oscars and the show will defeat even the best and the bravest. Still, as expected, Soderbergh and fellow producers Stacey Sher and Jesse Collins shook things up. Which changes should stick and which ones should be forgotten? Let’s clear our throats (and our minds) with a guttural wolf howl and dive in!

Changing up the show order. Chadwick Boseman was a lock to win a posthumous Oscar. Or so the, ahem, experts proclaimed. So you can understand the impulse to end the show for the first time in nearly a half-century, not with the best picture presentation but with a moving tribute to the late, great actor. But the decision to rearrange the show’s running order backfired when in a surprise, Hopkins won, and Phoenix, unprepared and uninvolved, didn’t know what to do with the moment. (It’s a year later and we’re still paying for Phoenix winning for the godawful “Joker.”)

I understand Soderbergh not having a contingency plan. He’s a director and has godlike confidence to exert control over any situation. But Collins and Sher should have known better and had a contingency plan and at least followed another general Oscar tradition, having the prior year’s actress winner present the actor honor. Renée Zellweger would have likely made us feel a little better or at least, less unsettled.

Still no host. And that’s probably fine unless next year’s producers can convince someone to take on this thankless job. For instance, Regina King would have made a terrific choice this year, judging from the way she expertly handled the choreographed opening red carpet power walk and the ceremony’s first couple of Oscar presentations. Also: Having a host helps when things go wrong. Jimmy Kimmel helped smooth over the botched best picture fiasco four years ago. Maybe he — or someone with an improv background — could have made a little music out of last night’s sad trombone of an ending.

Dispensing with the clips of nominees. This year’s Oscars needed to remind people about the magic of movies and their cultural relevance. Instead, the producers decided to ditch showing clips, save for the feature categories. It’s almost as if they decided, “Well … nobody watched these films this past year, so why bother?” Cheesy montages are never a good thing, but it’s strange that Soderbergh couldn’t have cut together a masterful tribute to all the great work this year, including Boseman in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” They even botched the In Memoriam segment, running it at a breakneck speed that made it all but meaningless. Give us a moment to reflect, please.

Personalizing the nominees. Basically, the order of the day was, tell, don’t show. Words instead of visuals. Again, an odd choice for a ceremony that’s supposed to celebrate a visual art form. Introducing the nominees by offering little tidbits about their love for movies had its charms. I did not know, for instance, that Aaron Sorkin’s first movie job was selling popcorn. (Did he do a walk and talk with customers to their seats, filling them in on the ideal butter-to-salt ratio he used?) But again, this is the motion picture business. Stop with the yakking.

Moving the music to the pre-show. Look, we’ve sat through performances of terrible Oscar-nominated songs through the years. And, no, “Purple Rain” was not nominated for original song, and, yes, Andra Day was correct in noting that “that’s some bull—.”

But if you tuned in early Sunday evening and saw Molly Sandén singing “Húsavík” with a children’s choir in the actual Húsavík, Iceland, you saw … well, the collective power of adorable kids wearing Fair Isle sweaters, but also how wonderful a good song performance can be. As we witnessed in teaser trailers during the show, next year we’re going to have Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights.” Bring back the song … and dance — at least for a year. Then if that lands with a thud, we’ll be here again to tell you how you got it wrong.



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