Key Oscar takeaways: ‘Nomadland’ wins big as Hollywood looks to rebound from pandemic


In this video image, Frances McDormand accepts the best picture award for 'Nomadland' as director Chloe Zhao looks on at the Oscars. Photo: ABC

Capping a year that few in Hollywood will forget, much as they might want to, the 93rd Oscars ceremony delivered an impassioned message that, while the movies may be down, they are far from out.

As expected, the motion picture academy gave the best picture prize to director Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, a quietly poetic character study about economically displaced Americans.

The film had earned acclaim since its debut at last September’s Venice Film Festival, and its strong showing – which also included a historic win for Zhao, who became the first woman of colour to win the directing prize – had been widely predicted.

“I have always found goodness in the people I met, everywhere I went in the world,” Zhao said, accepting the directing award.

“This is for anyone who had the faith and the courage to hold on to the goodness in themselves and to hold on to the goodness in each other, no matter how difficult is to do that.”

While the victory for Nomadland may have been predictable, it came at a moment fraught with uncertainty for the film industry.

Winners all around, (from left) Youn Yuh-Jung, Daniel Kaluuya and Frances McDormand. Photo: ReutersWinners all around, (from left) Youn Yuh-Jung, Daniel Kaluuya and Frances McDormand. Photo: Reuters

Like every one of this year’s nominees, Nomadland was watched almost exclusively at home as the pandemic struck at the heart of the movie business, shutting down theatres, upending business models and deepening a sense of existential anxiety in Hollywood.

In an evening filled with heartfelt encomiums to the enduring power of cinema, the Oscars made a powerful, if at times slightly panicked, argument that movies are primed for a rebound.

“The big screen is back,” the industry collectively declared in a pre-show segment spotlighting theater workers and teasing would-be blockbusters set for release later this year.

“This was indeed a hard year for everyone but our love of movies helped to get us through,” Regina King told the small crowd of attendees gathered in person at Union Station in Los Angeles in an opening that was far more muted than the razzle-dazzle of earlier shows. “It made us feel less isolated. It connected us when we were apart.”

Here are more key takeaways:

Covid-19 makes its presence felt

Though the show sought to shine a light on this year’s worthy nominees, the reality is, with movie theatres shut down for the past year, relatively few of them have been widely seen by audiences.

With the pandemic continuing to upend life in Hollywood and around the world, it was perhaps inevitable that it would play a starring role, albeit an unwelcome one.

Given the difficulty of travel and the need for greater distancing, the telecast was held across multiple locations, including Union Station, the Dolby Theatre, in Los Angeles and via satellite hookups around the world.

Regina King and Aldis Hodge arrive to the Oscars red carpet. Photo: ReutersRegina King and Aldis Hodge arrive to the Oscars red carpet. Photo: Reuters

In planning the telecast, first-time producers Steven Soderbergh, Stacey Sher and Jesse Collins had insisted on a no-Zoom policy to preserve as much glamour and spontaneity as possible.

The pre-show included an appearance by an epidemiologist, who vouched for the strict precautions that had been taken. (“I’m just happy to see people, ” actor Lil Rel Howery enthused at one point.)

Instead of the usual spectacle of A-listers packed in a single starry room, the evening had a more intimate, cocktail party feel.

With capacity at Union Station capped at 170 people, attendees – who were not required to wear masks while on camera – were whisked in and out throughout the show according to a carefully choreographed itinerary, like so many passengers catching a train.

Musical performances of the best song nominees were pre-recorded and aired during the pre-show, which doubled as a casual cocktail party to help nominees loosen up, free from the usual shrieking of fans on Hollywood Boulevard.

Diverse choices

As in recent years, issues of inclusion loomed over this awards season, with the Golden Globes engulfed in controversy following a LA Times investigation that revealed that the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which votes on the awards, has no Black members.

Brad Pitt (right) poses with Youn Yuh-Jung, winner of the award for Best Supporting Actress for Minari. Photo: APBrad Pitt (right) poses with Youn Yuh-Jung, winner of the award for Best Supporting Actress for Minari. Photo: APThis year’s Oscar nominees were noteworthy for their diversity – Minari star Steven Yuen became the first Asian American ever to score a lead acting nod, among other firsts – and just four years after the academy was rocked by the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, the show notched some significant milestones on the road to greater inclusion.

Along with Zhao’s landmark directing win, two out of the four acting races were won by actors of colour.

Daniel Kaluuya took home the supporting actor prize for his role as Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah and Youn Yuh-Jung won the supporting actress prize for her turn as an eccentric grandmother in Minari.

Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman had been considered strong contenders in the lead actor and actress category but, with both categories extremely competitive this year, the awards went to Frances McDormand for her role as Fern in Nomadland and Anthony Hopkins for his performance as an elderly man with dementia in The Father.

In an evening threaded with references to issues of racial justice, Kaluuya urged the crowd to stay committed to the fight for equality.

“There’s so much work to do, guys and that’s on everyone in this room – it ain’t no single-man job, ” Kaluuya told the crowd.

“So I’m going to get back to work Tuesday morning. Because tonight I’m going out.”

Streaming domination

With moviegoing largely reduced for the past year to the living room couch the academy altered its eligibility rules this year to enable films for the first time to qualify for Oscar consideration without a theatrical release.

And not surprisingly, streaming services dominated the night.

For the second year in a row, Netflix – which is still in pursuit of its first best picture win – led the pack with 36 total nominations, powered by Mank, The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

In the end, the streamer won seven.

A morale boost for Hollywood

There are few things Hollywood loves more than a comeback story, and, with multiplexes reopening after more than a year of being shuttered, the Oscars cast the industry itself as Rocky, knocked down but ready to get off the mat.

While last year’s Oscars took place just weeks before the pandemic shut down movie theatres, this year’s arrived as vaccines are going into millions of arms each day and multiplexes are reopening their doors.

With its rallying tagline of “Bring Your Movie Love, ” Oscars sought to reconnect movie fans emotionally with the communal experience they’ve missed for the past 14 months – and to give the industry itself a much-needed pep talk.

While the Oscars are routinely criticised for being too stuck in their traditions, this year, with the ever-experimental filmmaker Soderbergh leading the charge, the show’s creative team used the restrictions of the pandemic as an opportunity to innovate.

Jamika Wilson, Sergio Lopez-Rivera and Mia Neal pose backstage with the Makeup and Hairstyling Oscar for 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom'. Photo: ReutersJamika Wilson, Sergio Lopez-Rivera and Mia Neal pose backstage with the Makeup and Hairstyling Oscar for 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom'. Photo: Reuters

As a sort of subliminal reminder of the power of cinema, the ceremony was shot like a film, at 24 frames per second and with a slightly wider screen format than is usually used in television, and the show kicked off with old-fashioned opening credits, with presenters billed like a cast.

(In perhaps the most surprising break from tradition, the best picture award was not the final one given out but the third-to-last, with the two lead acting awards bringing the show to a starry close.)

Throughout the show, presenters spoke in personal terms of the backgrounds of the nominees, repeatedly crediting the love of movies that had driven them from often humble beginnings to the pinnacle of achievement in film.

Still, even as the academy prepares to open a museum, the Oscars argued that the movies themselves are not a museum piece but a vital art form with an exciting future ahead, pandemic or no pandemic.

“Please watch our movie on the largest screen possible,” Frances McDormand said, accepting the best picture award for Nomadland.

"And one day – very, very soon – take everyone you know into a theatre, shoulder to shoulder, in that dark space, and watch every film that’s represented here tonight.” – Los Angeles Times/Tribune News Service

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