93rd annual Academy Awards: a night of surprises and history making wins in an uneven telecast

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Photo courtesy of AMPAS
Photo courtesy of AMPAS

I'm all but certain most people are aware of how the 93rd annual Academy Awards turned out this past Sunday. Nomadland walked away with Best Picture. Chloé Zhao became only the second woman after Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) and the first woman of color to win Best Director in Oscar history. Frances McDormand now has three Best Actress wins, trailing only Katharine Hepburn, who has four.

But the biggest news of the night came right at the end, and it's the one moment everyone is talking about the most: Anthony Hopkins taking home the Best Actor award for his performance in The Father. He beat Ma Rainey's Black Bottom's late male lead, Chadwick Boseman, the supposed frontrunner in the category ever since the film debuted on Netflix back in December.

The moment was memorable for a variety of reasons, almost none of them positive. Best Actor was, for the first time in decades, maybe ever (I'd need to do more research), the last award of the evening to be given out. But the 83-year-old Hopkins was not in attendance, and because the producers of this year's telecast had instituted a "no Zoom" mandate, the actor was asleep in his bed in Wales when his name was announced.

That means there was no acceptance speech. No ovation from those in attendance. No chance for Hopkins to honor any of his fellow nominees or speak about Boseman. Just dead air, then credits, then a sudden fade to black right before ABC cut away to its post-Oscar telecast celebrating the evening's winners.

It was a blah, stupefyingly insulting end to an evening that had up until that point been far more entertaining and interesting than it maybe had any right to be. Director Steven Soderbergh was brought on board as one of the producers to drastically reinvent the Oscar telecast for this year's event, and that he did with invigorating, if not always successful, gusto.

The opening credits featuring Regina King strutting into Los Angeles' stunning Union Station was a thing of regal beauty. The attendees, all socially distanced, were instructed to treat the evening as if they were on a movie set. When the cameras were off, masks were to be on. When cameras were on, masks could come off. Otherwise, they could have a great time and enjoy the night.

And the night proved to be worth enjoying. The show celebrated the year in cinema in ways that frequently surprised. Soderbergh and his team gave the evening's winners more freedom to speak than any year in recent memory, refusing to play them off (even when maybe they should have) as they gave their acceptance speeches. There was a laidback, loosey-goosey feel to the telecast that was infectious, all of it fueled by music impresario Questlove, brought in to score the night's events as if it were a motion picture and not an awards show.

There was also plenty of history made, including Yuh-Jung Youn becoming the first Korean to win an acting award, picking up the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her spellbinding performance in Minari. Additionally, Jamika Wilson and Mia Neal became the first individuals of color, male or female, to win for Makeup and Hairstyling, the pair scoring a victory for Ma Rainey's Black Bottom alongside collaborator Sergio Lopez-Rivera. Veteran costume designer Ann Roth, now 89 years young, also snagged her second Oscar for her work on that film, making her the oldest woman to ever win an Academy Award.

But for everything the producers of the telecast got right, there were several head-scratching decisions sprinkled throughout, all of which became even more noticeable for all the wrong reasons, thanks to the massive egg laid by the evening's climactic event. While it was understandable that all of the Best Song nominees had their performances pre-recorded, relegating them to the Oscar preshow was a mistake. The lack of clips for the majority of the show was also bizarre, especially in the acting categories — for a night dedicated to celebrating cinema, there was precious little of it showcased throughout the festivities.

Yet the biggest calamity came in the decision to rejigger the order of the awards. Having Best Director announced around the midpoint wasn't a problem, as Zhao delivered a heartfelt, emotionally empowering speech that will be remembered for quite some time. But relegating Best Picture third to last and leaving Best Actress and Best Actor for the end was a major misfire. Not only did it dilute and minimize Nomadland's victory but it also significantly cheapened both McDormand's and especially Hopkins' wins in their respective categories.

Hopkins arguably gives the performance of his career (which is saying something) in The Father. His victory was well deserved. But the show's producers had plainly engineered the entire night on the assumption that Boseman was going to win. The actor's wife Taylor Simone Ledward was in attendance to give the acceptance speech, and one can only imagine what the emotional magnitude of that moment would have been had she risen to the stage to honor her late husband.

It was a horrible end to the evening, and it should never have happened. While I get trying to shake things up, show producers betting on an outcome they had no control over bit them in the butt in a way that boggles the mind. While it proved no one other than the accountants who tabulated the results know what was inside those Oscar envelopes, that doesn't make what happened to Hopkins, Ledward, or to Boseman's memory any more forgivable.