Before the Oscars, Steven Soderbergh, one of the night’s producers, promised that Sunday’s ceremony at Los Angeles’s Union Station would have “the aesthetic of a film as opposed to a TV show.” Hmm. Well if this event was like a film, it was a film about a TV show set in a high-end nightclub sparsely filled with outrageously well-dressed famous people.
And it wasn’t a bad film, either. The night was stripped of most of its Oscar clichés — you know, the far reaches for comedy, the distended musical interludes, and the super-long, awkward hikes to the stage, all of the things that have helped fill the annual Hollywood love-fest with camp potential. I’m not sure we need this kind of lean approach every year, with its glut of words and its odd shortage of clips, but it did seem like the right style for a sobering year that has been ridden with loss, grief, illness, and financial strain.
The night was a glimpse of Hollywood at its most civilized, with enough dazzle — there were eye-popping gowns, with Zendaya in yellow, Angela Bassett in red, and H.E.R. in purple — but none of the more frenetic and forced razzle that can make a night feel bloated and self-aggrandizing. Acceptance speeches were not cut off hastily and rudely, even when some of them went on and on (looking at you Daniel Kaluuya); the camera didn’t obsessively invade the guests’ personal space, waiting for a nose pick or a dirty look; and no one delivered a half-good opening monologue making fun of all the rich and famous.
Actual daylight was seen illuminating actual windows.
It was clear right from the start that this Oscar-cast would be unlike any other. Instead of a musical number at the top, we got the welcoming Regina King greeting the night, telling stories about the nominees, and acknowledging the verdict of the Derek Chauvin trial. Soon it was clear there would be very few of the alienating Zoom moments that mucked up the Golden Globes, and, because they were shown during the ABC preshow, there would be no musical performances interrupting the flow of the night.
The awards presentations were moved around, too, which was most obvious toward the end of the ceremony, when the best picture winner was announced before the best actress and best actor winners. Perhaps the producers were hoping to end the Oscars on a moving note, since the late Chadwick Boseman was favored to take the final statue of the night. Instead, Anthony Hopkins won for “The Father,” and, since Hopkins wasn’t in the house or on Zoom, the night ended with an almost comic abruptness.
Overall, it was a relatively intimate event, even if, at times, it threatened to turn into one endless thank-you speech — punctuated by one resounding howl by the always concise Frances McDormand.
And what of the preshow entertainment? Looking at all the open space on the red carpet, left for safe distancing, I kept wondering if there were open parking spaces everywhere outside. It’s a bad habit. But the airiness certainly created a vibe far different from the usual noisy crush of stars and their entourages. There were no velvet ropes holding back fans, no publicists pushing through the crowd, no bottles of water in everyone’s hands, and no flashes of handkerchiefs to mop the brow. The atmosphere was not charged and infectious, as it can sometimes be; it was more suffused with novelty and curiosity, as Hollywood’s test run for the near post-pandemic future. As the golden Carey Mulligan said in disbelief to E!, “It’s so civilized and calm.”
At points, as the E! fashion critics sat dishing and kvelling over Kaluuya’s diamond necklace, or as ABC’s Ariana DeBose stood interviewing Amanda Seyfried, whose gown’s voluminous red skirt seemed to enforce social distancing, the ambience came across as Upscale Shopping Mall. It was all more pricey coffee drink than bubbly champagne.
ABC leaned into the pre-show, peppering its usual entrance interviews with pre-taped performances of the nominated songs. Most of them were set at the soon-to-open Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, which got a ton of promotion. Someday, it seems, people will be going to the movies as well as to the museum of some of their classic moments.