The Oscars Wrap a Long Season

Frances McDormand in Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland (2020)

Last summer, four months into the pandemic that had shut down Cannes and most other public events, the heads of the Venice, Toronto, Telluride, and New York film festivals banded together to make a bold stab at reviving the notion that cinephiles could gather again for a shared experience—even if it had to be a hybrid happening, a mix of streaming and a few scattered in-person screenings. They announced that the fall season would open with the near-simultaneous premiere in three countries on two continents of a single film, Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland. Last night, after half a year spent gathering awards and accolades all along the festival circuit before finally opening in mid-February, that gentle road movie won Oscars for best picture, director, and for Frances McDormand, actress in a leading role.

The show, bearing the straightforward title “The 93rd Oscars,” was as odd as its moment, and we’ll get to that, but the night was notable, too, for the records it broke. Zhao is the first woman of color to be nominated for directing, never mind to win the award. She’s the second woman to win after Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker more than a decade ago. And as Shirley Li points out in the Atlantic, this was the first time that two women were nominated for the award, and across all categories, seventy women were nominated—“the most ever.”

With her supporting turn as a grandmother in Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, Yuh-Jung Youn has become the first Korean actor to win an Academy Award, and as Nathaniel Rogers notes, she’s the second Asian woman to win an acting Oscar after Miyoshi Umeki for Sayonara (1957). Daniel Kaluuya, who plays Black Panther activist Fred Hampton in Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah, is the first Black Briton to win an acting Oscar. And at eighty-three, Anthony Hopkins, who delivers one of his finest performances as a man struggling with dementia in Florian Zeller’s The Father, is now the oldest winner in all four acting categories.

In the run-up to last night’s ceremony, Steven Soderbergh, who produced the show with Stacey Sher and Jesse Collins, said that he was aiming to have the evening play out “like a movie.” Rather than the Dolby Theatre, the setting was the gloriously cavernous Union Station, “one of the city’s great landmarks,” as Robert Lloyd writes in the Los Angeles Times, “a fantasy based in regional building traditions, lifestyles, and mythologies.” Presenters and nominees sat around tables, dinner theater-style, and cameras swooped and tracked anyone walking up to the podium to accept an award and tell a story without fear for once of being played off after thirty seconds.

Reviews have been mixed and ratings are expected to be low. “Ratings for all kinds of award shows, from the Globes to the Grammys, have plummeted these past few months,” writes Alison Herman at the Ringer. “It’s to be expected after a year without concerts or theaters; audiences see no need to look back on what they never saw in the first place.” Nomadland “might be the only best picture winner ever to have its star say, upon accepting the award, ‘Please watch our movie,’” writes Slate’s Willa Paskin.

And yet, as Bilge Ebiri points out in his conversation about this “weird Oscar season” with Alison Willmore at Vulture, Nomadland “has somehow been the frontrunner since fall!” Willmore, too, grapples with the oddity of it all: “A lyrical meditation on American independence as both a source of strength and a self-defeating tendency, with star Frances McDormand going wordless for long stretches, shitting in a bucket, and acting mostly alongside first-time performers drawn from the real-life nomad community—what shameless, stereotypical awards bait, amirite?” Some of Ebiri’s favorites won last night, and some lost, but he “can’t feel too angry or excited about any of the winners. Not this year. I’m just happy for everybody. We’ve all been through so much.”

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