Oscar night ends with Boseman triumph that wasn’t, features a valentine to ‘movie love’

Michael Phillips
Chicago Tribune (TNS)
Regina King, left, and Aldis Hodge arrive at the Oscars on Sunday, April 25, 2021, at Union Station in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark Terrill, Pool)

Aside from the Chadwick Boseman Oscar triumph that wasn’t, what can we say about Sunday’s train-station Academy Awards?

We can say a few things out of chronological order, because our lives have been out of chronological order for nearly 14 months now.

We can say the 93rd edition of the Oscars smiled upon Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland” for best picture, best director and best actress, with Frances McDormand’s win. Zhao, born in China, is only the second woman in nearly a century of movie history — and the first woman of color — to win the directing award.

We can say the “In Memorium” segment was paced like a “Fast and Furious” sequel. With legends ranging from Christopher Plummer to Olivia de Havilland appearing and disappearing on screen in as little as a literal second, it was like, what’s up? Trying to catch a train?

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We can say that Sunday’s COVID-era Oscars looked, moved and felt different this year, and not just because of downtown LA’s Union Station serving as the primary location. No Zoom galleries. No “your mic’s off” acceptance-speech moments.

With filmmaker Steven Soderbergh among the producers, the show opened with a sleek “Ocean’s Eleven”-type heist-movie vibe, as “One Night in Miami” director Regina King strode her way into the station and introduced worldwide viewers to a socially distanced nightclubby layout, circa the Las Vegas Tropicana, 1967 edition. I missed the very first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929 at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel by a few decades, but I wonder if Soderbergh and company were consciously evoking that sort of banquet intimacy. Like the Golden Globes without the racism.

As with a lot of Soderbergh-affiliated productions, Sunday’s Oscars carried a relaxed, dressy-casual air. The contrast of A-list talent and lo-fi packaging was either disarming or lethargic, depending on your tastes and metabolism. I liked it, actually, most of it. And even if I hadn’t, I still would’ve liked eight-time Oscar nominee Glenn Close demonstrating “Da Butt” at one crucial juncture, a juncture nobody knew was crucial until da butt was in motion.

On a sparsely populated stretch of red carpet during the preshow, Close mentioned to one interviewer that the Oscars felt odd this year, “much less noisy” than the usual press and fan scrum prior to the event. The industry, she said, was “redefining, refinding itself.”

The show was, too.

The phrase “movie love,” a loving descriptor that was also the title of New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael’s final review collection, recurred throughout the Oscars this year in scripted portions. Nominees were introduced by way of anecdotes about their first childhood filmgoing memory or their first job behind a concession stand. We’re all indebted to the movies: That was the idea.

When McDormand won her third Oscar (“Fargo” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” snagged her Oscar one and Oscar two), she entreated the assembled Union Station audience as well as the viewers: “Please watch our movie on the largest screen possible. And one day, very, very soon, take everyone you know into a theater — shoulder to shoulder in that dark space — and watch every film represented here tonight.”

Will that day really be very, very soon? Maybe. It’s a curious economic state of affairs right now. For movie theater owners and operators, it’s a crisis. A state of flux is more how the distributors see it, with the major studios postponing virtually all its awards-bait titles and especially its would-be action blockbusters six months or a year.

Many firsts Sunday night: Daniel Kaluuya won his first Oscar, for his role in “Judas and the Black Messiah” as Illinois Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton. Actors of color, across the four performance categories, accounted for nine out of 20 nominations. For “Minari,” Yuh-Jung Youn won the supporting actress Oscar, thanking/dissing her sons in an acceptance speech (”they make me go out and work”) while flirting with presenter Brad Pitt.

Producers Peter Spears, from left, Frances McDormand, Chloe Zhao, Mollye Asher and Dan Janvey, winners of the award for best picture for "Nomadland," pose in the press room at the Oscars on Sunday, April 25, 2021, at Union Station in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello, Pool)

Gary, Indiana, claimed a first as well: The Gary native Mia Neal along with Jamika WIlson are the first Black women to share an Oscar for best makeup and hairstyling. In a moving acceptance speech, Neal told of being raised by her grandfather, who attended Northwestern University at a time when being Black meant living off-campus — in his case, she said, at the YMCA.

The later it got Sunday, however, the more things started running off the rails, sometimes entertainingly. Chicago native Lil Rel Howery emceed a mini-quiz show built around songs either nominated or winners in Oscar shows past, plus some overlooked entirely. (Hence, “Da Butt,” as great as that song is, and was, in Spike Lee’s “School Daze.”)

On Twitter the Monday morning quarterbacking was all over the field. My old college friend Joel Hatch (more recently a long-running alum of Broadway’s hit musical “Come From Away”) responded to the relaxed atmosphere. “It was my favorite Oscar celebration,” he tweeted, “because no one was played off and every nominee got their due. I don’t know if that has ever happened. It showed kindness and respect for the people in the room.”

And, he added, after a showbiz news cycle dominated by our latest nightmare mogul, Scott Rudin, the show implicitly was “as anti-Rudin a statement as they could make.”

The clumsily rejiggered running order of awards was a spectacular mess, though. The hasty and overpacked “In Memorium” segment culminated with Boseman, many people’s bet for a best actor win for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”

And then, the winner was … not Boseman, but Anthony Hopkins for “The Father.” Hopkins wasn’t there, either in person or by satellite, and then the show was over, thunk. As LA Times TV editor Matt Brennan tweeted, it may have been “the worst TV ending since ‘Game of Thrones.’”

All the old-line awards shows, from the Grammys to the Oscars to the Tonys, have seen better days. Ratings sunk 20% at the Oscars last year, compared to 2019. This year the general grousing about “no big movies” getting nominated, blah blah blah, led to a thundering wave of indifference (at best) among millions who were happy the year before last with “Green Book.” For those millions, it has been rough road ever since.

As the Academy’s membership continues to expand and diversify its ranks, as the big studios continue to undermine the future of traditional moviegoing by sending their movies straight to their affiliated streaming platforms first (or simultaneously with multiplex releases, destined to be undermined by the streaming competition), the entire industry finds itself swimming against multidirectional currents.

Movie love was in the air Sunday, and the show gave it a pretty classy shot, in a dressed-up train station often featured in the movies. It did the job.

But the changes persist. With the fragmentation and de-centralization of American culture and American movies, not to mention American attention spans and political divisions as miserable as we’ve ever known, where does all that leave 93-year-old traditions like this one?

Where the future of moviegoing goes, so goes the Oscars. If the studios get back to the business of making movies for theaters, then movie love can be more than a memory. And while it runs out its ABC contract through 2028, maybe it can quit chasing audiences who’ve quit already.